By Hui Zhen

Manikandan was instructed to meet “boss” one day, after six days’ absence from work, and told he would be fined $180 ($30 a day) for not being on the job. “Boss say, ‘Don’t give story’,” he exclaimed. He was then gripped by his shirt and told he’d be sent back to India.

It is not clear why he was absent, or whether his request for leave of absence was properly communicated upwards. Whoever’s fault it might have been, being summarily terminated seems excessive.

His employer later cancelled his S Pass.

In any case, things had not been rosy for Panneer Selvam Manikandan, 26, who arrived here seven months ago to work at an electrical engineering company. With a diploma in mechanical engineering, Manikandan was exhilarated when his agent found him a job in Singapore, confirmation for which came in the form of a letter from Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower saying his S Pass had been approved in principle. The stated salary was $2,600 a month.

When he arrived in Singapore however, his agent told him that he was to be paid $1,500 a month. Things were starting to go wrong.

Manikandan looks crestfallen when I probe further on his actual wages, which turned out to be a meagre $20 a day (working from 8am – 5pm). His gross salary thus averaged $600 a month. In addition, there were deductions for the ‘provision’ of accommodation and utilities. As he doesn’t have his in-principle approval letter with him, we can’t verify if these deductions were written into the originating document.

Piling indignity onto injustice, Mannikandan was assigned the role of a general worker, notwithstanding his qualification as a mid-level skilled worker.

Transient Workers Count Too has been seeing an increasing number of such cases, where S Pass holders complain of being paid far less than they were promised, in fact, at rates that are no different from low-skill work permit holders. The work they were given would often be quite menial. Says Alex Au, TWC2 vice-president: “It is commonly thought that companies hire S Pass holders even though they only need low-skilled workers because they can’t get enough ‘quota’ for work permits, but this is unlikely to be so. Work permits and S Passes are taken together when MOM determines the Dependency Ratio — what is commonly known as ‘quota’.” In other words, a company cannot circumvent the quota limit by hiring on S Pass.

One motivation may be to save on the foreign worker levy. “For an S Pass employee,” Alex explains, “the company pays $300 to $450 in monthly levy; for a work permit employee in the construction sector, there are many tiers, and they go all the way up to $750.”

Another possible reason is more sinister. “We’ve noticed that S Pass scams affect workers from India far more often than from other countries,” he says. As India’s economic development gathers steam, “we wonder whether it is becoming harder to find workers from there at the salaries employers are prepared to pay, and so they resort to misrepresentation to lure them over.”

Manikandan has since lodged a complaint with the Ministry of Manpower. Pending the outcome of his case, Manikandan is currently jobless and without a roof over his head. Despite the unhappy experience, Manikandan hopes to stay in Singapore to find a job that will allow him to hone his skills and qualifications in mechanical engineering.

He does not wish to return to Tamil Nadu to earn a living as a fisherman like his parents. In recent times, fishing has been a vexing geopolitical issue between India and Sri Lanka, and several Tamil Nadu fishermen have been arrested by the Sri Lankan navy for allegedly crossing the international maritime boundary line.

But first, MOM must give the green light before he can look for another job. That is far from assured. Meanwhile Manikandan lives from day to day, his career at a standstill.