By Aruj Shukla
It has long been a well-known fact that migrant workers in Singapore need to pay an exorbitant amount of money as agent fees to the middlemen based in their respective home countries. Stories about the possibility of the employers colluding with the agent and taking a sizeable cut from the agent fees have also made rounds. However, when I sit down to talk to Hasan Md. Rakibul, 23, about his ordeal, I am shocked at the brazen transgression of wage laws by his employer.
After having worked for a year with a demolition contractor earlier, Hasan started his second job with a renovation contractor on 29 July 2015. Brokering the deal, Hasan’s cousin — then working in Singapore — simply told him “Boss need man, so pay money and come work”. Without a choice, Hasan secured a bank loan of three lakh takas (about S$5,200) and transferred the sum to his cousin who in turn handed the entire amount directly to the employer. Astonishingly, the employer even had the temerity to speak to Hasan over the phone and reassure him of the same promise – “Pay money and come work”.
For the first few months everything went according to the script – Hasan was paid a monthly salary of $1,500 that could aid in recovering the money he was forced to pay the employer in exchange for a job. Towards the end of the year, as Hasan recounts, was when everything went awry. Despite not having received salary payments for two months, Hasan kept on working with the hope that sooner or later the payments would come through. That bubble burst on 27 January 2016 when Hasan turned up for work, only to be told by his boss, “No need for worker now. Go back and the two month salary will be paid.’’ Feeling short-changed, Hasan demanded the return of money he had been asked to pay for the job but was flatly refused. Vulnerable and helpless, Hasan sought counsel from his cousin who advised him to go to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for recourse. There, Hasan was in for another shock: the employer had already cancelled his work permit.
However, when he narrated his story about being asked to pay for the job to MOM, officials could clearly see that an investigation was called for. Hasan was issued a special pass that allowed him to stay on in Singapore pending the ministry’s enquiries.
As is normal protocol, Hasan was allowed onto the ministry’s Temporary Job Scheme, the intent being to permit the man to support himself while the ministry carries out investigations. Indeed, soon after the issuance of the special pass an MOM officer contacted him regarding a temporary job as a dormitory cleaner at Kaki Bukit. Hasan was ready to go for the interview but no contact was made thereafter and till today he remains unemployed and dependant on charity.
When I change topics and ask Hasan about his family that is when I clearly see the despondency and vulnerability he has to grapple with. Back in Bangladesh, his family consists of his parents, four brothers and two sisters. Three brothers and one sister of his are married while the remaining brother and sister are still pursuing their education. His father, 72, has retired, leaving Hasan with at least four dependants to provide for. To make matters worse, the interest on the loan he had taken to pay the recruitment fee for this job keeps on swelling and soon enough debt collectors will be at his doorstep.
Being unemployed in a city well known for its high cost of living is a nightmare that Hasan has to deal with on a daily basis. In the past four months every visit he has made to MOM has been very routine in nature – the officer merely stamps an extension on his special pass expiry date and there is no avenue for him to be heard or to know more about the proceedings of the case investigation.
Hasan’s story highlights the difficulties that many of the foreign workers are left to deal with on their own devices. The vulnerability, communication barriers and lawlessness exhibited by the employers puts people like Hasan in a hole. The sometimes inadequate response of the regulators, as demonstrated in Hasan’s case, leaves them in a state of limbo, prolonging the distress.
TWC2 is of the view that the stopgap measure that is MOM’s Temporary Job Scheme is a poor solution to a common problem. We have argued that all work permit holders should be free to look for new jobs within their sector without needing permission from their employers or MOM (as the present rules require). If Hasan had this right, he would be busy either looking for work or already at a new job, even while investigations into what happened at the old job proceeded. He would not be depending on TWC2 for his meals, and borrowing money from his friends to pay for his bunk.
More importantly, MOM should be taking very stern action against employers who ask for payment for jobs. This is already against the law, but enforcement so far has been weak. For this reason, it remains a common practice.