At the end of a work shift, while waiting for the rest of the crew to assemble their things and board the company lorry, the driver had a brief word with Arif Hossain. He said he believed that Arif’s employer had gone bankrupt, and suggested that Arif should check the status of his work permit. As one can imagine, this strongly suggested bad news.

Arif hurried down to Little India to get some help from friends who knew how to check electronically the status of work permits. His worst fears came true. Indeed, his work permit had been cancelled some days ago on 12 June 2012, and the employer had not bothered to tell him. Technically, he had been been working illegally for several days.

He knew better than to report for work the next day, and instead focussed on trying to contact his boss and employment agent, Abdul M, who was actually a supervisor in the same company. Whether Abdul M had a licence to operate as an employment agent is unknown.

The boss said the agent would arrange to transfer Arif to another company. The agent assured Arif he’d do so. But four or five days later, both stopped answering their phones, and Arif knew that he could no longer rely on them.

He made his way to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to lodge a complaint.

Arif’s position is particularly bad. His brother, who is also in Singapore, suffered a work injury a few months earlier and is now unable to work.

“I cannot go back to Bangladesh now,”  says Arif. “If I go back now, people catch me,”  referring to the money lenders he and his brother had borrowed from to raise the recruitment fees. “They will come my house, hit me. They will broken my house.”

Late 2011, each brother paid $8,000 to Abdul M for the job — that’s 532,000 Bangladesh Taka at today’s exchange rate. In Arif’s case, the family raised about 300,000 Taka by their own means and borrowed 200,000 Taka.

“One year, I have to pay interest 65,000 Taka. How to pay now?” moaned Arif. “Cannot go back like this.”

His brother borrowed a similar sum and presumably owes the same interest annually. The family must be living in fear.

TWC2 has noticed an increasing number of cases where Bangladeshi ‘supervisors’ in construction companies take on the additional role of recruiter for the company and benefit handsomely from it. In Arif’s case, as mentioned above, he paid $8,000. This does not appear legitimate, and especially with agreements made verbally and payments in cash, it puts workers in an even worse disadvantage.

MOM needs to clean up this practice.

Another aspect of Arif’s experience also raises many questions. In the six months that he was working prior to June, he found himself working at six places. At least. There were more that he couldn’t name. He could recall being sent to work on Jurong Island, Jalan Pemimpin, Marina Bay and Sentosa for various construction projects run by different contractors, and working at a metal-cutting plant around West Coast Road. His last job was at Eunos. “I doing painting there,”  he said.

It appears that he was being hired out by his employer to other contractors in need of labour. Whether this was allowed under the terms of the work permits secured by his employer is not something he is clear about.

Cash flow, however, didn’t seem to be a problem for the company. Arif had regular work, even though he was moved from one site to another, and his salary was paid quite promptly. If his employer had the money to pay him promptly, it must mean that the project contractors to whom Arif was seconded had paid his employer regularly. So how the employer became ‘bankrupt’  as reported by the driver is a mystery.

But what is quite apparent is that some parties made a lot of money on the arrangement.

Meanwhile, Arif, his brother and the family in Bangladesh live in fear of debt collectors.