Abul Kalam thought he had found the perfect job, one that he could arrange directly with the employer and that didn’t require him to deal with an agent or recruiter in Bangladesh. Most Bangladeshi workers are recruited by a friend or acquaintance who takes $8,000 to $10,000 to line up a job in Singapore. That’s the going rate for men who come for the first time. During their first sojourn in Singapore, they seek out contacts that may help them to secure a second job at a lower rate.

Indeed, this is one way to succeed even when a man loses money on the first job. Men expect to be able to earn back what they paid within two years, but all too often the salary is lower than anticipated, the deductions higher, the overtime unavailable, the man is injured before completing the term of the permit, or several of the above. That first time in Singapore may result in contacts that can arrange a second job at a lower rate, and therefore a greater chance of making more than the initial payment.

Abul Kalam worked for three years from Dec 2007 until Nov 2010. He made connections that he thought would enable him to arrange a deal directly with the employer, Raj, for the next job. Raj communicated with him directly over email and phone while he was in Bangladesh assuring him that he wouldn’t need to pay a middleman. Abul Kalam scanned and emailed his passport and received the promised in-principle approval (IPA) needed to enter Singapore and apply for the work permit. Abul Kalam bought his own ticket and was prepared to pay $3,000 when he arrived in Singapore. This sounded like a steal compared to what workers usually pay the Bangladeshi con-men.

Arriving on 13 November 2011, he bunked with a friend while he arranged to meet Raj. A few days later they met at Sengkang MRT taxi stand, near Raj’s home, where Abul Kalam turned over his passport and the $3,000. He didn’t suppose there was anything suspicious or wrong with this. They met again when Abul Kalam’s thumbprints were taken for the work permit. Raj collected another $250 for this, explaining it as a fee imposed by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

Abul Kalam, still trusting, did not demand receipts or acknowledgment for these payments. He met Raj 5 or 6 times, but only when Raj handed him the work permit and asked him to sign twelve salary slips, one for each day of the month did he start to worry.

Raj told him that even though he can’t provide work, he’s free to source work on his own now that he has the work permit. The signed salary slips would be used to prove that Abul Kalam was receiving a regular salary should there be any question about illegal deployment. Abul Kalam knew that working for a different employer is not allowed under the work permit regulations, and may also know that many employers expect their employees to do this. Quite a few men would keep quiet about illegal deployment after locking themselves into such an indebted situation.

Abul Kalam threw away the IPA, which would show the monthly salary and deductions, the agent fees and name of the agent. He remembers that the basic monthly salary was listed as $520.

For a long time he agonized about going to MOM, hoping that Raj would offer him work. He spoke to Raj regularly by phone during this time, but waited until mid January before making a complaint. The case is now under investigation. Without proof, Abul Kalam may have difficulty making a case about the money he paid. That’s the way men of honour operate, he assumed, with a handshake and a promise, rather than signatures and documents.

He first visited MOM on 16 Jan to discuss his situation and was issued with a special pass a few days later, which allows him to remain in Singapore for the investigation. MOM has made no provisions for his food or accommodations. They have offered him the chance to participate in the temporary job scheme (TJS), but that doesn’t guarantee him a job. He spoke to the employers looking for TJS workers at MOM but none had work for someone like him. Even the employer who offers air-con servicing didn’t accept his skills as appropriate for the work.

Abul Kalam doesn’t talk much. In summary he would only mutter “company no good, now many many problem. Makan, sleeping, phone card . . .” His wife and two sons are depending on him, unaware that this perfect job has fallen through.