Most times, when TWC2 volunteers interview workers, the conversation tends to focus on the immediate problem he or she faces, be it an injury needing proper medical attention, unpaid salaries, or a job scam.

Suman Barman has an injury too, to his right thumb, but he was also a good case study of someone who has worked six years in Singapore. Did he acquire new skills? Has his pay remained stagnant? Has he been happy?

The 29-year-old from Bangladesh first touched down at Changi Airport in 2007. “I forget already which month. So long ago,” he says apologetically.

He had paid an agent Bangladesh Taka 380,000 for a shipyard job. At the exchange rate in 2007 of about S$1=BDT44, that works out to S$8,636. The job, on a two-year work permit, was with a company called “SAS Scaffolding” or something close to that. To learn the job, he attended an in-house scaffolding training course.

For the first six months, he was paid just $16 a day; after that he was put on a ‘contract basis’, for which he explains thus: “If I working, money coming, if I no working, money no coming.”

That doesn’t explain it all. Closer examination reveals that he was paid on a piece rate. “I put one papan, I get $2.60. I take out papan, I get $1.80,” is they way he puts it, which translates to $2.60 for each section, complete with wooden board, he erects and $1.80 for each one he dismantles. Papan is the colloquial reference for a piece of wood.

He got two days off every fifteen days. “Fifteen day, two day sleeping can. Money no cutting.” Those weren’t paid days off, just days he could rest without incurring a penalty. If he took a third day off within each fifteen day period, $11 would be docked from his pay.

Nonetheless, he was happy. There were months when he grossed around $1,700, though the working hours were very long.

In 2009, he renewed his contract with the same boss, though the company name had changed to Wryte Marine Engineering Pte Ltd. He recalls that he received a letter from MOM known as In-principle approval for a Work Permit (“IPA”), which stated his basic monthly salary to be $480. However, in reality, he still remained on the old piece rate, which bore no relation to the salary declared on the IPA.

The employer charged him for the ‘privilege’ of renewing his work permit. Monthly deductions of $200 to $300 were made from his salary over several months, though Suman cannot recall how much in total was deducted.

Then, towards the end of this second two-year work permit, he suffered a problem in his chest. “Have gas go in my chest,” was how he describes it.  However, from the description of what happened, your writer is almost certain it was a case of pneumothorax. Suman is quite tall, about 1.77 metres, and this condition tends to affect taller individuals. It would not have been work-related.

“Night-time, sleeping time, about two o’clock, I feel pain my chest, left side,” he recalls. “My friend, he next bed, he say ‘never mind, try to sleep,’ but really so pain I cannot sleep.

“So I borrow him money and go to Alexandra Hospital about 3 am,” where he underwent a battery of tests: “Doctor do blood check, X-ray, ECG.”

The medical team made a small incision into the left of his ribcage. “They put in little pipe,” is how Suman describes it, “and the pipe go to a box.” It’s tubing that connects to a small pump to create negative pressure, your writer explains to him.

Suman’s face lights up, wanting to know more. “That one [is a ] pump?” he asks.

After six days in a ward, he was discharged and paid a visit to his company office to present his documents. There was a bit of interrogation — perhaps the officers wanted to know why he couldn’t wait till the morning, but had to admit himself to hospital in the middle of the night — but eventually they seemed to have been satisfied that it was a real emergency. Suman was asked to sign some papers, which he believes were submitted to the insurer. He hasn’t had to pay any of those medical expenses.

He wasn’t certified fit to return to his job for a while more, and it was decided that he should take home leave. The plan was to spend two months in Bangladesh, but in the end he spent three.

In 2011, he rejoined the same company. Again, deductions were made to his salary for the ‘privilege’ of being given a job. The amounts were lower this time. “Cutting this time $50, for four or five month,” perhaps because this was for a one-year work permit whereas the previous times, they were for two-year permits.

He was initially asked to do the same scaffolding job, but at some point, he approached his boss for a transfer to a different kind of job. “I scared my chest problem come back. Scaffolding need many strength, carry many things.”

Then a rather funny thing happened. The company offered him a supervisor’s job, but he turned it down. Where others might see it as a promotion, he only saw aggravation. “I don’t like supervisor job,” Suman explains, “When worker do wrong thing, boss tekan [takes it out on] supervisor. Worker not happy [when] I tell him, boss not happy [when] he find out.”

In any case, there would apparently not be any salary increase.

So it was decided that he would be a rigger/signalman, but would have to start from the bottom again, to learn the trade. Back to $16 a day he went, a salary no different from when he first came to Singapore in 2007.

Nonetheless, the story so far paints a picture of trusting relationship between employee and company. Suman was happy working there, he was able to negotiate changes, while his employer was flexible.

He spent several months understudying an experienced rigger/signalman, eventually taking a test. After passing the test, his basic salary was raised to $18 a day. There was plenty of overtime, and on average, he could make $1,400 a month. Suman says his employer has an overtime exemption permit for him, allowing him to work more than 72 hours of overtime a month.

On completion of this third work permit, he renewed it again. His fourth permit commenced on 10 October 2012, for a two-year span. This time, no deductions were made to this salary.

Then an accident happened on 17 April 2013, he broke his thumb and his life took a different, less happy turn. Suman is now jobless and at the time of the interview (May 2013) depends on TWC2’s free meals programme to fill his stomach daily. His family is now facing money troubles.

Much has been said about wage stagnation in Singapore, though most of the discourse so far has referred to Singaporean workers. Suman’s story shows that it’s happening to migrant workers too, and stagnation in their wages exerts downward pressure on Singaporeans’ wages. He story also shines light on the widespread practice of employers charging employees for renewing their work permits — an illegal practice. This kind of clawback makes the net cost of a worker lower than even their meagre salaries indicate.