By Benjamin Wong

To the question ‘Are you married?’, Mohsin Howlander pauses, pursing his lips. “My wife, she die already,” he replies, fighting back tears.

“Oh dear, how did that happen?” your TWC2 volunteer asks him.

He switches from grief to anger, spitting out the words like a curse: “She die because of my faarker employer…with salary, I can try. But I cannot try [because] my boss never give salary. How to pay medicine money?”

She had had tuberculosis for several years, but she was fine when Mohsin left for Singapore, only to take a turn for the worse last December. Only 36 years old, Mohsin is now a widower.

Mohsin arrived in September 2011 to work for Sinfu Construction Pte Ltd.  His problems began right upon his arrival: he was promised $28 a day by his agent in Bangladesh, but the official Ministry of Manpower In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit indicated that he would be paid only $25 a day instead. Nonetheless, Mohsin wanted, and needed the job. After a week of waiting, Mohsin was finally given work. But at the end of the month, in which he had worked for three weeks, he was only paid for two.

This stint is his third time in Singapore; he worked for 11 months in  2008, and for a year from 2009 to 2010, before going back home again. Having experienced relatively successful work periods, he didn’t expect that this third time would arguably turn out to be his most trying and difficult one.

From October to November 2011, Mohsin explains, he was given little to no work. Repeated calls to his employer to ask for more work opportunities did not solve the situation. His employer didn’t have construction projects of its own, according to Mohsin, but instead ‘loaned’ him out to other contractors whenever they needed extra manpower. The result of such piecemeal arrangement was that Mohsin never got steady work.

The boss would constantly put Mohsin off, each time he requested for more work. “This man say tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow”, Mohsin recalls. Finally, a full month’s work came in December. Even so, Mohsin was not given any salary at all. The withholding of his salary meant that he could not remit his earnings to help his wife, who was sick at that point in time. “I keep asking boss, please I need the money,” Mohsin recalls with frustration. She died on 31 December 2011.

The no-salary situation continued for the next two months. “From December to February, have job but no salary” says Mohsin. Instead, his employer would give him ‘makan money’, of about $200-$400. Mohsin tried calling his employer, but to no avail, as his employer refused to pick up his calls. Mohsin claims that 16 others, all working for Sinfu Construction, were also denied their salaries.

Then in February, the situation took a turn for the worse when one of his friends, a ‘long-timer’ in Singapore and someone who was more familiar with the Work Permit processes, suspected something was fishy. If the employer was not even able to pay their salaries, perhaps the employer could not afford to pay their levy? Following his suspicions, the friend decided to check his work permit, doing so by going to one of many mini-marts in Little India. For a fee of $2, the mini-mart manager would go online and check the worker’s Work Permit status.

True enough, he discovered that the employer had cancelled their permits without informing them.

Only willing to believe he was also affected until he saw it with his own eyes, Mohsin too went to check his own permit status. This he did on February 9. It confirmed his worst fears: his permit was indeed cancelled. The following day, he went to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to lodge a complaint.

Following investigations by MOM, the employer then offered a settlement: they would pay each of them $1,000 and provide an air ticket back home as well. Nine men chose this option and have since been repatriated, while six others were able to find employment under the Temporary Job Scheme (TJS). Mohsin believes that they too accepted the $1,000 settlement, but the facts are hazy on this mostly because he didn’t seem to have kept in touch with them.

As for himself, Mohsin refused what he considered an inadequate settlement offer – “How do I take $1000 I go back my father kick me… I borrow $4000 to come here” – and chose to take the matter to the Commissioner of Labour, a tribunal commonly known among workers as the ‘Labour Court’.

The first Labour Court hearing was held on 9 July 2012. The ‘judge’ (actually the Commissioner of Labour) accepted MOM’s calculation that Mohsin was owed $1,924 by the employer. However, the employer claimed that he did not have enough money at this point in time, and would need one to two months to raise the sum. To avoid waiting so long, the judge asked Mohsin if he was willing to accept a lower amount, to which Mohsin cheekily replied, “OK, I less $24”.

In the end, Mohsin and his employer agreed on the amount of $1,850. The judge gave the employer 14 days to find the money, and then to return for another hearing.

Speaking of the money involved, Mohsin says,  “This is not ali baba money,” meaning that this debt owed to him was genuine, in return for real work he had done. He also explained to TWC2 that over the past few months of unemployment, while waiting for his case to be settled, he had borrowed about $1200 from a friend over just to survive, along with a monthly rent of $200. If he didn’t get this money, how could he repay the loan and the rent?

He had also paid $4,000 to the recruiter in Bangladesh for the job; and this would be a nett loss.

24 July 2012 was the second hearing. This time, the employer gave Mohsin $850 in cash, and promised to cough up the balance $1,000 at the same time as providing an airticket home. Would he really produce the $1,000? TWC2 sat him down and advised him not to board the plane until he got the money. It would be entirely within his rights to refuse to leave Singapore.

In any case, “I don’t want to go home,” Mohsin says. “I want work here.” He needs to earn money to help his extended family. What is there to go home to when the wife’s already gone, a young life lost, a young husband feeling guilty that he couldn’t care for her in her hour of need?

Postscript: On the evening of 25 July, Mohsin told TWC2 that his employer had bought a ticket to Bangladesh for him, departing Thursday 26 July. He was given TWC2’s emergency contact numbers and advised to call if the final payment of $1,000 does not get into his hands, in cash, at check-in. TWC2 did not get any call all Thursday, and we assume arrangements went smoothly for him and that he is now home with his family.