The night she came screaming into the kitchen was the night the motorbikes took off. Fernando is left nursing his financial wounds.

This story sounds a bit of a farce, except that it’s real. The events Fernando Wawalege recounted happened only a few weeks earlier.

He had come to Singapore from his native Sri Lanka in early September 2012. He’s a small-time trader, normally here to buy parts and accessories for mobile phones and computers. On this trip however, he also happened to spot some good deals for second-hand motorcycles. “Each one only about $250. I can buy three or four for $1,000,” he says.  They were ten years old, and only of 125cc engine capacity, but he could see handsome profit if he could get them back to Sri Lanka.

His problem was that by the time he spotted this opportunity, he had spent his limited cash on electronics goods. “I want to buy the bikes, but not enough money.”

Fernando mentioned his need for cash to a woman he met at church in Singapore. She too was Sri Lankan, working here as a domestic helper. She quickly proposed that she could find him a job. Her ‘agent money’ would be $350, she said. He agreed.

Almost as quick as waving a magic wand, she found him a dishwasher job in a restaurant near the Botanic Gardens. The pay would be $1,000 per month.

Almost from the start, the scheme started to fall apart.

He needed $1,000 to buy the bikes. If he gave her $350, he would be short of the needed funds. It might be possible to earn another month’s salary to make up, but that would mean overstaying the one-month tourist pass he was on, a risk that weighed on his mind. Should he double-cross her?

She had her doubts about him too. Through the first month of his work, she kept pestering him for her ‘agent money’. She even tried to get the boss of the restaurant to pay his salary to her, so she could take her cut directly.

One Saturday evening, she showed up without warning at the restaurant’s kitchen, pulled him outside and started shouting at him. “She said, “I call the police’, ” recalled Fernando. “But I say to her, ‘you want to call police, you call.'” She backed down.

Sunday evening, she was back. More shouting. This time, the building security had had enough and they called the police.

On checking identities, the officers saw that Fernando had no work permit. He was arrested and held overnight in a police lock-up.

He has now been issued with a Special Pass, required to stay on in Singapore to assist in the possible prosecution of the restaurant, its boss and the Sri Lankan domestic worker.

The motorbikes have been sold to another buyer; Fernando has missed the deal.

The point of the story is not the dramatics. The point is the ease with which a job was found for him. Even a domestic worker can do it in almost no time at all. Many Singapore businesses are desperate for extra help, desperate enough to hire illegally.

Yet, the same afternoon, this writer was interviewing Moe Zaw (not his real name), who had lost his job after working just two months in Singapore. The Ministry of Manpower is now investigating his employer and employment agent for wrongdoing. Moe Zaw was put on a Special Pass too, but since MOM has determined through a brief investigation that he had done nothing wrong, he was told that he was free to look for alternative work, and if he could find one, they would issue a new work pass for him.

Despite being able to speak good English, Moe Zaw had been trying for over a month, knocking on countless doors.

“Everytime they see that I am on a Special Pass, they don’t want to take me,” he said, on the verge of tears. He was down to his last dollars.

It’s quite a common complaint. Employers generally do not want to hire workers who have been given a Special Pass by MOM. “Employers have the impression that these workers cause trouble,” says TWC2 social worker Kenneth Soh. They are perceived as workers who have experience at lodging complaints at the ministry, he explains.

“Employers prefer workers who are raw.”

But there is a second reason, which has to do with the fact that hiring directly means no agent is involved.  Without an agent, hidden transactions are much harder to arrange. “Deep inside, I also know that another reason why many employers don’t take Special Pass workers is that doing so means they will miss out on agent money,”  says Kenneth knowingly. “Of course, employers that I have spoken to will not admit to this,” but workers sometimes tell TWC2 that when they approach employers for jobs, they are asked for upfront payments.

Such is the reality that legal workers face.