It’s my first interview with a migrant worker and I am feeling like I am thick in the head. After nearly half an hour I still cannot make sense of Mark’s story. The company that hired him is not where he worked. The boss was not really the boss, but he was also the employment agent. The job a document says he should be doing was not what he was doing and the salary declared there was not what he was paid. I feel like I am in a room of curved mirrors; nothing was what it seemed.
Am I getting it all wrong? Is his accent too thick for me? Can a worker’s tale really be so complicated? Singapore is supposed to be a place where things are rule-bound, sometimes too rule-bound, yet what I am hearing is a bewildering disregard for rules and promises.
I lift my eyes to Alex Au, TWC2’s webmaster who is supervising my “training” as a writer, giving him a sad, almost desperate look that pleads, “Help me out here. I can’t figure out what his case is about.”
Alex shoots four or five quick questions to Mark – apparently well-aimed ones because he seems to be getting the answers he’s expecting – and within two minutes, Alex says to me with a wave of the hand, “Oh, it’s a common story.”
It’s a common story? Here’s a worker who may have been cheated every which way, and there are many more like him?
Let’s start from the beginning of Mark’s story – one which I pieced together slowly with Alex’s patient explanation nearly every step of the way.
“Hi, what’s your name?” I ask the worker.
“Mark,” he says.
I look at him, as Tamil as they come, and ask again, “I mean, what is your real name?”
“Mark,” he says. “Look.” He spreads open his special pass and points out that his official name is Arul Anthonysamy Mark Jalrinaj.
He really is Mark. Not Mohan or Murugan or some solid Indian name. Already things aren’t what they seem.
He met an employment agent in Chennai who promised him an office job – Mark has a Bachelor of Science qualification from a college – for $2,500 a month. Accepting it, he was given a letter from the Ministry of Manpower which showed that his work pass had been approved, with a salary of $2,950. Happy for the higher salary, he arrived in Singapore in May 2012.
Within two weeks, he was issued his brand new S- Pass. S-Passes are for jobs with salaries between $2,000 and $3,000. Companies may find it easier to get them compared to Work Permits (salaries below $2,000) because MOM quotas are not as restrictive.
He soon learnt that his employment agent was also his new boss. But even more astoundingly, says Mark, “My boss also Work Permit man.” He was an Indian national here in Singapore as a Work Permit holder.
Being new to Singapore, Mark didn’t understand how such things worked, so he didn’t think too much of it at first.
Almost immediately, surprises ambushed him. He was sent to work as a construction labourer somewhere in Bukit Panjang. “I tell my boss, this is not the work I suppose to do,” Mark recalls. “But he say if I don’t do, he send me back. I pay money six thousand dollar, how can I go back?”
So Mark was resigned to his fate and was posted to a different site, near Dhoby Ghaut.
It wasn’t long before he realised that the project didn’t even belong to the company that hired him. He was merely a “supply worker” seconded to another contractor’s worksite.
Even more troubling was the realisation that something fishy was going on. He noted that other workers at the site were Work Permit holders paid between $18 and $22 a day, a far cry from his S Pass salary of $2,950 a month.
In any case, he was nowhere close to getting his stated salary. In June, the first full month he worked, he was given just $200 in cash. In July, $1,000. No more money would follow in August.
He confronted his boss about it but didn’t get a satisfactory reply. Then in September, he was told that his company had “no more work” for him.
Early October, he made his way to the Manpower Ministry (MOM) to lodge a complaint about unpaid salary, only to be told that his S-Pass had been cancelled more than a month earlier on 25 August.
“MOM officer tell me the company not pay levy, so MOM cut the permit. But company also not tell me before.”
It was also from MOM that he learnt that the “boss” wasn’t really the boss. “The company owner is a lady, they tell me.” He has never met her.
Mark has now provided the investigating officer at MOM with as many leads as he can think of. He is hoping for a quick resolution and recovering the salary that he is owed. But whether the “boss” has absconded to India and out of reach of Singapore law, he does not know.
Says Alex: “TWC2 has seen several such cases. The lure of ‘agent money’ is the key problem. The profit is made at the recruitment stage – in this case, Mark paid $6,000 – and whether or not the company actually has work for the workers they bring in seems to be secondary.”
The difficulty is that this is a cross-border problem. Even so, says Alex, “MOM can come down much harder on those they catch, to make an example of them.
“Otherwise, they just create more problems for MOM itself to solve, not to mention the loss and suffering by otherwise hardworking people just wanting to make an honest living.”