By late May 2012, Jakir Hossain (above), Dilip and their workmates had not been paid for three months. When Dilip heard that his father in India had fallen ill, he pleaded with his boss for his backpay. He needed to send money to the family back home, he told his boss.

Recalls Jakir: “Boss tell my friend Dilip, ‘Night time I give you money.’ Then [when] night time come, he say tomorrow morning give. But morning time, never give.”

Another morning a few days later, when the boss came to collect the workers for the journey to the job site, he found that Dilip had not showed up at the usual place where they waited for the lorry.

Jakir continues the story: “Boss coming to room. He say to Dilip, ‘You working or not?’ My friend say, ‘I working for what? You money no pay.'” Dilip was mounting a one-man strike.

At once, the employer demanded the work permit from him. Everyone knew what it meant: it was going to be cancelled.

“After that, my friend go to MOM [to complain],” says Jakir, using the initials for the Ministry of Manpower.

At the ministry, a counter officer did a quick check on the computer and told Dilip that his work permit had in fact been cancelled three months earlier, on 1 March 2012. Not having been told by the boss, he had been unknowingly working illegally through March, April and May. It came as a shock to the worker.

That evening, Jakir grew concerned when his friend did not return to their quarters. “So I call my friend,” says Jakir. “My friend say, ‘Have problem already. Permit cut long time already. You also go check your one.’

“After that, morning time, I wake up early and go at 6 o’clock to MOM.”

Why did he need to leave so early?

“I must go before company lorry come. If boss and lorry come and I say to boss I want to go MOM, then problem for me.”

As he feared, his work permit had been cancelled on 1 March too. “MOM say I now illegal.” Immediately, he lodged a formal complaint about unpaid salaries. Having arrived in Singapore in December 2011, he received his full pay only for the months of January and February.

“Month March, boss give only $120,” he says. As for April and May, “no give salary.”

He is particularly upset that he is nowhere near recovering the “agent money”  of $4,000 that he paid to secure this job with a two-year work permit.

Soon after going to MOM, Jakir was offered work under MOM’s Temporary Job Scheme, and when that ended in November, he was given permission to look for a new permanent job. MOM told him they would allow a transfer to a new employer in his case.

Till now, Jakir does not know why their work permits were cancelled. One possibility is that it wasn’t the boss that cancelled them, but it was MOM, perhaps because monthly levies were outstanding. Even so, MOM would have informed the employer and told him to settle the matter with his workers. Clearly this was not done and the workers carried on working.

TWC2 posed the question to a senior officer at MOM: since the workers had been technically illegal, is the employer obliged to pay those three months’ salaries? The reply was that “If the investigations revealed that the workers were victims and did not know about the cancellation, MOM will make the employer pay the outstanding salary due to the workers.” It is a reasonable policy.

Even so, the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly. We advised Jakir to take whatever job he can find. He says he’s tried, “but many company not sure have free quota [for work permits] or not.” MOM is tightening up on foreign worker numbers, and things are in flux. Once again, Jakir finds himself caught in uncertainty.