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By Katia Barthelemy, based on an interview in August 2018
Each migrant worker’s story is unique. Yet, in all the stories we hear at TWC2, we can detect injustice, lack of respect, abuse, illegal treatment or a combination of them.
Miah Mohammad Ratan, like most migrant workers in Singapore, started his journey out of Bangladesh in existential need of making some money to support the family.
To become a construction worker in Singapore, he had to enroll in one of the numerous training centers in Dhaka to officially acquire an SEC(K) skill certificate. This is a requirement by Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority before he could buy himself a work permit job as a construction worker in a promised land.
Ratan chose to do a wall cladding installation course. The training took three months and cost Ratan about $8,000. As you can see from footnote 1, a similar course undertaken in Singapore at an approved training centre would only cost $980 — inclusive of testing fees. But Ratan could not avail himself of the lower rate (even if he knew about it) because he could not even come to Singapore to sign up for training here. He had to do it in Bangladesh and the training centres there form a cartel.
Three months later, having passed the test, he paid another $10,000 to a employment agent for a job in Singapore — an outrageous sum.
He got almost no information about either the job itself or the conditions related to it. Imagine yourself taking part in a lottery dreaming of a prize that means paradise. It’s not rational, but because you have nothing in hand, it’s the only option open to you. Unfortunately, reality proves that many “prizes” workers eventually receive seem to come from hell.
In September 2015, the agent sent Ratan off to Singapore, providing him with minimal information:
And oh, by the way, here is the airticket and your IPA letter. “Show it to immigration on arrival.”
There was not a word stressing the importance of the IPA letter, the second most important document after his passport and coming closest to an employment contract (see footnote 2). It documents the salary, deductions and allowances for his job. If not told, would someone necessarily keep this valuable and crucial document carefully?
Ratan didn’t. Like many workers, he thought its usefulness was over after showing it to the immigration officer at the airport.
Ratan’s flight arrived at Changi airport at 2am. There was no one there to meet him despite what he had been told. Fortunately, a fellow Bangladeshi with with a Singapore phone helped him to call the company. Ratan was finally picked up at 9am.
Reaching the company, his passport was taken away. This is illegal but common behaviour by employers (see footnote 3). And then he found that he was going to be working a trade different from what he was trained for. It was an air-conditioning company, not a wall cladding business. So what was the $8,000 course for?
As for overtime, “Very little,” says Ratan.
Turning to the promised $2 per day salary increase every six months, it didn’t really come through. instead, “after 12 months, have increase”, Ratan tells me.
Monthly salaries were paid in cash. There was no payslip despite a detailed itemised one being mandatory under the law from April 2016 onwards (see footnote 4). If he had been paid wrongly, there’d be no paper trail, no proof.
At some point, Ratan asked his manager if he could open a bank account to have his salary transferred to it. The manager’s reaction was: “No need.” Such a refusal is also illegal under the law (see footnote 5).
There is huge room for improvement in this area. Information and proper education on their rights and duties is overdue for all migrant workers in Singapore. TWC2, besides many other programs, also contributes to the empowerment of the migrant workers by providing them the information they are denied by all those exploiting their labour and circumstances.
If you are interested, you are welcome to join our association!
1. The Building and Construction Authority maintains a list of approved training providers on a website https://www.bca.gov.sg/CoreTrade/others/ATTCfees.pdf (accessed 7 September 2018). In Table 2, it shows that the express training course with SEC(K) test, provided by Positive Engineering Pte Ltd, costs $980.
2. The In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit (IPA) is generated by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), based on details provided by the employer when applying for a work permit. Singapore’s High Court has ruled (in Liu Huaixi v Haniffa Pte Ltd  SGHC 270) that in the absence of any other evidence, the salary declared on an IPA shall be taken to “reflect the true salary”.
3. Section 47(5) of the Passports Act says that “If (a) a person has or retains possession or control in Singapore of a foreign travel document; and (b) the person knows that the foreign travel document was not issued to him, the person shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $10,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years or to both.”
4. Following an amendment to the Employment Act, from 1 April 2016, all employers are required to make and keep employee records, give written records of key employment terms (KETs) and give itemised pay slips to employees covered by the Employment Act.
5. Employment of Foreign Manpower Act. Subsidiary legislation: Employment of Foreign Manpower (work Passes) regulations 2012,
Fourth Schedule, Part IV, section 5 says “If the foreign employee so requests, the foreign employee’s salary shall be paid via direct transfer into the foreign employee’s bank account in a bank established in Singapore.”
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