By Anthony Chua
When I first spot Barai Dipok at TWC2’s Dayspace, he is seated in front of a volunteer case helper, clutching some important looking documents and appearing visibly frustrated. As I approach to shake his hand, he utters a weak ‘hi’ and turns his attention right back to the case helper, who is trying to get details of the latest developments in his case. By now, the young Bangladeshi man has nearly exhausted all official avenues of redress for the salary dispute with his employer, and his deflated demeanour shows that he is far from optimistic.
His problems began about a year ago. It was his second stint in Singapore as a construction worker, where he was promised a monthly salary of $800. The first few months were uneventful, but things took a different turn in the second half of last year. His employer S. A. E. & C (S) Pte. Ltd. was late in paying him his salary for April 2015. Dipok was not told why. As with most other foreign workers in Singapore, he did not dare question his supervisors on the non-payment, for fear of reprisal.
In August 2015, his employer started withholding his salary again. For the next three months, he would receive no payment for his back-breaking work under the punishing tropical heat, despite putting in long hours of overtime in hopes of sending home a couple hundred dollars more. Feeling frustrated, he went to his supervisor and asked for the money he was owed. Money that he had earned through, quite literally, sweat and tears.
His employer was unmoved. Dipok tells me, through a Bengali translator, that “Boss say: if asking money, then you go back Bangladesh.” He was not the only one. The company owed the salaries of numerous workers in the company, and all were threatened with repatriation for simply asking why they were not paid what they had earned.
Foreign workers like Dipok, having paid agents thousands of dollars to get jobs here in Singapore, are typically chest-deep in debt. Many of them would have sold land or borrowed the money — amounts that they would never be able to repay without working in Singapore for years – from friends or usurious moneylenders. Defaulting in payment could mean trouble for their families back home. They need their wages promptly. Yet they have to be extremely careful how they ask for them. Should employers perceive the slightest hint of truculence or disobedience, they could lose their jobs.
Dipok tells me he still owes about $10,000 in fees for his first stint back in 2013, and a further $6,000 for obtaining his current assignment. While he had initially hoped that by keeping his head down and not asking for his salary he would eventually be paid by his employers, that was not to be.
By February 2016, he could take it no longer, and decided to seek redress elsewhere. On the advice of a friend, he lodged a report with the Ministry of Manpower. The mediation stage was fruitless, and his case went up to the Labour Court. He won his case there and on 15 March the court issued an Order to the company to pay up slightly over $7,000 in owed wages. A colleague who also lodged a claim for unpaid wages was awarded an Order for over $8,000 [see footnote].
The due date for payment has just passed. There is no sign of the money. It appears that his employer is intent on ignoring the order. According to Dipok, he was told by the company that “he could go and do whatever he wanted, but he was not getting his salary.”
I ask him if despite all that has happened, he likes working in Singapore. He says that overall he has had a good experience until now, but then adds an unexpected insight: it is usually the foreign bosses (Korean, Mainland Chinese – they were from the foreign construction firms which often win bids to work on building projects here) who try to exploit the workers, he has observed. Singaporean bosses are usually nice and pay salaries on time, he adds.
He wants to continue working here, but as of now, he desperately needs to solve the present problem. He still owes a five figure sum back in Bangladesh. To the company, $8,000 can be easily recouped, but for Dipok, it is a small fortune.
Barai Dipok’s colleague Uddin Mohi is featured in the story Uddin Mohi worked eight months, not paid for six. The employer eventually paid up. It would be fair to assume that Barai Dipok too received his back wages after this interview. Although this story is published later than the Uddin Mohi story, the interview with Barai Dipok took place before that with Uddin Mohi. That is why the Uddin Mohi story has a happy ending while this one leaves off with uncertainty.