Shobus never would have agreed to a job that promised only $9 a day. But of course that’s not what he was promised before he came. He was told that he would earn $800 to $900 a month for working 8:00am to 7:00pm. He dreamed of how much he would earn by adding a few more hours of overtime. He thought this would be his break when his friend in Bangladesh asked for $4,100 to arrange a job with Samsung C&T Corporation. Only after he paid the full amount and received his ticket to fly from Dhaka to Singapore did he see the In-principle Approval for a work permit (IPA).
When he saw that the monthly salary listed on the IPA was $270, he asked S, his friend in Singapore who had arranged the deal, what he should do. S assured him that the figure wasn’t important, that they would work out a higher salary after he arrived. But when he arrived, S told him that if he complained that they’d both be sent back to Bangladesh. But not to worry, he’ll be sure to receive a raise after the first year.
Later he learned that some men who have worked with the company for over 3 years are earning only $9.50/day, and that the highest amount the company pays ordinary workers is $11/day.
Shobus has now worked for Samsung C&T since October 2011, and within that time has been able to send home $1,350. To achieve that he works 160 hours of overtime (OT) every month and takes no days off. Because the basic salary is listed as $270, the company divides by 30 (days in a month) to compute the salary at $9/day. Dividing that by 8 (basic work hours per day) works out at and hourly rate of $1.125, and multiplying that by 1.5 for overtime, the company pays $1.68 per hour as OT work. According to Shobus, the company pays no bonus, nothing for medical treatment, and nothing for medical leave.
When Shobus was ill with fever in December, he was not taken to see a doctor, and was not given any food in the dormitory where he rested for four days. He went on his own to visit a medical clinic and paid $90 for the consultation and medication.
Although Shobus’ daily work starts at 8:00am, all the workers must be ready and alert at 7:15 for group exercises, performed together with the dozen or so Korean office workers. This time is not included in the daily pay. The lunch break is computed at one hour, 12:00 noon to 1:00, but the workers have only half an hour to eat and rest. At 12:30 they must walk to the office some distance away where attendance is taken at 12:40. Immediately afterwards the 130 workers return to the job site to resume work.
The Employment Act states that, unless otherwise provided, an employee shall not be required to work more than 6 consecutive hours without a period of leisure, or more than 8 hours in one day or more than 44 hours in one week.
If an employee works more than 8 consecutive hours, he must have at least 45 minutes to have a meal. No employee shall be required to work more and 9 hours in one day or 44 hours in one week. If the number of hours in every alternate week is less than 44, the limit of 44 hours may be exceeded in the other week, but no employee shall be required to work more than 48 hours in one week or more than 88 hours in any continuous period of 2 weeks.
These restrictions are in place for the safety of the worker, and Shobus is well aware of the safety lapses that can occur when workers are given insufficient rest and food. He has seen his co-workers suffer injuries due to fatigue and lack of concentration, and knows men who have been denied proper treatment for their injuries.
Shobus works mainly outside, casting concrete, making drains, and pumping water. The Korean foreman Mr. Lee insists that everyone works, no matter what the weather. Occasionally Shobus works deep underground where there’s little oxygen. Air pumps and fans send air down, but not enough to penetrate the long narrow passageways where the men are expected to work, and they feel like they’re suffocating after only 30 minutes of that oxygen-poor air.
As told to TWC2 by Shobus, if Mr. Lee sees one man sitting down even though his work is finished, that man will be punished by receiving no work the following day, or by receiving no overtime work. If Shobus emerges from the tunnel due to lack of oxygen, Mr. Lee scolds him. When Mr. Lee finds that the man has gone to the toilet and is not on duty, he tells the others to call the missing worker back to his post immediately. Mr. Lee must be an asset to the company but he has no friends among the workers.
The money that Shobus sends home would not be possible without his working 24 hours at a stretch at least one day a week. During the day he is allowed a lunch break and 30 minutes for the evening meal, but no break between 7:30pm and 7:00am the following day. Each day, about 8 or 9 people do the 24-hour shift. They finish in the morning and are permitted to rest until 12:00 noon when they have a meal, before presenting themselves for the 12:40pm attendance and working until 10:00pm when attendance is taken again.
The men all complain about the quality of the food, as they recognise the importance of good nutrition in these circumstances. Shobus weighed 66 kg when he started working for Samsung C&T in October 2011. Now he weighs only 60 kg. Amazingly he retains the same cheerful smile and pleasant nature. There’s nothing enjoyable for him at this job, and yet he hopes to continue with this company for two years. He borrowed money to pay for the position and is willing to put up with the onerous nature of the job. He is more discontented with the low salary than with the long hours, and worries that this month, January, his salary will suffer due to the three holidays, New Year’s Day and the two Chinese New Year holidays. He’d be willing to stay longer if the salary were higher, he said.
If he continues working, he can send home $3,500 a year. The work permit lasts only one year so he has no guarantee that it will be extended, or that it will be extended without cost. The $4,100 that he borrowed requires interests payments of $250/month, which uses a large part of what he sends home. And still Shobus remains outwardly cheerful and optimistic. He lost $3,000 in a previous attempt to secure a job and is still hoping to recover that money. With each setback, work as a migrant labourer seems the only way out of the abyss of debt, and yet it keeps on growing for Shobus. That huge smile and genuine good nature belies his debt and financial hardship.