By Jonah Foong, based on interviews in July 2017
In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, the fictional land of Oceania is ruled by Big Brother, a man of ‘about forty-five’ with a ‘heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features’. While his face is plastered on hoardings, he is never seen in the flesh, and his name is unknown. And yet, his existence is unquestioningly accepted by his citizens, many of whom have even come to revere this moustachioed phantom.
In reality though, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know his boss. Thanks to the internet, anonymity is a thing of the past. A simple google is enough to turn up someone’s Linkedin profile. It’s almost expected that everyone should know who’s signing their pay check.
For some of the employees at Freezeland Aircon and Electrical however, theirs was a quite different tale.
When Siddik (header pic, left) joined the company in July 2016, he was told little of his employer, and none of his colleagues had much of a clue as well. They were given neither a name nor a phone number, and over the course of his employ Siddik never saw him even once.
“When I coming last year I never see boss.
“Nobody know who boss, but people tell me he Indian.”
Though he was initially curious, more pressing concerns meant that this issue gradually took a backseat. He had a wife and two children in Bangladesh to provide for, and an unfamiliar new job as an electrician to settle in to.
Hefty agent fees also meant that he had to scrimp and save for an entire year before he could start earning any money, as well as taking care to avoid any kind of injury that would render him unable to work. In light of the circumstances, any curiosity about his employer was put aside.
That is, until the company stopped paying his salary.
“One year I no see boss, OK, but then one day the money no coming.”
In addition, the workers suddenly had their work permits terminated, and efforts to locate the boss proved futile. Even their foreman – who was their boss’s middleman – proved just as elusive.
For Siddik, this was a huge setback. Even with nine months of salary under his belt, he was still $1500 short of breaking even. Cash-strapped and without a salary, he’s had to rely on his brother – who also works in Singapore – for rent and food while staying here to resolve his salary claims.
When asked if he was angry, he appeared a picture of defeat.
“Angry? No la no angry…what can I do?”
“Cannot do anything also.”
Having a relative here is a huge help in such situations, a fallback for financial support, even a place to sleep. But not all of Siddik’s colleagues are that fortunate.
Rafique (header pic, right) from the same company didn’t even get nine months of employment. He’s been in this job for only about four months, and through that period only got intermittent work assigned. Without work, he didn’t expect to be paid  but even for what little work he had, money was not forthcoming.
For Rafique, being unpaid, followed by loss of employment led him to borrow from friends and banks back home in Bangladesh. Taking loans was always a last resort, but with two teenage siblings and ageing parents relying on his income, he was left with little choice.
However, without an income he has been unable to pay his debts, and neither can his parents.
In the midst of all that, many of his relationships have soured, and his pride sorely dented.
“They want me to pay, but now no job I cannot. I tell them wait, but now many shouting, many angry.”
“How can I go back now? I never earn any money.”
In April 2016, the company ceased operations, leaving a horde of unpaid workers in its wake. Under the fourth schedule of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, employers are responsible for a worker’s food, accommodation needs, as well as repatriation costs when a work permit is terminated.
In the case of Freezeland though, the workers have received next to no help or financial restitution from the company and have had to pay for their own upkeep.
To the unfortunate workers, this is a double whammy. Not only are they unemployed and without income, they are also required to stay on a special pass while the salary dispute is being resolved, which racks up unnecessary costs.
For the employer, it facilitates a quick getaway and protects him from his workers’ ire. Such methods may be unorthodox but they are not complex, and there may be many other companies doing the same.
While there are hiring rules in place to protect both parties, the stark reality is that often, it is the foreign workers who draw the short straw. Having strict regulations may be a good thing, but TWC2’s observation is that companies can get away with flouting the rules.