Contributions by various volunteers based on interviews in early July 2020.

With the gradual thawing of the Covid-19 lockdown, we’re beginning to see how migrant workers have had their lives frozen through the past few months. Here are four men’s experiences.

Sivaraj Sanjeevan, 24, came from Tamil Nadu, India, in August 2019 to do a Hospitality Operations course with TEG International College in Jurong West. He bought his own air ticket and had to pay for his own accommodation during the three months of the course.

Completing it in November 2019, the college found him an apprenticeship job with a restaurant on Veerasamy Road and he was converted from a Student Pass to a Training Work Permit. Training Work Permits are for six months and (to the best of our knowledge) non-renewable. That meant ridiculous working hours from 7am to past midnight with about three hours rest in the midday. He had only two days off each month. For that he earned $700 a month, plus free accommodation.

Sanjeevan was happy. Things were going to plan.

But around the fifth month, the lockdown knocked the catering industry off balance. Fortunately, he was allowed to stay till the end of his Training Work Permit in May 2020. But by then, there were no more flights home.

He languished through June and in July found himself having to sign up with TWC2’s free meals programme. Money was running out since now he had to pay his own rent again.

However, he remains optimistic. “I’m looking for an S-Pass job,” he tells TWC2.

Salary settlement suspended

Construction worker Uddin Md Mayn had worked for about three years in NGS Engineering when salary payment became unreliable through 2019. There were five months when wages failed to appear.

By February 2020, his patience had run out and, with arrears now totalling nearly $15,000, filed a claim at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

His case was then referred to the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) which organised mediation sessions between him and his employer. The boss came to one session and told TADM and Mayn that while he acknowledged the claim, the fact was that the company didn’t have enough cashflow.

Trying to be understanding, Mayn and the boss agreed on a reduced amount of $7,500 and an instalment plan. A deal was signed on 3 April 2020. It called for $1,000 to be paid immediately (it was received) followed by three tranches of $2,167 on the sixteenth of April, May and June respectively.

Four days later, Singapore’s lockdown began. Mayn didn’t hear from the boss anymore, though on 5 May, the employer sent another $1,000 to him. That made a total of $2,000 received.

“I also call my MOM officer, but many times also no answer,” Mayn would later tell TWC2. Through the lockdown, MOM officers were also working from home. Mayn’s description of how calls went unanswered was similar to what many other men told TWC2 too.

Finally, there was one day when he managed to get through, and was told to contact his company supervisor.

That also took several tries but he eventually got through, only to be told that the company had no money. All but the most essential construction projects had been suspended and if the company had cashflow problems prior to Covid-19, it wouldn’t have improved by this point.

In mid-June 2020, Mayn approached TWC2 for help. We highlighted his problem to ministry officials and they contacted Mayn for follow-up. They managed to contact the employer and told Mayn that he should wait three more weeks. As at the time of writing, the case is continuing.

It is now July 2020, and Mayn has been out of work for five months. He should have received all his instalments by now if the employer had paid according to the agreed schedule.

Looking for new job as roller shutters come crashing down

Das Bijoy Kumer’s story is more straightfoward. Even prior to the pandemic, his employer was failing to pay salary. He lodged a claim for $1,000 in arrears and settled it with his boss for a compromise figure of $500. This was paid.

MOM gave him permission to look for a new job., a quest he started on with much hope. Kumer is an experienced worker and  he didn’t think it would be too difficult to find a new job.

Then shopfront roller shutters came crashing down as the lockdown was announced, and nobody had the time of day to even consider hiring.

Kumer says he heard that 10 – 15 other employees of the company lost their jobs too when the lockdown began. Whether they filed claims as well, he does not know.

Through April, May and June, Kumer’s Special Pass was automatically extended since there were no flights back to Bangladesh, allowing him to stay on legally in Singapore. But he had no job and no income, and had to depend on TWC2 for support.

In our last conversation as we developped this story, he says he remains hopeful of finding a new job. We leave him in hope, even though news reports speak of very few construction projects starting just yet.

Irony

Then there’s Musa. As Covid-19 cases began to climb in Singapore, he decided it would be safer to resign and go home. He didn’t want to worry his parents. So, at the end of March 2020, he quit his job, collected his final salary and got a ticket from his employer for a flight on 4 April 2020.

The flight was cancelled at the last minute. He was stuck.

MOM automatically put him on a 3-month Special Pass to legalise his extended stay in Singapore. His employer continued to provide food and acommodation. This is not a story of employer-employee dispute unlike the cases described above. This is a story about the ironies of life.

Covid-19 cases began to explode in worker dormitories and the next thing Musa knew, he himself came down with the coronavirus. He had given up his job to escape it and now he was infected anyway, sans job.

But treatment was free and he recovered well. He was released from isolation on 18 June 2020.

Fearing a prolonged confinement in a dormitory — controls over movement are still absurdly strict — and the prospect of exhausting his tiny savings just paying for daily necessities, Musa began making calls to his employer and to TWC2 for help in getting a flight back.

He was successful. He flew home on 7 July 2020. One silver lining to this tale is that, having recovered from Covid-19, he wouldn’t have to suffer quarantine in Dhaka on arrival.