By Mohamed Kasshif, based on an interview in September 2018

“Boss say, don’t worry, still can work”; Zobayar explains the reply he got from his employer upon realising that his work permit had been revoked without notice. It’s been two months since he last received his salary and now he lost his work permit, making it illegal for him to continue working.

Zobayar Nour Uddin is sitting in front of me at TWC2’s Cuff Road Project, recalling how he discovered that his work permit was cancelled. The soft spoken, 26- year-old Bangladeshi begins by explaining that his work permit was originally valid for two years, starting from September 2017. The employer, Min Jie Construction Pte Ltd, was a manpower supply company, which means employees were seconded to different work sites depending on where extra manpower was needed.

One day, a co-worker had his work permit checked by a site supervisor at that worksite (different from Zobayar’s worksite) and was told that his permit had been cancelled seven days prior.

Word quickly spread to all the other construction workers belonging to the same firm. Zobayar recounts how some of the workers, including himself, frantically checked the status of their work permits via a smartphone app.

‘Invalid’ – the message appeared upon entering the work permit details.

Confused, he and his fellow construction workers approached their employer for an explanation. Zobayar’s employer was already owing him two months’ worth of salary. The reason? “Main con no give,” said the boss, referring to lack of progress payments from the principal contractor to Min Jie Construction, halting timely paychecks as a result. Now, the sudden change in permit status and the potential loss of earnings threw all workers into a state of limbo.

I ask Zobayar for more details as to how the employer explained himself. Apparently, the boss admitted that the compulsory levy for foreign workers had long been overdue, and the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) had consequently terminated the men’s work permits. Yet, despite having knowledge of the cancellation, the employer of the construction firm wanted his workers to not stop working, even promising them that he would cover any expenses caused by injuries.

Unsatisfied with the explanation, Zobayar immediately went to MOM’s office on the same day, hoping to recover his hard-earned salary. That was when another issue sprang up. To his horror, the amount he was entitled to was different from what he was initially promised. In this case, the basic monthly salary that the employer had registered with MOM was $455, which was $120 less than the $575 shown on Zobayar’s In-principle Approval for a Work Permit (IPA) — imaged in the header pic.

An IPA is an MOM document that states important details such as the name of his employer and promised salary. This is given to foreign workers before they begin a job in Singapore as a form of assurance. Zobayar was confused. How can there be a discrepancy with the salary amount? Not only did he lose his work permit without warning, he was not paid his salary due and now there is a discrepancy between the amount he was promised on the IPA and what MOM was saying was the correct salary.

With cash being tight, Zobayar had not remitted money back home to his family for some time. A family of nine people, only he and a brother work to support the rest. The other siblings are still studying while his parents are said to be too old to work. On top of that, Zobayar himself planned to get married next year with the potential savings he had hoped to accumulate from working in Singapore. But that dream seems to be distant for now.

“Only God understand me”, Zobayar tells me, while we are both still seated at the restaurant. He hopes for his dispute to be resolved so that he can continue supporting his family and attain his dream of getting married. His case is currently at the mediation stage and he remains hopeful that he will not have to write off any losses.

Zobayar did not know enough of the prior circumstances to explain why the IPA he received (see image in the header) carries a basic monthly salary different from what was recorded in MOM’s computer. However, it is similar to many other cases that TWC2 has seen. In several of these cases, we have reason to believe that the IPA was illegally altered after printing, but before handing it to the worker. In other cases, the employer informed MOM of a salary reduction after the worker arrived in Singapore without first obtaining the worker’s written consent.