46 men this week join a long list of foreign workers penalised by officialdom for being duped by local companies looking to make a quick buck.

Yes, you read that right: They were penalised for being victims.

Each has received a letter from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) banning them for working in Singapore for one year. Not only have they lost their jobs when MOM shut down their employer, they are being sent back to Bangladesh and told not to try getting work here till the ban expires.

Their story throws a  rare light on a shadow economy where easy cash is made  by local companies hell bent on exploiting migrants. All in the city of broken dreams.

Each of the three workers we interviewed over the weekend spoke frankly about how their employer Enfillio Engineering (not real name), instead of giving them work, sent them to look for their own work and then arranged clandestine monthly meetings to collect kickbacks. The company managed to keep its cover intact for over two years.

Not having a website certainly helped it maintain a low profile. Nor did the company even have an office, the workers told us. The boss worked from home.

Fakrul, one of the 46, says that he and his fellow workers had to go to a parking lot near Farrer Park MRT station on Race Course Road, their pockets filled with cash, as per their employer’s demand. As workers are paid (by their illegal employers) between the 5th and 8th of every month, the groups would stagger their visits to the parking lot to meet their official employer so as not to arouse suspicion among passers-by. The boss would arrive in his car, get out briefly and accept cash payments of $520 from each man, ostensibly to pay for government levies.

After the money had been handed over and counted to ensure the sums were correct, each of the men would then melt away into the cauldron of humanity that is Little India.

That was how easy it was for the company to exploit these young men and make a fast buck.

The workers arrived in Singapore at different times over the last two years, having been promised regular employment in the construction industry via their recruiting agents. For some of them, Enfillio did provide some short stints of construction work, but for the rest there was nothing coming through after two weeks, and they were soon encouraged to seek — illegally — other employment in Singapore. Enfillio retained their work permits, but told the men they would have to fund their own levy payments, as a condition for being able to stay on in Singapore.

Employers hiring foreign workers in Singapore are required to pay the monthly Foreign Workers Levy from the day a foreign worker’s work permit is issued until the day it is cancelled, but the scheme is highly complex, and few workers know what exactly is the levy rate their employer has to pay for their work permit. If an employer says he has to pay $520 a month, many might believe him. So, inflating government levies and insisting on cash payments is obviously an enticing profit-making business for the unscrupulous.

Government levies vary depending on the skill levels of each worker and the qualifications they’ve garnered; the workers we spoke to were skilled construction workers who had trained in Bangladesh, which would put their levy rate at between $200 and $300 per month, leaving as much as $200 for Enfillio to pocket.

Obviously, this cloak-and-dagger arrangement was unsustainable. Fakrul says they knew that this could get them in trouble with the authorities, but having paid so much for this job, they couldn’t turn down what might be their only chance to recover their investment. They had each paid over $3,000 in job placement fees, often by going into debt, so even as they suspected that Enfillio Engineering was profiteering from their labour and putting them under severe pressure to make ends meet, what choice did they have? They had been warned they would lose their work permits if they complained. The workers were desperate to stay here to pay off their debts and earn money to send home to their families.

In formal letters issued to each of the men, MOM said they had “worked . . . without a valid work pass”, which is probably with reference to the work the men did for their illegal employers. It seems to ignore the fact that the men did have proper work permits, except that the employer of record had no work for them and told them to find their own alternative. In fact, as it now seems clear, that was the very point of the whole scheme — to extract a cut from the men who were left with no choice in the matter.

To now ban the men for one year appears somewhat unjust.

Enfillio is also being investigated by MOM, its former employees told us. MOM should make an example of this company and its directors.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation points to an obscenely large profit being made off the backs of these workers struggling to support their families. With 46 men each contributing about $200 (net of the levy) to the boss each month, that is about $9,200 a month. Apparently, the scheme had been going on for one or two years, which suggests a total profit in excess of $100,000.

And it has left 46 men high and dry.