By Spiegel

Saddled with debt and stripped of his livelihood, Rahim (not his real name) feels his life hanging in the balance.

A wage dispute last month prompted Rahim’s Singaporean employer to revoke his work permit without warning, casting the 28-year-old Bangladeshi out in the cold.

It’s a bitter blow for the sole breadwinner to his parents and two younger siblings. Never did he countenance such misfortune when he cast his lot on a wing and prayer bound for Singapore, bidding to escape the trappings of debt and meager subsistence in Sirajganj, his impoverished hometown in north Bangladesh.

Rahim’s monthly remittances had been the only thing keeping creditors at bay and his family home safe from repossession. Now, his paltry savings depleted, he lives day-to-day with help from friends and free meals offered by Transient Workers Count Too.

According to Rahim, the row revolved around his employers’ duplicitous switcheroo, hiring him as a basic work-permit holder to do work normally given to holders of a mid-tier work pass.

In March, Rahim joined a prime contractor—which we shall call Fortune—that served big-name telecommunications firms here. He had first applied to Fortune for a desk job, but the company instead offered him work as a storekeeper, an unskilled role that required only a work permit.

Under Singapore’s three-tier foreign-work pass system, unskilled and low-skilled labourers are issued work permits while mid-level professionals— earning at least S$2,000 a month—are granted S-passes.

When Rahim started work, Fortune immediately reassigned him to handle payment claims for company projects, a job normally taken by S-pass holders. Yet he was still officially a general worker on a work permit. Under Singapore law, an employer can’t deploy a foreign worker to do work that’s different from what was specified in employee’s work permit.

The boss even demanded from Rahim hiring fees to the tune of S$5,000, a sum equivalent to what the government requires employers to pay as a security bond when hiring a work-permit holder. The move is illegal—a foreign worker isn’t required to pay for this bond.

But the employer also knew to sweeten his offer. He promised to help Rahim apply for an S-pass and eventually raise his pay to that level.

“When I got the job, my family was really happy,” Rahim said. “I thought I could use some of the money to take short courses, or even do a diploma. It was my dream.”

But his boss didn’t honour the promise. Rahim pressed on the matter a few times, only to be rebuffed with vague reassurances.

The breaking point came last month, when Rahim approached his boss for the third time. A heated exchange ensued. Rahim was fired two days later.

“I was putting in my best effort. That’s why I asked for a higher salary,” Rahim said. “I didn’t know he would try to send me back [to Bangladesh] like that.”

But Rahim didn’t back down. He filed a complaint with the Ministry of Manpower. Officials are now investigating the circumstances of his employment at Fortune.

In the meantime, however, Rahim’s life has slipped into limbo—out of a job with no good options. Although he managed to claw back S$1,300 in overtime pay owed by Fortune, he has remitted all but S$150. He still owes creditors about S$3,500 in principal, the balance of his borrowings to fund his passage to Singapore and other work-related expenses.

Although he is free to seek new work, his family’s dire financial straits make him reluctant to take jobs that wouldn’t pay him enough to service debts and support his kin.

Back home, his parents and siblings—a 21-year old sister and a six-year-old brother—subsist on paltry takings from a rice mill, about S$1.50 a day. His mother, at just 45, is gravely ill with diabetes.

“If I lose my mother before I give her happiness, I will be tortured for the rest of my life,” Rahim said, tears welling in his bloodshot eyes. “My mother is the ideal woman. My dream is to see her happy.”

Meanwhile Rahim can only wait; for decent work to come by; for the ministry to exact justice in due course. But the uncertainty is already gnawing at his psyche.

“Maybe I can feel a bit happier after I share this with you,” he said. “But after you leave, my reality is still the same.”