Most foreign workers in the construction industry are in their twenties. Volunteer Jeremy Xiao met a older man in January 2019, who spoke to him about the weight of his family responsibility and the struggle to land a job. Yet, some experiences are all the same whether for younger workers or older ones — salary non-payment.

By Jeremy Xiao

Picture the typical migrant worker: He would probably be young, in his twenties or thirties, coming to Singapore for the first time, bright-eyed, hopeful, looking for a brighter future in this new country.

For Bhuiyan, that future has passed. If anything, his situation is akin to many middle-aged Singaporeans. He is turning fifty this year, has a family back home in Bangladesh with three daughters, two of whom are married and one still schooling. Having worked in Singapore for sixteen years, he shares many of the same concerns as Singaporeans in their forties and fifties: keeping his job, supporting his family, and ensuring that his children have a good future. Many Singaporeans of his age worry about job security. For a migrant worker like Bhuiyan, it is even more uncertain.

After finishing a two-year contract with a company, Bhuiyan, 45 at the time, had no choice but to return to Bangladesh to wait for a new job. Finding a new job at the age of 45 is never an easy task. For a man whose only skill is to be a physical labourer, it’s harder still. In the meantime, he had to support his family with his savings which did not last long.

Sitting at a restaurant in Little India, staring out into the street melancholically, Bhuiyan recalls that his “money finish” and, to make ends meet, “everything selling”, including his family’s possessions and valuables. Understandably Bhuiyan soon became desperate for “any job [which] give money”, yet he could do nothing but wait.

After two long years struggling to get by, his lucky break finally came. A friend in Bangladesh named Taher phoned him one day with the opportunity that Bhuiyan was waiting for. “Very good job, very good company”, Taher promised him. But as Bhuiyan was to find out, perhaps this opportunity was too good to be true.

To secure this job, Taher asked for $8,000 as his fee, which Bhuiyan managed to bargain down to $7,000. Asked why he agreed to such a high fee when he had 16 years’ experience, Bhuiyan said he was “old already”. Furthermore, “salary also high”, referring to the $1,600 mentioned in his In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit, as his basic salary.

After arriving in Singapore, he soon realised that he was a “supply worker, someone seconded by his employer to another company. Worse yet, he was not paid at all. Bhuiyan resentfully tells me “one cent also no give”. After four months of working without pay, and unable to even find his boss in person, Bhuiyan is now owed $9,800 by his company. He decided since “money no give, go MOM”.

Through mediation facilitated by the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management, Bhuiyan and his employer agreed to a settlement of $7,800 even though this was less than what Bhuiyan was owed. A Settlement Agreement was signed. Yet, till now, three months later, the employer has not paid a single cent.

With the employer failing to honour the Settlement Agreement, Bhuiyan’s case is headed to the Employment Claims Tribunal. TWC2 is assisting him.

Meanwhile, Bhuiyan can do nothing but wait and struggle to get by. In four months he has shifted three times, unable to pay rent and inevitably being forced out. While telling me this, Bhuiyan looked me in the eye, and lightly flung his wallet on the table. “No money, how to pay?”, he asked, and listlessly stared at me for an answer. I had none.

We will all have the same concerns when we reach Bhuiyan’s age: having a stable and comfortable job, earning enough to support our families, and seeing our children through school. Yet what happens when our jobs are suddenly taken away? Worse still, what if we are abandoned in a foreign country, at the mercy of an invisible employer who refuses to pay up and who does not provide accommodation even though that’s the law? The concerns of older workers are universal but being a migrant as well  compounds these problems manifold.

I would see Bhuiyan again at the Cuff Road meal programme the following Tuesday. He still had the same listless look in his eyes as he stared out from the restaurant, perhaps thinking about his three daughters back home, while he remains abandoned in the country he had worked in for sixteen years. I hope Bhuiyan gets his due wages soon and is able to return to his family. But beyond that, I hope that the same story does not repeat itself, and migrant breadwinners like Bhuiyan do not have to live in such precarity.