By Fuxiong

The banana was meant to be eaten, but in telling me his story, Shamsuddoha was waving it and hitting the table with it. It was soon bruised. He was too agitated to eat, particularly when he recounted the moment when he confronted his site manager. “Then who is responsible if accident happening during lifting time?” Shamsuddoha, 32, asked the superior. “But site manager say, ‘I say you general worker, means you general worker. No need for supervisor.'”

That fateful day when Shamsuddoha took a stand probably cost him his job. A few days after that conversation, “office madam” phoned him. That would be on or around 18 June 2014. She told him the company was not going ahead to convert his In-principle Approval into a Work Permit.

He had been in the job just eleven days.

“I ask why cancel,” recounts the experienced Bangladeshi worker who’s been working in Singapore (different companies) for eight years, “but she not really give me reason.”

“I think the company just don’t want me.”

Shamsuddoha's accreditation badge as lifting supervisor

Shamsuddoha’s accreditation badge as lifting supervisor

Shamsuddoha joined the company because the job offered was that of a lifting supervisor — that’s the person who checks that hooks and shackles are properly secured and ensures safety when heavy loads have to be mechanically lifted. He shows me his accreditation badge to prove that he’s qualified for the job, and in fact, he’s been a lifting supervisor before in a previous job.

“I have contract. It say ‘lifting supervisor’,” he emphasises. However, for reasons not clear to him, Hua Xin Construction and Engineering Pte Ltd wanted him to do a general worker’s job — hacking, shovelling and sweeping. Naturally, he was not happy.

He is particularly unhappy because he paid $2,600 to secure this job. He wants his money back. “I inform office: ‘You give me back agent money.’ But they don’t want to return my money. They say they not taking my money.”

“Then company buy ticket for June 23,” he adds. “But how can I go back. I pay so much money and go back no job? I die, like that.”

“I go MOM complain.”

Up to this point in the interview, I have assumed that the ‘agent money’ was paid in Bangladesh and was thus outside Singapore’s jurisdiction. “How do you expect MOM to help you with that?” I ask.

Shamsuddoha corrects me. The money was paid in Singapore, he says, and therefore is very much a matter that MOM can look into, even though the job was arranged through contacts while he was back home in Bangladesh. After eight years in Singapore, he is familiar with the rules. According to him, the middleman was a certain Porimul (spelling based on Shamsuddoha’s  pronunciation) who works in a sister company of Hua Xin. Porimul is also a foreign worker.

Porimul asked for $2.600 to arrange the job. Shamsuddoha then wired the money to a close friend of his named Moshur who is working in Singapore , and asked Moshur to pay Porimul on his behalf. Shamsuddoha is confident that Moshur will confirm to MOM that the money was paid here. “He is same village, my good friend. That’s why I trust him for send money to him.”

It is because Porimul was working in a sister company of Hua Xin that Shamsuddoha believes — and now alleges — that the company benefitted, at least in part, from the $2,600 he remitted. Proving that might be difficult, though. The office denied having received any of that fee. 

MOM appears to be taking Shamsuddoha’s complaint seriously. They have opened an investigation into the matter. Meanwhile, they’ve told Shamsuddoha that he can look for a new job to transfer to.

“They give me paper — have five agent name. I call the Ang Mo Kio agent already to ask for job,” he says, finally peeling the wreck of a banana.

In the meantime, it is not clear who is watching out for safety at the worksite.

This story illustrates a rather common situation: that of a worker getting a job through unregistered ‘agents’ who are often themselves foreign workers. The law may require agents to be licensed and to abide by the rules, including (a) one which states that an agent must refund 50% of the fee if an employee is terminated within six months of starting a job and (b) another which states that no fee may exceed one month’s  salary for each year of contract duration, but the entire regulatory framework becomes meaningless if informal agents play as large a role as they seem to be doing nowadays.

In Shamsuddoha’s case, rule (b) is surely violated, and unless MOM gets very tough with Porimul, there is a real possibility that Shamsuddoha may not get his 50% refund — rule (a). Any company that uses informal, unlicensed agents should also be taken to task, otherwise there won’t be enough disincentive to change the behaviour of the ultimate source of demand.