Neatly dressed and courteously greeting everyone in the office as he made his way to Kenneth’s desk, Yang (not his real name) was clearly not your typical construction worker from China. He could even pass as a fashion-conscious Singaporean, which is what happens when a young man has had six or seven years in Singapore. In fact, he wasn’t even a Work Permit holder, for he had an S-Pass. Nor was he out of a job.

So why did he seek out Transient Workers Count Too for a consultation?

He felt cheated, and wanted to know if there was any way he could get his money back. Would going to the authorities help? he wanted to know.

It was his second job in Singapore that led to the mess. The first job, which had lasted five years, was a good one. He was a short-order cook at a budget restaurant in a suburban neighbourhood. Then he joined his second employer, doing a similar job, but within a month or so, this second employer made him a proposal: Why don’t you be your own boss and make more money?

This boss reportedly owned the lease on a number of hawker stalls around Singapore, and offered to sublet one to Yang, who would have to pay a monthly rent to the boss but would be able to keep the profit.

Yang was quickly tempted and a deal was struck. He paid a deposit for the hawker stall and one month’s rent and prepared to serve up a fortune for himself. Within weeks, however, he realised he had been scammed. Customer traffic at that location was poor and he would never be able to service the rent, let alone make a profit. The empty tables staring at him were the reason why the boss offered to sublet the stall to him rather than operate it himself.

“But you said you’re currently working?” asked Kenneth Soh, TWC2’s senior social worker (facing camera, above).

And he was. For a third employer, now in a swankier Chinese restaurant downtown. Legitimately too, with his S-Pass entirely in order.

What Yang wanted was to get his deposit and rent back. “And my second employer should have been paying me my $3,000 salary for that period, because I was officially his employee ,” he added.

It is times like these that TWC2 has to clearly explain to the worker that he needs to recognise his own mistake. As an S-Pass holder, he shouldn’t have made the deal to take over a stall and work for himself; it would be a breach of the S-Pass conditions. As for going to the Ministry of Manpower to lodge a complaint, it might make things worse, having to reveal that he broke the conditions of the pass.

Such a disclosure would jeopardise his current job.

Sometimes, it may be wiser to write off a bad investment and move on. Kenneth asked Yang to think carefully about the matter and decide for himself.

Despite his much better economic situation, Yang’s story has similarities with the thousands of other stories that TWC2 hears from shipyard, construction and sanitation workers. Many migrant workers don’t seem very clear about what they can or cannot do while in Singapore. Not only are they in a linguistically alien environment, they often work such long hours that the opportunity to be better informed is hard to come by. Coming from different political and social environments, they may have a different attitude to rules even if they know them; perhaps they don’t take them seriously, because in their home countries, rules are easily bent and enforcement patchy.

Workers who take the plunge and leave their home countries for better opportunities abroad may also be risk-takers by nature. Or they are ambitious. Add these factors up together, and there will be many who will be tempted by get-rich-quick schemes.

Unsurprisingly, some Singaporeans employers will see an opportunity to make a fast buck from the gullible. It keeps TWC2 busy.