By Debbie and Alex

After a full day’s work on 17 July 2012, Rabel (not his real name) was called to the office to see his boss. “Boss say I have to leave company,” he told Transient Workers Count Too.

The employer asked him to sign a piece of paper stating that his work performance was not good and that he hadn’t followed instructions. Rabel was also accused of fighting with his workmates. He refused to sign “because it not true.”

If his work had been poor, he reasoned, he would have been told earlier, and if there had been fights the police would have been called.

According to Rabel, the employer then became angry with his refusal and blurted out that he was anyway going to cancel Rabel’s Work Permit “because I (Rabel) didn’t pay money to the agent, that I come to Singapore without paying anyone.”

The worker felt that that seemed to be the real reason why the boss was angry with him. But why should the boss be so upset that the agent had not been paid? Why was the boss so concerned about an employment agent’s bottom-line that he would excise a worker for that reason?

In any case, based on Rabel’s account of how he got the job in the first place, no agent was involved. He had previously worked four years in Singapore, and during that time, came into contact with the company, his current employer. “The boss, he like me and say I can come back to work for him.”

So, after a turn-around in his home country, Rabel was brought back to Singapore, this time under the company in question, with a new Work Permit stating him to be a construction worker.

Research conducted by Transient Workers Count Too (see report at Worse off for working? Kickbacks, intermediary fees and migrant construction workers in Singapore) has found that foreign workers nearly always pay high fees to recruitment agents, fees much higher than what might be justified by their discernible costs. The mystery becomes less so when one realises that there is, in the words of the report, “reason to believe that many Singaporean employers directly profit from these fees.” In other words, they take a cut.

It may be that in Rabel’s case, there was supposed to be an agent or intermediary, but somehow Rabel had not paid the intermediary, and the boss didn’t realise it until the man had worked for a few weeks. Missing out on a potential kickback wouldn’t have pleased the employer.

However, even from Rabel’s own account, other possible reasons emerge, although the worker seemed quite convinced that not paying an agent was the chief reason.

One possible explanation, not mutually exclusive from the first, might be related to the fact that just before Rabel was terminated, two new Burmese employees were hired. “They arrive just one week after me,” said Rabel. “They don’t know how to do anything.”

“Maybe boss sending me back because he now have these two worker. He never think about my life.”

A salient point made by TWC2 in the above-mentioned research is that the high churn rate of workers is directly opposed to Singapore’s aim to improve productivity. Losing a worker who has worked four years in Singapore, and replacing him with fresh workers can’t be a step in the right direction when it comes to preserving experience and skills.

However, by Rabel’s own admission, there was a third possible reason why the boss might have wanted to terminate him. Although he had been on the job for less than a month, he had been ill and given a total of eight days’ sick leave. He made three visits to two different clinics getting three days’, two days’, and three days’ MC in turn. Did the boss think he was a malingerer?

Even so, when he spoke to TWC2 (after getting fired), the volunteer who saw him described him as looking weak. It didn’t look serious, “just a fever that took longer than usual to subside,” was how his condition was observed. The illness probably wasn’t faked. But then it raises the question of whether employers should be terminating workers just because they had the bad luck to fall ill soon after starting a job.

The confrontation in the office got heated, with the boss insisting that Rabel sign the paper because “boss want something to show MOM.”

When Rabel continued to refuse, the police were called, and according to the worker, the police “also tell me that I have to obey the boss and sign paper.” More likely, the police might have been trying to suggest that Rabel consider doing so to defuse the situation. Finally Rabel agreed to be sent home, but he still wouldn’t sign the paper.

Rabel made a quick visit to MOM before being repatriated. The MOM officer told him that he should be able to return here if he could find a new job, “but I worry,” he said. “I scared this boss will do something to make trouble for me.”

Case workers have heard of rumoured instances where bosses make a police report against a worker based on unproven allegations, with the boss assuming and the worker fearing that the outstanding police report would be enough to deny a worker future Work Permits. These rumours have not been verified, though. Nonetheless, many workers are under the impression that ex-bosses have ways and means to prevent them from obtaining future employment in Singapore.

(As an aside, this fear alone is enough to keep workers from raising complaints to the Ministry of Manpower even when they’re unjustly treated.)

Rabel wondered, if he had paid an agent for the job, whether this incident would have been avoided, and he would have kept his job. “I only work 22 days on this permit.” While he didn’t pay agent fees, he paid for the airticket to Singapore out of his own pocket. “Now I wish I never come for this job.”

TWC2 could have told him that paying an agent handsomely is no guarantee of a secure job. We have seen many cases of workers paying $7,000 for a job, only to be terminated within a few months, without even being paid  for those months.

A few other things that Rabel mentioned to TWC2 were intriguing too.

Although Rabel’s Work Permit stated him to be a construction worker, the work given to him wasn’t construction, but swimming pool maintenance. Maybe the company could get the work permit quota because it built swimming pools too and that’s considered construction, but that’s not what Rabel did. “I measure pH of the water, add chemical, and clean the pool,” was how Rabel described his work.

Accommodation was also suspect.  Rabel said that the same boss had two Indian workers, one Chinese worker, himself, and five or six Singaporeans. The foreign workers all sleep in the office, located in an industrial building.  “We cook there,” said Rabel. Generally, workers aren’t supposed to housed like that, but doing so saves employers money.

Meanwhile, Rabel wasn’t happy at the prospect of returning home. “Nine people in my family depend on me and my brother, so I will have to try to come again,” even if it means paying thousands of dollars to an agent the next time.

“I have so much tension,” he sighed.