By Jiang Haolie
It is unthinkable to survive in Singapore earning just $227 a month, or $1.19 for every hour of backbreaking work. Bidut (not his real name), a reclamation worker is doing just that. For comparison, an indoor job at McDonalds would pay five to six dollars an hour; it would earn you Bidut’s daily wage in just two hours. It is even more absurd that his company pays the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) four times his salary for the levy — at $950 a month — to hire him.
Before taking on this job, Bidut was promised by his recruiting agent in Bangladesh two times his current salary in what he termed was a “signed contract paper”. This contract paper that he shows me turns out to be titled “Affidavit” and not a contract. It also says absolutely nothing about an agreed salary.
At face level, it appears that Bidut is a simple victim of an agent-employer scam but as I query him further about his experience, it becomes clear that he did not fall for a scam. He walked into it fully aware that it came with hardly favourable terms.
“If don’t accept now, cannot come Singapore,” he laments as he recalled agreeing to the terms of the job. He needed a job urgently. “Family very big.”
This was yet another unfortunate turn of his work experience in Singapore. A year ago, he had to return to Bangladesh after a workplace injury. Fortunately, he recovered fully and has received due compensation. For a while he tried to help out with the family farm or business, but soon discovered that it could not sustain another son as an employee. He had no choice but to accept inequitable recruitment terms in order to get his current job in Singapore.
If he could pay a larger amount in “agent money”, he might have been able to get a job with a better salary, but he just didn’t have the cash in hand. “Agent say [to get] other job must pay much more, like $5,000 or $6,000,” Bidut explains. With only $2,000 in hand, this $227/month job was the only one he could get.
As a veteran worker, aware of recruitment procedures, being scammed would not be an accurate description of Bidut’s predicament. Desperation is.
And indeed, the desperation for work and a better life is a common circumstance that recruitment agents and employers prey on. In the same evening that I hear of Bidut’s plight, I also meet Islam Mohammad Saiful. Saiful (right) arrived in Singapore a week ago for his third stint working here as a scaffolding worker. He expected to receive his work permit from his employer within the fourteen days that his In-Principle Approval (IPA) stipulated.
On the fourteenth day, his employer demanded a kickback of $4,800 for his work permit. The company even prepared a form for him to sign, agreeing to a salary deduction of $400 a month for the next twelve months, to make up this amount.
He recounts his coordinator relaying his employer’s demands to him, “Boss say have to pay! Boss say have to pay! Boss say have to pay!”
Nonetheless, Saiful, a veteran worker aware of MOM laws like Bidut, staunchly refused. Perhaps he is a wee bit more financially secure compared to Bidut.
“I know it’s not allowed. I study the IPA.” Singapore law says that local employment agents can only charge one month’s salary for a one-year term of contract. “So that’s illegal,” he remarks to me with a cheeky pride. “He ask me to sign. I don’t want to sign. He say, ‘You don’t sign, you go back Bangladesh yourself’. I say no money for ticket, he say don’t care.”
Pushed to a corner, Saiful approached TWC2 for assistance following the advice of his friend. Now with evidence of the written demands of his employer, he hopes to obtain MOM approval for transfer to another company in spite of the difficulty. He tells me that if he fails to obtain a transfer and loses his job, he’ll have to return home. From there, the cost of paying another agent to get yet another job would be prohibitively high. In his words, “that’s why got problem!”
As a sole breadwinner of a family five and two siblings still schooling back in Bangladesh, Saiful is insistent on fair working terms. And it is his right. (But see editorial comment below.)
Bidut, on the other hand has to make do with his one-dollar per hour salary. His family situation is such that he has to accept what comes his way. As he leaves, he shows me a gesture of his neck being cut, requesting us not to complain to the Ministry of Manpower on his behalf for fear of losing his present job however pathetic the pay.
Bidut’s story illustrates a moral issue that Singapore is slow to see. The government takes in four times what this worker makes in basic salary every month. The recruitment agent insists on getting about nine months’ worth of basic salary. It is the worker who is squeezed to deliver such largesse to state and agent. Where is the public interest ‘good’ that can possibly come with such practices, when we produce an underpaid class unable to survive on what they earn? The desperation so produced cannot be contained for long and when it plays out, it will have social effects on the larger society.
Even when on the face of things, a worker is promised a decent wage as in Saiful’s case, we see an employer trying to armtwist him into giving a kickback, choosing the moment when the worker is most vulnerable — i.e. when he has just paid his agent but yet to earn a single cent in salary — to do so.
Singapore does not do enough to eliminate extortionate agents’ fees and kickbacks. There is a tendency to use the excuse of jurisdictional boundaries, or to sit back and expect the worker to produce proof. Jurisdictional boundaries can be overcome with proper legislation; our anti-corruption and anti-sex tourism laws are examples. Rather than expect workers to produce proof, audit requirements can be set to prevent employers from even attempting to profit from such practices in the first place.
As so often is the case, the crux of the matter is really the lack of political will.