One by one, the men came through the door of the Ministry of Manpower until they were 46. Then their employer, whose name the men recalled as Farouk, stood up to address them. As recalled by Shahbas, “Boss he said, afterwards talking MOM, no talking alibaba.” In plain English: The boss told us, ‘Afterwards, when being interviewed by MOM officials, don’t tell lies; there’s no need to cover up for me’.

That might well have been the only noble thing he did for his workers in over a year.

Shahbas (not his real name) came to Singapore to work for F&I Engineering and Services in the latter part of 2010. At that time there were only 4 or 5 other workers in the same company. Through 2011, the number gradually increased to 46, all from Bangladesh. However, they had come via different agents.

In the first month, F&I had a job for him as a construction worker, which was what was declared in his work permit. He was sent to a job site in Tampines where he had to hack down concrete walls. With his background as an electrician, he was unhappy to have to do that kind of heavy labour. So he went to his boss to ask for an assignment more suitable to his training.

“Boss he said to me now no have job. He said I go outside find job,” Shahbas told Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). There was however, one condition: Shahbas had to pay the boss $450 a month. “Boss said he must pay levy.”

Understanding the deal, Shahbas went out to find work for himself, and over the next 12 – 15 months, he was generally successful, though there was a lot of moving around — a month here, a month there, as a cleaner, construction worker, or restaurant helper. On average, he took in $1,400 or $1,500 a month (with lots of overtime), from which he had to pay for his own accommodation (costing him about $180 – $200 a month) and the $450 demanded by F&I.

That left him with $750 – $850 a month, enough to recover, over the course of a year,  the fee he had paid to secure the job in Singapore.

The arrangement was illegal. Singapore law requires the employer to be the one providing work, and for the employer to provide upkeep and maintenance, which includes accommodation. The law also forbids employers clawing back the levy from employees.

F&I probably judged that the risk of getting caught was not high, while the profit from such an arrangement must have been attractive. The number of workers multiplied ten-fold from four or five to 46 in the space of 12 – 15 months.

But in November 2011, one worker, Nizam Uddin Abdur Rashid, made a complaint at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). And within a month, the house of cards came falling down. The permits for all 46 were cancelled.

“One worker complain, 46 man work permit cut,” said Dodar (not his real name), another of the affected workers. There was a tinge of bitterness in his voice. Unlike Shahbas, Dodar was a relatively newer arrival. He hadn’t had enough time doing outside work to recover the agency fee he had paid, and was thus left in a net loss position by this turn of events.

Readers may find this story vaguely familiar. Indeed, F&I’s scheme is virtually identical to that operated by another company, as reported in the story “Pay me $550-$570 a month,” the boss said. That not one, but two schemes came to TWC2’s knowledge in the same month of December may suggest that such practices are far from uncommon. Might lax enforcement have contributed to their proliferation?

Although Shahbas and Dodar were unhappy that they lost their work permits because of the action of co-worker Nizam Uddin, Nizam himself had reason to come to TWC2. In our files is Nizam’s story, and it went like this:

Nizam’s story

He arrived in Singapore in January 2011 and was issued a work permit under the same employer F&I Engineering. Less than a week in, “boss give me $50,” he told TWC2. “Then supply [me]  to other company.

“After one month, no salary. Two, three months, also no salary.”

When he protested about this state of affairs, the boss threatened him with deportation: “You talk many many, I send back you.”

Having heard that three persons had indeed been caught by “gangsters”– the term foreign workers use to refer to repatriation agents — Nizam considered the threat a serious one, and so tolerated the situation until November.

In the second week of that month, he lodged a complaint at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for unpaid salaries. A meeting was called for the 23rd, in which Nizam, the boss Farouk,  and an officer from MOM were expected to be present.

However, on the night of the November 22, “boss and agent, his name Forid, catch me night time,” reported Nizam. “Ask me sign three paper. I no sign. Boss say sign this paper, I settle with you.

“But he no give salary. He hamtam [punched] me,” Nizam recalled with increasing anger. “I say, ‘you again touch me, I call police’. He talking until 2 a.m. but I no sign. He no settle.”

They went to MOM the next day to keep the appointment. The boss whipped out several time sheets and payment vouchers. The lady officer from MOM looked at them and asked Nizam why he lodged a claim when the documents showed that he had received his salary. Nizam protested that these  documents were forged, and off he went to Clementi Police Station to lodge a police report.

At the station, “I said I no sign, I no take money.”

The police then asked the boss for proof that it was Nizam who signed the documents, and who did the boss produce as proof, but two “witnesses” — Forid and Masood — who were the same two who had assaulted Nizam the night before. This gave Nizam the perfect opportunity to point them out as his attackers.

Not long after, the police arrested Forid and Masood and it looks as if a criminal case is being pursued against them.

With Nizam standing his ground, MOM probably began looking at F&I Engineering more closely, and before long, 46 men were walking through the ministry’s doors.

Hard getting new jobs

MOM put the workers on Special Passes and told them that they would be given a little time to look for new jobs in Singapore. If they could find an eligible employer willing to take them, new work permits would be issued.

Shahbas has been trying to find work as an electrician. But TWC2 advised him to be realistic because in Singapore, electricians need to be licensed — in the interest of public safety — and without a Singapore certificate of training, it would be difficult for him to obtain such a licence. He should take whatever work he can get, whether as painter, cleaner or cook.

Even so, there is another problem, as related by Dodar: “I can find new job, but boss there he want me pay money.” This points to another illegal practice that is even more widespread — that of taking kickbacks from workers in return for giving them jobs in the first place. The story Samad wants his $1,000 back has more details from one such affected worker.

It may seem like a mystery why Shahbas and Dodar, when they were officially employed by F&I, had little difficulty getting illegal jobs without having to cough up money, but now find it harder getting legal jobs. Quite likely it would be because those employers offering illegal work were not eligible under MOM rules to hire foreign workers. They needed workers, and so were glad to have someone approach them for work. The relatively high earnings that Shahbas enjoyed ($1,400 – $1,500 a month) also reflected this scarcity.

In contrast, those employers who are eligible under MOM rules for obtaining work permits, may see an opportunity to translate their eligibility into profit.

This perverse state of affairs cries out for overhaul — but don’t hold your breath waiting for it.