The rough seas of debt

Posted by on June 22, 2017 in Articles, Stories

In an earlier story[1], Liang Lei has sketched the origins of Sikder Sumon’s salary case and the long time it took at the Ministry of Manpower. Here, Edgar Chan adds a bit more detail about the MOM process and discusses the wider context

By Edgar Chan

On the evening of 25 May 2017, at Isthana Restaurant, I met Sikder Sumon, a 28-year-old construction supervisor who has been working in Singapore since 2011. He was there to participate in the Cuff Road Food Programme – a TWC2 initiative that provides free breakfast and dinner to migrant workers who face employment problems (e.g. salary disputes, work injuries). If everything goes according to plan, Sumon will be able to return to Bangladesh on Monday, 29 May 2017, where he will finally see his family for the first time in six years.

Sikder Sumon’s issues first surfaced in 2014, when he was transferred to a subsidiary of the company he was working in. Despite consistently clocking more than 100 overtime hours a month (maximum hours of overtime per month is 72 as stipulated in the Employment Act), his employer only paid him a fixed monthly basic salary of $1,200 without adding for overtime. The situation was further exacerbated when his employer stopped paying him altogether in June 2016. Left with no other option, Sumon left his job on 18 December 2016. He approached the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) the following day to seek a redress of his grievances. At that point, he believed he was owed approximately $45,000 – three years’ worth of overtime pay and six months of salary. However, the MOM claims process is only for claims dating no more than 12 months prior to the complaint. Consequently, the maximum amount of compensation Sumon can claim is approximately $22,000.

I asked Sumon to relate what happened as the claim process progressed, and this is what he said: The first formal negotiation session with his employer and the MOM official took place on 5 January 2017, where his employer insisted that he had paid Sumon fittingly. When asked to produce Sumon’s salary slips, his employer claimed that he had lost them. Instead, he brought along an “eye-witness” (another Bangladeshi worker) to back up his statements. The eye-witness produced a video, asserting that it shows Sumon, along with other workers, had signed the pay slips and received their appropriate salary. However, Sumon said the MOM official refused to accept the video as evidence, stating that he would need to have a face-to-face discussion with all the workers in the video in order to validate its legitimacy. In the end, both the employer and the eye-witness were unable to assemble the workers.

More meetings followed. Finally, Sumon agreed to a compensation of $11,000, expressing that he was both tired physically and of the situation. In his own words, “MOM say I can [continue] fighting […] I think can get more money. But MOM say I need wait five more months if I want continue fighting. I very tired already… I want to go home.” Sumon, along with his employer, signed an agreement on 25 May 2017. The agreement states that he will get a cash cheque of $11,000 on 26 May 2017, and a flight ticket to fly home on 29 May 2017.


In his work, labour historian Sunil Amrith describes the Bay of Bengal as “a sea of debt, bound by advances, loans and obligations[2].” When Bangladeshi individuals such as Sumon come to Singapore in search of a better livelihood, many of them are saddled with high agent fee debts. On top of that, being in a foreign land with an unfamiliar culture, they experience high degrees of alienation and estrangement. Thus, when members of this vulnerable group are further exploited, it should come as no surprise that they develop high levels of mental and emotional stress. In the case of Sumon, it is evident that his employment issues have wrought a profound psychological (and perhaps also physical) toll upon him. During our conversation, Sumon was visibly weary. He repeated numerous times that he was “very tired,” and that he cannot sleep well because he “thinks a lot.”

While Sumon’s situation is, in some way, resolved, one may wonder whether he might have had a fairer outcome if MOM was swifter in its dispute handling. As alluded earlier, it took around five months for Sumon to get this far, to the point where he gave in to the employer’s offer of half the money owed. The case might extend for many months more if Sumon chose to press on for a better and fairer deal.

But there is an asymmetry in their bargaining stamina. The employer finds it in his interest to delay and drag things out. It costs him nothing to do so. For the worker however,  time is equivalent to money – this statement holds even more truth for low-waged migrant workers like Sumon. Every month’s delay means, for workers like Sumon, more living expenses to be paid for. This disadvantage is a result of MOM’s rules. After the Work Permit is cancelled — which would be entirely expected once a worker launches as salary claim — MOM puts workers like Sumon on Special Passes which forbids the worker from employment (see header picture). The worker is not allowed to find another job to sustain himself or support his family

This places an enormous financial burden on his family members back home. For this reason alone, one can understand why Sumon put his case to rest.

TWC2 has written numerous times of the costs placed on workers by MOM’s slow processes[3] and the need for policy change. When will we see movement?


Sumon collected his $11,000 cheque on 26 May 2017, and flew home two days later. TWC2 contacted him in Bangladesh and he confirmed that all is well. He intends to eventually return to Singapore for work again, but is concerned about the sharp rise in agent fees. Where in 2011, it cost him $7,000 to get a job, he fears it will cost him $12,000 to find a new job now.

[1] See Sumon’s salary case stretched for five months exhausting his ability to fight for his full amount

[2] Amrith, Sunil S. 2013. Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

[3] Below are some past TWC2’s articles that touched on the aforementioned issue:

“While employer resists giving treatment and MOM acts slowly, TWC2 saves Afzal’s future”
“MOM orders company to pay MC wages, a month on, worker still waiting.”

“MOM’s groundless case takes two years out of Shahidulla’s life.”

TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our

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