By Philomène Franssen based on an interview in April 2018

It is quite an unusual story that I got to hear at TWC2’s Cuff Road Project food programme, one Monday evening. Indeed, as a volunteer member of the Communications team, when I sign up to interview one of the migrant workers that TWC2 assists, I expect to write about one of the dozens of outrageous forms of abuse and exploitation that these men most commonly have to tell. We document their experiences so that their plight does not go unheard; at the same time, to raise awareness and advocate for the advancement of their rights.

But Rahman’s story is somewhat a happy one and we, at TWC2, like to hear and report on such stories as well.

Rahman’s acquaintance with Singapore’s foreign workers’ employment policies dates back to 2009 when he first came here to work in the construction sector. Since then, Rahman has returned to Bangladesh on three occasions after completing a contract. Each time however, he inevitably had to pay recruitment fees again to secure a new job in the city-state. This is generally the case for all migrant workers who return to Singapore for a subsequent contract though typically fees tend to be lower than those paid by first-timers. Thus, in January 2018 Rahman started his fourth job in the country for a basic monthly salary of $520.

However, this was a short-lived work experience; as a matter of fact he is here at TWC2 to seek advice about claiming two months of unpaid salary from this fourth employer. It turns out that this boss has already discharged him — and it’s only three months from January 2018 — with no apparent reason. To sweeten the termination, the employer told Rahman that he could look for a transfer job instead of being repatriated immediately.

Unfair as it may sound, under the law, an employer may terminate the employment of a Work Permit holder for any reason without the need to show cause, hence this part of Rahman’s story did not surprise me. I rather fretted about his transfer.

“So, did you find a new job ?” I ask.

“Yes, new job I find already.”

The volunteers sitting around the table cheer in unison. “Oh that’s great then, you got a transfer!” We tell him he’s a “lucky” guy. Other workers spend weeks looking for new jobs and are still unsuccessful. 

Short-lived

But my joy too is short-lived as Rahman provides more details. Our “somewhat happy” story darkens. His employer granted him only five days to find a new employer. If Rahman needed more time, the employer would deduct $55 a day from Rahman’s yet-to-be-paid final salary. Not only is this allocated period of five days completely random and absurdly short but demanding payment is an illegal practice.

Singapore’s Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations 2012,  Fourth Schedule, Part III, Section 10, says:

“The employer shall not demand or receive any sum or other benefit from an employment agency or any other person in connection with the employment or change in employment of a foreign employee.”

The penalty for breaking this Condition is stated in Section 22 of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act. A first-time offender faces “a fine not exceeding $10,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both”. Repeat offenders naturally face heavier penalties.

So, it turns out that offering Rahman a transfer is only partial goodwill.

More money needs to be paid to an agent

Meanwhile, in order to secure the new job Rahman has to pay the equivalent of one month’s basic salary, i.e SGD 500, to the placement agency that he contacted.

Singapore’s Employment Agencies Act caps the maximum that a local employment agency can charge a worker for job placement services at one month’s basic salary for each year of contract, subject to a maximum of two months’ salary. This amount is indeed legal. And in fact Rahman is once more “lucky” to have to pay only one months’ salary, for he is being offered a two-year contract.

Rahman, however, doesn’t see himself as lucky at all. He is worried about having to borrow more money from friends and former co-workers here in order to pay this placement fee. And this is on top of the recruitment fee he had paid for the unsuccessful job, which has not been recovered from earnings.

All the while when I am listening to him I keep thinking that $520  — as promised for the fourth, now-aborted job — was quite a low salary to start with, but not being paid at all and now having to incur another debt to pay for an even lower-paid job is really unfair and most certainly worrisome.

Yet here I am, repeating to him “you are lucky, you got a new job”, well aware of the irony of the situation, but no less solicitous to comfort him.

What is success?

We chat for a while more about his family back home. I learn that his wife is seven months pregnant. For this reason, money is most definitely a concern for the couple.

I inquire whether he plans to return permanently to Bangladesh in the near future so as to be with his wife and child, but Rahman replies in a roundabout way. He kind of says, “I cannot say how long I will stay…  first time, I think I stay here two three years only,” but obviously it hadn’t worked out financially. “So until I earn success, I need to stay here.”

“What does ‘success’  mean to you?” I ask.

Rahman explains that on his first job here in Singapore he hoped to earn and save $30,000, but in reality he had only been able to save around $500. “Until I make 12,000 or 30,000 like that, I need to stay here.”

It baffles me. After nine years working in Singapore, Rahman, like too many other construction workers, still feels insecure about his future. He has not been able to save for his family back home, despite the sacrifices that he’s made. He is still living day to day. In fact, his only horizon at the moment comes down to finding the $500 he needs to pay the agent in order to secure the new job.

So… is this lucky? Really ?