By Kan Ren Jie
On 23 June 2016, Ataus Samad Rifat, 28, was suddenly fired from his job.
“Go back home. Your work permit has been cancelled. We have already bought ticket.” The ‘madam’ (the female administrative staff) at his office then proceeded to take his work permit from him.
That was how Ataus described that fateful day to me. After only nine days on the job at his construction company, he was suddenly terminated without any explanation whatsoever!
As if that wasn’t troubling enough, Ataus tells me that he had previously paid $,3800 to this company. He tells me that this was because: “company need to pay agent…” He describes the sum of $3,800 as: ‘bond money, agent money…’ However, when I question him about what this ‘bond’ was about and who this ‘agent’ was, Ataus looks even more confused, and was unable to tell me any more details about the payment. Such suspiciously opaque payments are sadly common among foreign workers; similar to how Ataus had to pay for a unknown ‘bond’, many have their pay docked due to ‘savings money’ — with no guarantee that the amount ‘saved’ would be returned to them.
As is increasingly evident, Ataus felt powerless to question or reject such demands from his employer, which may possibly be due to his intimidating superiors. With a frown, Ataus tells me that at his short nine days at work, his superior was always “very angry”, always ordering him to “work faster, faster” even though his job was “very hard”. He was even forbidden from answering his phone or even sitting down for a short while during his nine-hour long shift! While thankfully he wasn’t physically assaulted, he complained that his boss maintained a posture like he was “fighting… like want to hantam (hit) me”.
Perhaps Ataus would have silently endured such conditions if he had not been terminated on that fateful day. He approached the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for assistance on the same day, hoping to at least get back the $3800 he paid.
However, he was dismayed when apparently, “MOM cannot find company”!
At this point in our conversation, Ataus takes out a wrinkled company name card from his wallet. On the card is the name and contact number of a Chinese man, whom he identifies as his superior. Pointing to the name, Ataus tells me that “this man switch off handphone, handphone off.”’ He believes that MOM has been unable to contact this man, which has hampered the progress of his case.
The address of his company is also listed. I ask Ataus if he has tried to go back to his office, at least to clarify matters with his employer. However, he seems hesitant and slightly afraid of going back, likely due to the harsh treatment by his superior. He adds: “this man (his superior), not working.” He believes that his superior may have already left the company, and even more worryingly, tells me that “I don’t know if company is open or closed.”
Indeed, Ataus’s case is surrounded by way too many ‘don’t knows’ — probably the most common word he used during our conversation. He doesn’t know what the payment of $3800 was for, doesn’t know why he was suddenly terminated from the job, doesn’t know how to contact his superior, since he has apparently gone missing, and now doesn’t even know if the company he worked for still exists!
We advised Ataus to apply for a temporary job under MOM’s Temporary Job Scheme, which allows workers to work while they wait for the conclusion of their cases. Therein lies another, and perhaps the biggest, ‘don’t know’ for Ataus: he was unaware of the various forms of assistance available for him in his current situation, and also doesn’t know about the status of MOM’s investigations into his case.
One might accuse Ataus and other workers like him of being too naïve. However, we cannot blame workers unfamiliar with our society and laws from trusting their employers blindly, especially when said employers appear as all-powerful figures, capable of intimidating and dismissing them whenever they want. Many foreign workers (including Ataus) believe Singapore to be a ‘good’ country, where laws are followed and enforced properly. After hearing of incidents like that of Ataus, one cannot help but wonder: is this really the case?
Whilst this story sounds like merely the unfortunate experience of one hapless worker, it actually touches on a number of systemic issues that are man-made and should be curable.
1. The foreign worker model that Singapore has adopted is one where that State takes a hands-off attitude to companies hiring from abroad. Whilst there may appear to be rules governing the issuance of In-Principle Approval for work passes, the process is really one for sifting out individuals that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) does not want in Singapore. The rules do nothing about the transactional relationships and fees that make up the hiring process. In this regard, it is a free-for-all, where the powerful (employers and their agents) are unhindered in their quest to exploit those in source countries who are looking for work. Thus the widespread practice of employers or their agents making workers pay for their jobs.
2. Whilst again, it is true that any payment for jobs made within Singapore jurisdiction is illegal (as in Ataus’ case), adherence to this law is laughably non-existant. This is due to a chronic lack of enforcement. This lack of enforcement can be seen through the apparent (from the story) inertia of the MOM even when a worker has brought a complaint to it. Inability to contact the boss or company managers appears to be the end of the matter.
3. Even when MOM can contact an employer in pursuit of a complaint, proving violation of law is going to be difficult, because a worker like Ataus would have no documentation or proof of payment. This circles back to (1) above. The hands-off approach leaves it to the powerful (employers and their agents) to determine what documentation they wish to provide workers. Naturally they would avoid a paper trail — which then reinforces the defect in (2): lack of enforcement.
4. Plenty of other rules set out by the State disempower workers. For example, this story illustrates the freedom that employers have to terminate a worker with virtually no notice at any time. No reason needs to be given. This is compounded by MOM’s own rule that such workers cannot go out to look for subsequent jobs (unless explicit approval is given by MOM, which is rare). When workers are disempowered by such regulations and further weakened by having sunk huge costs into obtaining the job in the first place (with no paper trail), their ability to stand up to employers and demand proper documentation, among other written or commonsensical ‘rights’, is nullified.
Superficially workers such as Ataus look like they were overly trusting or naïve, but look under the hood, and one sees that they really had no choice in the matter because the system is (designed to be) stacked against them.