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By Bill Poorman
All he needs is some more time. Not forever. “One week, two week, three week,” Mollah Sharif Hossain says. Instead, he got only three days. Three days to save his life.
It’s a Monday evening at TWC2’s free meals programme. Just yesterday, Mollah Sharif and his co-worker, Rafique (who goes by one name), were given until Tuesday – tomorrow – to find a new employer. They were told there was no more work, and if they couldn’t figure something out in those roughly 72 hours, they would be shipped back home to Bangladesh. Just like that.
Mollah Sharif (photo above, at right) says he was supposed to be in Singapore for two years, and he has the Work Permit to stay that long. But after just seven months, he was being told, for all practical purposes, that it was over. Rafique had only been in Singapore for four months and was facing the same disaster. The promise of a productive life in Singapore was falling apart practically overnight.
“If you give me one week, two week, three week,” Mollah Sharif says, he might have a plausible chance to “find different boss.” Right now, the only glimmer of hope he has is that a friend has already helped him line up a potential new employer. He is trying and trying hard. He is even willing to work for the new boss for a few days just to show him what he can do. However, that will violate the law, since under his Work Permit he isn’t allowed to work for another employer until the permit is changed. But Mollah Sharif simply has to find some way to stay. He had paid $4,200 to a “friend” to get to Singapore (it’s more like an acquaintance: another Bangladeshi worker, acting like a job agent). He needs to make that money back and then some. How can he find new employment on such short notice? What can he do?
After speaking with me for some time, Mollah Sharif sits down with a TWC2 social worker to get some advice. As they talk, it comes out that his current boss had told Mollah Sharif that he shouldn’t be mad at him. After all, he had only kept about three quarters of the $4,200 recruitment fee that Mollah Sharif had paid to get the job.
Only? But more importantly, that may be the answer to his troubles. If it’s true that the employer kept some of the fee Mollah Sharif paid, that’s a kickback, and it’s a violation. Section 22A of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act says:
22A.— (1) No person shall deduct from any salary payable to a foreign employee, or demand or receive, directly or indirectly and whether in Singapore or elsewhere, from a foreign emploee any sum or other benefit —
(a) as consideration or as a condition for the employment of the foreign employee, whether by that person or any other person;
(b) as consideration or as a condition for the continued employment of the foreign employee, whether by that person or any other person; or
(c) as a financial guarantee related, in any way, to the employment of the foreign employee, whether by that person or any other person.
(2) Any person who contravenes subsection (1) shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $30,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years or to both.
The system is designed to prevent unscrupulous employers from being able to profit by just cycling needy workers in and out of Singapore and skimming the fees. Mollah Sharif could file a claim against the employer. That could buy him the weeks he needed to find a new job. Or, better yet, recover what had been illegally taken from him by the employer.
Earlier in the evening, Mollah Sharif told me just how desperate he was to stay. “If I go home, I die,” he told me. But now, finally — after more than a day of doubt and stress — he has some good news. Sitting across from the social worker, he finally manages a weak, tired, brief smile of relief.
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