By Pan Chuen
Faced with an impossible situation filled with uncertainty, what would you do? Md Jamal Abdul Aziz Maji, 29, is a Bangladeshi worker who worked in Singapore for thirteen months before his patience over unpaid overtime ran out. Unhappy about an employee asserting his right to be paid, Jamal’s boss cancelled his work permit, transferring him into the limbo that is the Special Pass.
I meet Jamal at TWC2’s Cuff Road Project, where jobless workers get free meals. From my first impression, he seems like a pretty normal person, and fairly contented to that end. Even through the interview, he remains really calm. It surprises me, because if I were in his situation, my days would be filled with anxiety and sleepless nights, wondering how my life may turn out given these circumstances.
Like most work permit holders, Jamal had to pay a hefty agent fee in order to pursue his hope of a better life – not for him, for his family – here in Singapore. According to Jamal, it was $8,000 — an amount he had to borrow from his equally impoverished friends and family. This king’s ransom was for a job with a basic salary of only $416, so he was highly dependent on overtime work to recover the agent fee.
Yet, he didn’t even get $416 monthly. A housing charge of $65 was deducted from each month’s salary leaving him with just $351. After allowing for his expenses in Singapore, it was a struggle to send any money back to his family.
Jamal worked especially hard and put in two hours of overtime every day on average. You can imagine what he thought when he received his first paycheck that didn’t include the overtime hours he had put in. “Oh, maybe boss will give me next month.” This carried on for thirteen months while he was doing the backbreaking and dangerous work of shifting steel rebars. In total, he is owed approximately $3,000, he says.
When Jamal finally plucked up the courage to ask his boss for what he was due, the boss got furious at him, as if it was not his right to be paid for work that he did. According to Jamal, “[When I] ask the boss, boss angry, shouting, shouting!” Finally, Jamal lodged a complaint with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), which led to his work permit being terminated on 20 March 2014. He will have his first meeting with MOM on 1 April, but it may be a while more before his case is settled.
Fortunately, it seems that Jamal is in somewhat good hands. Although it cannot be considered a good thing that there are many other foreign workers facing a variety of disputes with their employers, this has nonetheless meant that Jamal finds himself in the company of peers who understand what he is going through. He has friends that help pay for his lodging out of their own meagre earnings while TWC2 provides support and advice so that Jamal’s rights as a foreign worker will be protected.
As the sole breadwinner of his family of poor farmers back in Bangladesh, Jamal faces incredible pressure. Because of this issue, the money he sent back so far was barely enough to feed his family. When I query about repayments for the $8,000 loan, he simply shrugs, saying, “What to do?” For him, it is vitally important to get this settled as quickly as possible and to continue with his life. In the best case, he may be able to find other work in Singapore — if allowed to do so by MOM. In the worst, he may be repatriated with little to show for the hardship he has endured.
Looking at him though, I get the feeling that he is a survivor.
But what does he think of Singapore now, after what his boss has done to him? “Singapore good! Only boss no good.” We can only hope that his high opinion of Singapore is justified, and he soon gets what is his by right.