“When I go back to Chennai, I will put fire my passport,” Subburaman says, agitatedly. “I not coming back Singapore. In India, I beggar man also can. Don’t like working here.” He is clearly frustrated.

Sokkalingam Subburaman is of the view that his employer owes him over $7,000 in unpaid wages. Even his case officer at the Ministry of Manpower calculated that he was owed $6,500.75, says the 30-year-old worker. But the Labour Commissioner only awarded him $969.75, and, as at the date of the interview, even this sum has not been paid.

When he expressed his unhappiness with the Labour Commissioner’s  award, he was told to take a lie detector test. He can’t find the words, but from his gestures, it appears that he considered it below his dignity to be subjected to one. So he is now resigned to getting far less than what he considers his due, and flying home to try to forget his bad experience.

He came to Singapore full of hope in August 2011, armed with an In-principle Approval for a Work Permit that stated a monthly salary of $1,000. Explaining why it was higher than most construction workers, he says: “I have plumbing certificate, electrical certificate. Also have driving licence.”

From what he describes of the work he was asked to do, his plumbing and electrical skills didn’t appear to have been put to use since the projects he described the company undertaking were more of a road-building nature. However, “I drive for the company,” he says.

The company had plenty of work. Six or seven days a week, he worked from 7am to 8pm. Generally, he got just two Sundays off a month. Despite the long hours, no overtime pay was calculated, even though, under the Employment Act, he was entitled to it. “First three month, my pay $1,000.” That is, he got only his basic pay.

Then in November 2011, the boss unilaterally changed the terms of his employment. “He say, ‘salary now one day eighteen dollar, but now have overtime’. Every day work two hours overtime, and for one hour, pay is $3.38.” Sundays however were not rated at double-pay. “Sunday now stop at five o’clock, and pay only $18,” reports Subburaman caustically. The way it worked out, he got even less than the original basic salary of $1,000 per month.

Subburaman brought the matter up to his boss. “But boss say, ‘When you go back time, I give all everything.'”

What choice did he have? “I pay agent money $3,500 for this job,” he says. He couldn’t afford to lose it by protesting too much and offending the boss.

In July, as the end of his one-year work permit approached, his foreman told him an airticket had been bought for him. “My foreman say, ‘You go to airport, everything settle at airport.’ So I go to airport with my company driver. The driver, he tell me, get boarding pass and after, money give. But boss no come with the money. Boss also switch off phone.

“I tell immigration madam my problem, and she say ‘You go to MOM tomorrow and complain.'”

Thus commenced some complicated negotiations over his backpay through the Ministry of Manpower. However, he was disadvantaged because he had no records of his monthly pay; they had been paid in cash, he said. Nor did he have time sheets to prove that he worked overtime almost every day.

(Transient Workers Count Too has been pressing MOM to make it mandatory to provide itemised pay slips and a copy of time sheets to employees, and to pay salaries through bank.)

Another possibility why his case turned out so badly was that he tended to present his case in a somewhat confused way, as apparent from this interview itself. Some workers have difficulty expressing themselves and presenting facts in a systematic fashion. The Labour Tribunal however does not allow workers to bring in someone who can help present their cases for them.

So now, Subburaman is all frustrated. He says he is determined to tell everyone in India not to come to work in Singapore — despite having had a pretty good run of six years working here for another employer before the current job.

He calms down a moment for the camera, then quickly reverts to his grumpy look. “How I go back?  My sister not married. Now, no money how she get married?  If she not marry, then how I marry?

“Maybe you cannot see, but now my heart so many problem.”