Shah Ali didn’t have much choice when his one-year work permit came to an end. Having paid an employment agent about S$4,400 to get this job for him a year ago, he had still not recovered the investment. If he didn’t get his work permit renewed and continued in the job, he would be in a net loss position.

The boss was willing to renew the work permit, but was asking $1,000 for the favour.

“I no have so much money now,” he said.

The boss proposed an installment plan. $200 would be deducted from his salary for each of the first five months of the new contract. Reluctantly, Shah Ali agreed. There was no alternative.

He might not have had much education, but he could do his sums. Doing renovation work for his boss — “I make tile floor, ceiling, partition and painting,” he tells TWC2, justifiably proud of his many skills — he had been earning about $700 a month inclusive of overtime. His basic salary was $468 a month. He should be able to clear the remainder of the $4,400 initial payment before the end of the second contract, even with five months of $200 deduction.

January 2012, which was the last month of his first one-year contract, was, on hindsight, a harbinger of things to come. What had been smooth sailing for ten or eleven months now hit all sorts of rocks. Government officials raided the place where he and his colleagues were staying. There were just a handful of them living above a shop, with rent paid by the employer.

“Officer say this illegal shop,” Shah Ali recalled of that day, and they were all told to move out. This suggests that the place was found to be unfit for housing workers.

“After that, my boss send all workers to stay in a house in Geylang.” Yet, as he described it, the other place was even worse.  From three to six workers from the same company sharing an “illegal shop”, they were now squeezed into a house with 60 workers, from several different companies. “Have worker from China, India, everywhere.”

As if things were not bad enough, there was little work in January, and consequently, he was not paid.

February wasn’t much better. “February month, only fifteen day have working. Boss pay me only [for] fifteen days.”

And that was the month he was presented with the “installment plan”.

Maybe it was the Chinese New Year lull. Home and office owners tend to avoid renovation work during that period. Things looked up from March onwards. Steady work resumed, though accommodation was still a source of discontent. But when one is desperately in need of work and income, accommodation is a lower priority issue, however much it may strike more fortunate others as protest-worthy.

August 2012 and work began to slow down again. “September month, boss no give work to me and my friend,” says Shah Ali, referring to a Bangladeshi co-worker. “No salary also.” The cash flow plan that he had worked out at the beginning of the year, was slipping. While by this point he had recovered the initial outlay of $4,400, the purpose of coming to Singapore to work wasn’t only to recover what had been paid to the employment agent, but to make some good money for the family. This would be in jeopardy if work was so erratic.

Perhaps  it was just another seasonal lull. August and September coincide with the Chinese Hungry Ghost Month, when renovation work is considered an invitation to malicious spirits to wreck havoc.  However, when six workers from India were terminated prematurely and sent home about three or four months before their work permit expiry, the business decline looked far more serious than can be explained by folk custom.

Together with his Bangladeshi co-workers, Shah Ali decided not to tempt fate and wait around for the boss to hand them their tickets. “We go MOM complain.”

His chief complaint, as lodged with the Ministry of Manpower, was that he had been pressured to agree to the deduction of $1,000 for work permit renewal. This is clearly illegal. Conditions governing the issuance of work permits include these clauses:

Employment of Foreign Manpower Act
Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations
First Schedule: Conditions of Work Permit

Part 2

25. Prohibited payments: An employer shall not deduct from any salary payable to a foreign employee, or demand or receive (directly or indirectly) from the foreign employee, any sum or other benefit —
(a) as consideration or as a condition for employing the foreign employee;
(b) as consideration or as a condition for continuing to employ the foreign employee; or
(c) as a financial guarantee related, in any way, to the employment of the foreign employee.

26. Payments to be borne by employer not recoverable from foreign employee: An employer shall not deduct from any salary payable to a foreign employee, or recover (directly or indirectly) from the foreign employee, in whole or in part, any of the following sums paid or payable, or any other benefit given or to be given, by the employer:
(a) fees associated with the application, issuance, renewal or reinstatement of a Work Permit;
. . . etc . . .

Shah Ali’s case is far from unusual. The majority of the hundreds of workers who come to Transient Workers Count Too report that their employers expect to be profitably paid for renewing their work permits.  That the practice remains rampant is almost surely because of patchy enforcement of the law.  It is a mystery why this is so, why enforcement is such a low priority at the Manpower ministry, to the huge disadvantage of honest workers trying to feed their families.

Shah Ali is now waiting for MOM to investigate his complaint. In the meantime, the ministry has permitted him to take up a six-month temporary job. But first, he has to find one.