By Gabriel Liong
When Monir first arrived in Singapore in 2007, he came with the hopes of supporting his family, and of one day returning to Bangladesh with a brighter future. After six years, these hopes have yet to be realised; instead, Monir now finds himself S$5,000 in debt. Recalling his situation, Monir intones sadly, “Very difficult . . . My heart pain many many.”
Before coming to Singapore, Monir Hossain Akbar Ali attended a training school in Dhaka where he attained a welding certificate. This training, together with the agency fees that found him a shipyard job in Singapore, cost him about $7,000. Upon arrival, Monir was made to work seven days a week. “Sunday, Monday, holiday, everyday work. All the time work.” Together with his overtime earnings, Monir grossed between $700 – $800 monthly, meaning that it would have taken at least a year and a half of frugal living to pay off his initial debt.
But his economic problems were just beginning. After his two-year work permit expired in 2009, Monir was made to pay a little over $1,000 to renew his work permit each year from 2009 to 2011. Not only is the actual renewal fee required by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) from the employer only $30, it is illegal to ask any sum from the employee (see footnote).
Despite the exorbitant kickback remanded of him, Monir was given no increase in salary over the four years that he worked at the company. When asked about any salary increments, he replied, “after pay fees, but salary no go up.”
Injury and ever deeper debt
Exacerbating the situation, Monir suffered a workplace injury to his left wrist on 3 January 2011, rendering him unable to work. It also left him with a visibly smaller and weaker left arm, as well as nerve damage to his left middle finger.
Monir was first referred to Westpoint Hospital after his injury, where he was told that he needed an operation. He was very apprehensive of the procedure at first and was reluctant to undergo the surgery. Monir was then referred to Singapore General Hospital (SGH), where surgery was also recommended. After this second opinion, he consented to the procedure, and was placed on medical leave for over four months. He also attended therapy sessions at SGH, which he had to pay for partially. These medical expenses have put him a further $2,000 in debt.
As a result of his not being able to work, Monir’s work permit was terminated by his employer and, according to him, evicted from his dormitory. He was placed on a special pass two weeks after his accident, legalising his continued stay in Singapore while he awaited the result of his medical claims. Since then, he has been renting a bed space in a tiny room shared with three other men, with one common toilet and no cooking facilities. This space costs him $200 a month.
When I ask about how he has managed to sustain himself for the past seventeen months, he replies, “I borrowing money from my cousin brother, my friends,” pushing him deep into red ink.
By the time of the interview (June 2013), his case has been closed. He has been awarded only $1,991 in compensation, leaving him with thousands of dollars to pay off. He is due to be repatriated any day now. Six years after he first stepped onto Singaporean shores, Monir is on the verge of leaving the country with a total debt, by his own estimate, of about $5,000.
I ask Monir about the biggest problem that he is facing. “Big problem is agency money,” referring to the burdens he has had to bear to obtain this job in 2007 and the need to put up a similarly large sum should he want a new job after recovery. Despite this unhappy history of employment here, coming back to Singapore must remain an option for him. Speaking of the job situation in Bangladesh, he says, “In Bangladesh no job, Singapore many many job,” after which he jokingly asks, “you have agent for me?”
With aged parents, four sisters who have had no formal education, and a younger brother who is still schooling to support, Monir feels that he has no choice but to search for another job here in Singapore to provide for his family.
The Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations: Fourth Schedule, Part III, paragraph 10, on page 29 says:
10. The employer shall not demand or receive any sum or other benefit from an employment agency or any other person in connection with the employment or change in employment of a foreign employee.
This is reinforced by the ministry in its FAQ sheet, where it says:
- Collection of monies from foreign workers as consideration for employment (i.e. employment kickbacks) is an offence liable to a maximum fine of $30,000 and/or an maximum imprisonment term of 24 months;
- Employers that illegally recover employment costs from foreign workers e.g. levy, security bond, medical insurance costs etc is an administrative infringement, with a maximum administrative penalty of $20,000.