Within about a week of arriving in Singapore in early January 2013  to take up his welder job, Aminul discovered that the $6,000 (Bangladesh Taka 390,000) he had paid in Bangladesh as “employment agent’s fee” was far higher than the norm.  “I ask other worker how much they give for agent money,” he tells TWC2, “and they say $2,500 or, $3,000 . . . like that.”

He confronted Mizanur, a fellow welder in the same company, about that. It was Mizanur who had “found” him the job, and it was to Mizanur’s brother Shahanur in Bangladesh to whom Aminul had paid the $6,000. The payment took place while Aminul was still in Bangladesh.

aminul_6000dollarsMizanur said he had handed all the money to Saiful Islam, the welding foreman in the same company. Saiful is also Bangladeshi.

“I talk to Saiful. He say he don’t know anything.”

Aminul doesn’t seem to have pressed Saiful further over the issue, probably aware that he would lose his job if he did. Nor does he seem to have informed the company management, for perhaps the same reason.

All he could do was hope that before long, he would recover this amount through his salary.  Fortunately, salaries at this company were paid on time, and his skill as a welder had given him a basic salary of $900 a month, somewhat higher than typical construction workers’. With overtime, he could earn up to $1,200 or $1,300 a month. The company made no deductions from his pay for housing or food, unlike other employers.

Then, bad news. Around late March, notices were posted at the workshop where he worked saying that the company had no more work and that employees would be terminated and repatriated. In Aminul’s words: “It say company no more job, and must send back. So many people send back. More [than] one hundred.

“My name also have on list and I think, after one week, I also [will be] send back.”

So he lodged a complaint with the Ministry of Manpower in April 2013 over the “agent money” he had paid.

Transient Workers Count Too has seen several cases similar to Aminul’s, with increasing frequency in the last few years. They won’t be easy to solve, chiefly because of the transnational and informal nature of the transaction. Since money transfers take place in Bangladesh (or India or China), the home country governments need to do their part to crack down on such practices. The informal nature of the transaction also makes it hard to prove. In Aminul’s case, getting Mizanur to talk is key to solving it. But what’s in it for Mizanur to incriminate himself?

One should not neglect the important role that company managements can play in stopping such practices. Companies need to realise that allowing supervisors and foremen to take profit out of recommending the hiring of other employees is a form of corruption. Beside being an evil in itself, it seriously complicates employee morale and impartial deployment. It can breed resentment among the payee staff, such as Aminul. Other times, supervisors wanting to penalise workers for failing to pay them have been known to deny overtime work to those workers, thus shortchanging the employer in terms of available staff.

The authorities can nudge employers to be more vigilant about this. For example, supervisors and foremen who take money can either be charged for corruption or for acting as unlicensed employment agents, and companies who fail to take  pro-active steps to stamp out such practices (and thus encourage them to flourish) may be held liable for abetment.

In Aminul’s case, it may well be that the company had no idea what was going on under its nose. What it signifies is the need for companies to set up channels of communication so that whistle-blowers can report to management without putting their own jobs at risk.

Aminul is dreading the prospect of being sent home if MOM’s investigation is less than conclusive in proving his case. He will be $6,000 in the red, money he borrowed from his uncle and several other parties, and from pawning his mother’s gold jewellery. “Everyday, my father have to pay interest.”

Even worse, his family is in physical danger.

“Shahanur phone my father,” Aminul tells TWC2. “He say [to] my father, ‘You talk to your son, ask him take out [withdraw] the case. If not take out, I take people to your house. After that, if anything happen, I don’t know.’ He say like that.

“My family now very big problem.”