Sanowar is quite unusual among the workers we meet at TWC2. He has been in the same job for many years. Here he relates to our volunteer the salary deductions he suffered at the beginning. It was so long ago (maybe 2013, 2014, he says) he cannot even put an exact date to the period in question. For him, the problem has since been solved, but there are other workers even now facing the same issue.

By TWC2 volunteer Koh ZiNing based on an interview in November 2020

Unlike many migrant workers, Sanowar did not use a middleman agent, or a “dalal” (a Bangladeshi term for an informal recruiter) to obtain his current job. He got his employment through the help of a friend, who was working in one of Singapore’s renovation companies at the time. Bypassing middlemen who are known to fleece jobseekers, Sanowar might have felt lucky.

He bought himself an air ticket — it cost him about $500 — and showed up at the company to start a new career.

Then the fleecing began. The boss required him to pay $1,500 for the chance to work. He even called it an “agent fee”. However, unlike middlemen who demand payment upfront, the boss agreed to take $100 monthly from Sanowar’s salary. Thus, Sanowar had to bear a $100 cut in his pay each month for fifteen months.

“What’s your basic salary?” I ask Sanowar in order to get some perspective on the $100 deduction.

“One day $20,” he answers.

That would mean a monthly basic salary of around $500. With lots of overtime, he could make as much as $900 to $1,000 a month, but even so, a salary cut of $100 is a significant fraction of that.

After two years, the Work Permit was up for renewal. If he wanted a one-year renewal, he’d have to pay the employer $1,000. If two years, then the rate was $1,500, again through monthly deductions of $100.

Thus, even after paying off the first $1,500 for getting the job, Sanowar had to continue paying to renew the Work Permit.

As at December 2020, the actual fee charged by MOM for Work Permit renewal is $35 (see: https://www.mom.gov.sg/passes-and-permits/work-permit-for-foreign-worker/renew-a-work-permit). In other words, what the employer was charging Sanowar was heaps more than the actual amount the employer was required to pay.

In any case, under the law, employers are not supposed to take money from workers for giving them a job, nor are they to pass the cost of Work Permit renewal to employees.

A few years went by and eventually some other workers reported the matter to MOM, as did Sanowar. Complaining takes courage and comes with risk. Migrant workers are always apprehensive that, in retribution, the employer may simply cancel their permits and terminate their employment. The law allows employers to do that virtually at will.

Whether MOM had made contact with his boss following those complaints, Sanowar does not know. Fortunately for him, his boss stopped charging him renewal fees afterwards.

However, what had earlier been deducted from his monthly salary was not returned to him — good money that would have been useful for his family back home.