By Kok Rabin
Have you ever been annoyed when others spell your name wrongly? What if their mistake could cost you $16,000? Sitting in front of me at Alankar restaurant this hazy evening is Pandurangan Madhurakavi, a tall man with broad shoulders and a broader smile. 37-year-old Kavi (as his friends call him) was in exactly this situation.
Kavi is an experienced worker who’s worked in Singapore for many years, in addition to a two-year stint in Dubai. His experience let him land a good job in Singapore with a salary that many workers can only dream of: around $1,000 a month. What was this ‘dream’ job? For long hours every day, Kavi worked many metres beneath the surface of the earth, constructing Singapore’s underground MRT lines.
The dream was not to last. Barely a month into his job, a high-pressure air-hose used to power drilling tools came loose and slammed into his shin, severely fracturing it. “That hose, pressure 6 bar.” My physics was never great, and I stare blankly at Kavi. “6 bar, 20 lorry tyre can pump,” says the former mechanic to give me some perspective.
“Company man, my injury all alibaba,” Kavi says, using foreign-worker slang for lying. He believes an effort is being made to cover up the incident. Kavi’s employer did not report his injury at first, leaving him lying in pain for over six hours. Kavi only received treatment after he called the police to report what was happening. Fortunately, his employer eventually paid for his treatment. Two weeks before meeting me, Kavi had just received a cheque for $16,394.07 to cover his medical expenses and salary owed.
At the bank, he faced more problems. “Banker tell me, no bank account, no money.” As he had no bank account, Kavi couldn’t cash the cheque. “But how I open account? Banker telling me, special pass cannot open account” (Workers’ work permits are replaced with Special Passes when they lose their jobs but remain in Singapore to resolve injury or salary claims). Kavi visited the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), which gave him a letter requesting that the bank open an account for him. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.
“Go other bank, boss tell me. This bank need work permit.”
Frustrated, Kavi visited yet another bank which allowed him to open an account using his special pass and MOM’s letter. Before depositing his cheque, Kavi was hesitant as he wasn’t sure how banks in Singapore worked. “I writing account number all, then I asking bank boss – this cheque have name from different bank, here can deposit?” After assurances that it was fine, Kavi deposited the cheque.
Two days later, Kavi checked his account. There was no sign of the money. Kavi headed down to the bank in a huff, and asked to see the branch head. “That time, I many many tension already,” he tells me.
At last, Kavi met the bank’s branch head. “This one cheque deposit box, or dustbin?” Kavi demanded in anger. “Cheque no have ah? Many many late already!”
An hour later, Kavi was locked in a stalemate with the bank manager. “I signing investigation form. Bank manager searching computer, but no cheque, my name no having.” Promising to call him back in a few days, the bank manager saw Kavi out.
Two days later, the bank called Kavi. They had found a cheque made out to one ‘Pandurangam Madhurakavi’. Unfortunately, this wasn’t Kavi’s name. At least, it wasn’t his name any longer.
Kavi’s account had been opened under the name ‘Pandurangan Madhurakavi.’ Recently, he had changed the name in his passport to reflect this and correct the older, mis-spelt version. He had also opened his bank account under the corrected name.
Unfortunately, his employer and his employer’s insurance company failed to update the name, and kept all his records under ‘Pandurangam Madhurakavi’. As the cheque was made payable to ‘Pandurangam,’ the bank was unable to credit the money to Kavi.
One letter of the alphabet – that was all it would take to send Kavi home penniless and heavily in debt.
Feeling helpless, Kavi asked TWC2 for help proving that Pandurangam and Pandurangan were one and the same person. With the help of TWC2 executive committee member Debbie Fordyce, he wrote a letter to his old employer’s insurance company, which re-issued the cheque using his corrected name.
Kavi headed down to the bank and handed the cheque to the teller. The teller brushed him off, asking him to place it in the cheque deposit box like any other customer and wait for the money to be credited.
“Cannot put in box. I give hand. You give receipt,” was Kavi’s reply. Kavi recounts that he promptly snapped a photo of the receipt using his camera phone.
“Now, always I taking picture of form. I knowing Singapore like this. All must evidence. One thing wrong, also cannot.”
Kavi’s story is surely not unique. Singapore’s administrative efficiency is world-renowned but this is often not true of migrant labourers’ home countries. Workers arrive with unclear or inaccurate documentation – leading to hassle, or worse. Moreover, the language barrier means that it’s difficult for migrant labourers to understand or even read complicated documents. Employers also compound the problem with their own sub-standard record-keeping. For example, workers are usually paid in wads of cash without proper pay slips.
There are many ways the state can step in to make the transition easier for migrant workers. A possible avenue may be regulations mandating that all migrant labourers update their particulars with the authorities and employers regularly, and have their salaries paid to bank accounts. These steps require little effort, but would ensure that fewer workers face the same ordeal as Pandurangan Madhurakavi.