By Lindene Cleary

His first job didn’t even last a year, losing out on unpaid salaries. His second job lasted barely a week, with him having to foot hospital bills. His personal finances are awash in red ink.

We all suffer from accidents and bad luck from time to time. We miss the bus, we lose a phone, we make the wrong choice of supermarket checkout queue and suffer a painfully long wait. And we complain. Recently I met a young Bangladeshi man called Saide, who struck me as someone who would never complain, despite his bad luck having led him to the painful reality of possessing no money for food, a huge debt, and no ability to work. He came to Singapore to support his large family back home, but instead, he’s now wondering how he can even support himself.

When he first came to Singapore, Saide Miah Abu worked for a private house construction company. He paid $8,000 for his agent’s fees and the training program, an amount that would take him more than a year to earn back. After eleven months on the job, the construction company was closed down by MOM due to salary payment issues, says Saide (more likely due to non-payment of foreign worker levy, based on TWC2’s experience of such cases). According to Saide, the company did not pay the correct basic salary to its staff “until all men go MOM” and complained. When Saide had arranged this job from Bangladesh, he didn’t know much about what he was getting himself into. Sadly, he found himself being hired by a disreputable employer, losing the job prematurely. He ended up more than a thousand dollars behind.

Second job

Luckily, Saide was able to secure a new job with a plumbing company. This time, he paid $3,500 to his agent, which would take around six months to earn back. At the end of his first week in the new job, after being given little by way of training or safety instructions, Saide badly hurt his left wrist. His boss sent him to a private clinic alone, who then sent him to a polyclinic, who then sent him to a hospital. His employer did pay for the first two medical visits, but despite none of this runaround being Saide’s fault, he found himself having to pay for the hospital treatment from his own pocket.

Saide was given a 14-day medical certificate, followed by a 14-day extension when his injury didn’t improve. When the hospital then instructed him to take a further month off, Saide’s employer lost patience. Saide says the employer responded with angry comments such as “so many MC”, and “after MC finish I send you to Bangladesh”. Saide was forced to move out of the company accommodation. He believes his employer has taken the opportunity to claim to MOM that he had run away and was probably working for someone else.

To add further woe to Saide’s already long list of misfortunes, during our conversation it became apparent that the plumbing employer had paid him a basic salary that was $10 per day less than what his In-Principle Approval letter had promised. Taking into account how an erroneous basic salary would have consequential effects of the rate of overtime pay, he was $14 per day short. The TWC2 team urged Saide to talk to MOM about this.

TWC2 has seen several instances of employers under-declaring salaries in accident reports. The benefit employers get is that the compensation payout is lower as a result since the compensation amount is linked to the worker’s usual salary.

Now, Saide finds himself in debt to the tune of around $4,500, with no idea when he’ll be fit enough to work again. Even when he does recover, he’ll have to find employment and pay an agent’s fee for the third time, which will plunge him further behind financially. Amazingly, Saide is still quite cheerful and calm, even saying that he still likes his boss, despite all that has happened.

The price

Many transient workers come to Singapore not really knowing what lies ahead of them. Some will successfully work here for years, but many, like Saide, through a series of unfortunate events combined with dishonourable employer behaviour, find themselves stuck. In debt, in pain, and with no idea what the future holds for him, Saide has no choice but to wait and hope.

“Bad luck happens to everybody, but the effects of bad luck for migrant workers is magnified by a system that demands thousands of dollars out of them each time they get a job,” says Alex Au, TWC2 vice-president. “Top priority should be given to fixing this highly exploitative situation, but unfortunately, perhaps because it is a cross-jurisdictional problem, policy-makers hardly ever pay attention to it.”

And it is workers like Saide who pay the price.