In Mohamed and Bilal have gone is the story of two of 56 men laid off because their employer reportedly failed to pay the government’s foreign worker levy. When so many workers are affected, several groups of men come to Transient Workers Count Too at different times. They end up speaking to different volunteers.

So it was in this case. The same week that Mohamed and Bilal spoke with Farah for the above-mentioned article, Ear Hussin, Rony, Ali and Krishna spoke with this writer. However, there are interesting differences in the experience of these four men compared to Mohamed and Bilal, providing another angle to the story.

Ear Hussin and his friends had been in Singapore for only about four months, unlike Mohamed and Bilal who had been here for ten months. However, the four men too were supplied out to a third party, suggesting that the employer of record, Super Building Construction, didn’t have work for them on its own account.

The four who met this writer were sent to work in a galvanising factory in Jurong Industrial Estate. It was apparently a large factory, with about a hundred workers – Chinese, Indians and Bangladeshis – but only about twenty of them were supplied by Super Building.

They were happy enough working there. Ear Hussin and friends reported that their salaries were paid on time, they had proper work permits, and there was nothing to indicate that things would not go smoothly for long enough to allow them to recover the thousands of dollars in placement fees they had paid upfront to obtain work.

Then out of the blue, at the end of March, “Madam” spoke to the twenty or so men from Super Building. According to the men, “Madam”  is either the boss or a manager of the galvanising company; she is not their direct employer.

“Madam say we cannot work here anymore,” Ear Hussin recalled. “She tell us, our boss in trouble with MOM, never pay levy, now our work permit all cancel.”

“We all shock,”  added Krishna.

They quickly called someone they call Rabi, whom they knew as the boss of Super Building and their actual employer.

“At first, Rabi say there is no problem. He say work permit not cut. Any problem with MOM, he will settle,” Ear Hussin reported.

However, that there was possibly a serious problem soon became apparent when for a day or two, Rabi did not return any of their subsequent calls. They men had wanted to know whether they should continue reporting to work at the galvanising factory, and if not, where else they should go.

“We all very tension,” was how they described those two days.

Eventually, Rabi called back and confirmed the bad news. Their work permits had indeed been cancelled and they would have to go back to Bangladesh.

“How can we go back? We pay so much money to come here,” said Rony.

Monday, April 2, they all trooped down to the Ministry of Manpower, where they were put on special passes. The ministry gave the men a few weeks to find alternative employment in Singapore. Whether they will succeed is not yet clear.

The curious thing about X’s story is that he and the workers supplied to the galvanising factory had all been paid, and on time. This suggests that “Madam”  had paid Super Building for the men’s services, and Super Building should not have had a cash flow problem.

So why weren’t the levies paid? That’s the mystery.

Also mysterious is this: What happened to all the money the men had paid upfront for their jobs?

It is curious too why the galvanising factory does not hire workers on its own account if it needs workers, which it apparently does. Why does it not have work permit quotas of its own? Why do workers come in through layer after layer of recruiters and middlemen, each taking a cut? There appears to be a lot of potential for rent-seeking in Singapore’s labour policies.