By Elizabeth Zhou
To trust is to place your vote of confidence in a person or organization, to believe in its reliability, and to be led to feel certain that s/he would honour an agreement.
Bangladeshi national, Mofazzel Ukil Late Royjaddin Ukil, is no naïve rookie. But he thought he could trust his employer, ICII ENC Pte Ltd, a construction management firm here in Singapore. And then when he was no longer useful to them, he felt his trust betrayed.
“No more [job]. Go home.”
These harsh words came to an unprepared Mofazzel. Mofazzel was a faithful worker, and for his work, he was always paid promptly. His boss had renewed his work permit twice and the company was not in the red, so he couldn’t understand why it was different this time round.
Mofazzel, 37, arrived in Singapore on 4 January 2011, armed with a one-year work permit. This was his second time in Singapore and Mofazzel was confident his familiarity with the workings of the construction industry would stand him in good stead. The plan could not be simpler: work hard, make money, and then go home.
Home for him is his mother and his dearest wife in a small village in Bangladesh, 1,800 miles away from us. To chase his dreams, Mofazzel had borrowed $5,000 from close friends and helpful villagers: $4,000 to pay the agent and $1,000 for ‘skills training’. All this was so that he could secure an In-Principal Agreement (IPA) that stated he would be paid a mere $450 a month for a year.
While this seems hardly like a good deal to me, I learn that Mofazzel knew from his previous experience that he could quickly return this amount with overtime pay, which by law is paid at rate and a half. If he worked Sundays, he would be paid two times his hourly rate. Keeping to his plan, Mofazzel put in the requisite hours and managed to take home a gross salary of approximately $700 a month. Soon, his debt was cleared. Despite the hefty initial agent fees, he was making more than he could back home.
As 2011 drew to a close and his work permit expiry date approached, ICII made him a proposition for renewing his pass. As Mofazzel recalls, “Boss say cut $1500; cut $500 January, cut $500 February, cut $500 March, one year work permit”.
Considering that he had paid $5,000 for a one-year work permit at the start of the job, Mofazzel felt this “cut” was a good offer – not only was this significantly lower than the hefty agent fees he would have to pay in Bangladesh in order to return to work in a new job in Singapore, he needed to suffer smaller slices, spread over three monthly instalments.
By appearing to reduce the cut, ICII made Mofazzel a calculated proposal that would have been unwise for him to refuse. For a total of $1,500, Mofazzel’s work permit was renewed from April 2012-April 2013.
Yet, strictly speaking, this is illegal. No employer is supposed to make a worker pay for a job, or for renewal of a work pass.
And then it happened again.
In March 2013, just one month before the next expiry of his work permit, Mofazzel’s boss asked to “cut” his salary again. This wound would be gentler than the last. For a one-time-only $700 “cut”, Mofazzel’s work permit could be renewed for another year. Mofazzel saw no reason why he should not agree.
By now, Mofazzel’s experiences had taught him to expect and accept that “cuts” were not simply a cost that Bangladeshi workers like him had to bear but more crucially, they were characteristic of industry practices in Singapore. Extractive such behaviour may perhaps be, but nonetheless bosses acted in good faith: passes were renewed and paid employment held steady for another year. Mofazzel had no reason to expect that things could be different.
“So when did you go to MOM?” I ask.
“9 November 2013, when boss say go home” he replies. The response comes swiftly and sharply. One senses an anger horned by a betrayal. How could an employer, on his own whim and fancy, cancel a work permit after only six months when the worker had been made to pay for twelve months?
Mofazzel felt cheated as anyone would, but this isn’t just a case of an agreement dishonoured. It is illegal and unconscionable for employers to exploit the vulnerability of their workers by demanding such payments and then egging them into contracts of silent complicity. This unequal consensus lowers the political leverage of migrant workers in the service of competitive payroll costs for the employer. Migrant workers like Mofazzel are not just for using and disposing.
Mofazzel left Singapore for home on 28 April 2014. He tells TWC2 that the MOM officer in charge of his case, Kevin, managed to get ICII to return all the money that had been unjustly taken from him. I understand that resolving a case like this within five months is considered relatively fast; many of such cases drag on for years. Mofazzel’s case officer might have been dogged in seeking resolution for him.