“I no money, I no job,” said Kesar (real name withheld on request), explaining why he worked illegally for a short spell. After he complained to his employer about deductions from his salary, he was threatened. “Boss angry and he say ‘I send you back to Bangladesh’.”

Fearing capture and forced deportation by repatriation agents – a very real threat given experiences of other workers in the same firm – he ran away from the flat in Boon Lay that the ship repair company used to house its workers.

With no one else to turn to, and not knowing about TWC2 or the complaints window at the Ministry of Manpower, he asked his agent for help. That’s the same agent that had charged him $7,000 as a placement fee in mid 2009 and had told him the job would pay him $22 a day in salary. But when he started working, “boss say salary only $16, not $22.” It would be the first of several setbacks.

Before the first month was over, there were two more shocks. The ship repair company said $80 would be deducted from his salary each month for accommodation expenses and a further $60 would be a “deposit”, which would accrue and be returned to workers when they finish the contract. However, over the months, he noticed that “boss send back other workers, no pay the sixty dollar,” Kesar told TWC2.

On average, based on the unexpectedly low daily rate and after the deductions, he got only about $400 – 500 a month nett. That’s after putting in overtime.

Looking downcast, this 30-year-old calmly recounted his tale. Dressed neatly with a fresh haircut, he sat in TWC2’s office laying out his documents to support each sad inflection of his Singapore experience. He likes Singapore and he wants to continue working, but he’s hit a wall of hopelessness.

After working two years and seeing fellow workers repatriated without full payment, he feared that his turn might be next. He finally found the courage to contact his agent for help before it was too late. The agent brought him to see his boss to discuss the matter, which was when the boss turned aggressive and threatened to deport him post-haste. Continuing in the job, continuing to stay in the employer-provided flat, was clearly no longer an option.

Relying on his agent, Kesar then moved into a bedspace in a cramped Serangoon shophouse that the agent found for him. Soon, needing cash to survive and pay for the bedspace, he took on several odd jobs, mostly renovation-related, that the agent recommended.

Not long after, he found out that his Work Permit was cancelled by his formal employer. He tried calling his agent for advice as to what next to do, but the agent stopped taking his calls.

It was crisis-time.

Asking around, friends told him about TWC2, and he showed up at our door one day in July 2011. Then-Executive Director Vincent Wijeysingha told him to go to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) forthwith to regularise his immigration status and lodge a formal complaint against his employer.

Kesar never knew that it was possible to lodge a formal complaint through the government. He came from a country where problems were dealt with through personal contacts and social networks, and dealing with government agencies might be ineffective or even costly (read: inducements).

This naivete and ignorance about how things could be different in Singapore would cost him dearly, because when he did go to the ministry on TWC2’s advice, he readily told his case officer his entire history, including the fact that he had taken on a few odd-jobs after he had run away from his employer. It would come back to bite him.

For a while, things looked up a little. Pending investigations into his complaint against his employer, MOM placed him on the Temporary Job Scheme, under which he was hired as a cleaner by a dormitory operator.  He got new living arrangements at the dormitory in Tuas and a steady, if small income. But barely three months later, in early November, when he turned up for his appointment at MOM, bad news came down on him like a ton of bricks. He was told that the shipyard employer’s deduction for housing was legal, only the deduction for “deposit” was not. Even then, although the employer had been deducting $60 per month for “deposit” since mid 2009 (about 22 months in total), Kesar could not make a back claim dating more than 12 months previous. He had to forfeit the earlier “deposit” deductions taken from his salary, this being outside the bureaucratic scope of MOM’s claims process.

This rule limiting workers’ claims to the previous 12 months has long been practised by MOM, but most workers do not know about it. Like Kesar, they are usually shocked to hear of it because it violates their sense of natural justice.

In the end, Kesar received only about $620, being the return of the “deposit” taken from him within the last 10 – 11 months of work, with some complicated adjustments. He would not see the money taken from him for accommodation. He would not see the salary shortfall ($16 per day instead of the promised $22) he suffered since he started work.

And then came the unkindest cut of all – he was issued a formal letter by MOM informing him that he would thereafter be banned from working in Singapore. Why? Because he had broken the law, taking on illegal odd jobs. Here are the relevant parts of the letter:

“But at that time, I no money, how can I live?” he protested quietly, sounding more like a plea when he had every right to raise his voice. “No money, how to find place to sleep? How to eat? I have to work.”

“I no money not because I spend money, [but] because employer pay me little salary.”

He said the MOM officer told him instead that he should count himself lucky he was not being charged and jailed for working illegally. The bureaucratic gears grind on, and another human being is crushed beneath.

But some escape crushing. No word on what penalty, if any, the employer would have to pay.