By Keith W
He waves to me while I am standing in the ATM line. He looks familiar but I can’t place him. Guessing that I am having some difficulty remembering him, he approaches me to re-introduce himself.
“You not remember me? My name Esan*,” he says. “Last time I have injury problem, and I talking to you.”
It comes back. He was one of the thousands of workers TWC2 sees at the Cuff Road Project each year. He was my first or second interviewee when I started volunteering.
I ask him to wait till I complete my ATM transaction. “I want to buy you a drink,” I say.
Over a cup of tea at a nearby Toast Box cafe, he updates me on what happened after we first met. His injury was relatively minor and no compensation was awarded, he says. He then went back to Bangladesh, spent a few months with his family and paid anew an agent’s fee of about $4,000 to land a new construction job in Singapore.
He arrived about seven weeks ago.
Already, there are problems. “Small problem, not yet big problem,” he says, with his hands patting down as if trying to assure me. “Hope not become big problem later.”
What were they? I ask.
He names three.
Repairs not counted as a working day
The first happened within the first week of his joining the company. Unlike the previous job, this company houses its workers on-site in temporary structures. “Like container,” says Esan, but not exactly in containers. Apparently, it was raining quite a lot during the first week and the roof leaked badly. Orders were given to some men (including Esan) to make repairs, which they did, but the foreman did not want to record on their time cards the time spent fixing the leaks.
The men felt it was unfair. They had spent about a day and half doing so, snatching opportunities each time the rain eased up. Those sent to the worksite to work on the main project had their times recorded as work — not that they managed to do much, given the inclement weather — but the crew tasked to do repairs on their own accommodation did more work (because they had no choice but to do it even when it was drizzling) and yet the hours would not be recorded as that.
Some of the workers complained to the boss. Fortunately, the boss relented and overruled the foreman’s earlier decision, saying that he had not told the foreman to deny the men the payable working hours. The act of speaking with the boss made the foreman angry. “Now, I think foreman will make trouble for us,” says Esan almost in a whisper, ever conscious that loss of face is not something quickly forgotten.
The second problem is something that TWC2 hears about regularly. “My salary cutting fifty dollar for saving money,” reports Esan. Many employers make illegal deductions, often styled as “savings money” on the promise that should the workers complete the work permit period without incident, they will get the accumulated sum returned to them.
Not only is holding back a portion of an employee’s wages illegal, it also acts as a means of silencing workers when they have other grievances. Workers fear that they may not get their money back should they speak up.
The third problem is the curfew that was suddenly imposed in the wake of the Little India riot of 8 December 2013. Esan and his fellow workers were told that they must not leave their premises on weekdays, and on weekends must return by 9 pm. “Boss tell [worksite] security guard to report man [if he] come back late.”
This is causing great inconvenience. There aren’t any facilities like grocery shops or phone card shops within the worksite. Men have to take a feeder bus to the nearest town centre to obtain these essentials.
Also, the men feel it is terribly unfair because they are all Bangladeshi when, Esan says, “Only India man make trouble. Bangla man all Muslim. Nobody drink beer.” The government had said that alcohol was a major factor in the riot.
There may be a fourth problem, though Esan himself has not been affected yet. Apparently, the company makes their employees pay for work permit renewal. According to some older employees, the company expects workers to pay about $500 for renewal. This too is illegal but because men need the job badly, they feel unable to object.
But Esan looks on the bright side. At least there is work and he is paid. “Better than injury,” he says, mindful of the penniless existence experienced after the last job. Better maybe, but it still doesn’t make these petty deductions and restrictions right.
* Name changed to protect the worker from reprisal by his employer