By Keith Wong
Some workers need to hold on to their jobs to support their families, but lose them anyway through no fault of their own. Sikder Gopal needs to quit his job, to go home to be with his extremely ill mother, yet is stymied every step of the way. Oh, the irony!
It first began with Sikder asking for a bit of home leave to see his mother. “On November 15 (2014), I talk to boss about my family problem,” Sikder recounts to me as our coffee arrives. “But boss say, ‘Your family die, never mind… but you must continue working.'” Not only did the boss refuse the request for home leave, he said it in a rather offensive way.
The boss’ position was that Sikder had not yet finished one year with the company, and so was not entitled to home leave. Sikder however, considered himself to have been continuously with the company since 2011 — a matter which raises the question of job continuity when work passes have to be frequently renewed.
The conversation between Sikder and his boss apparently dragged on a bit more with the boss becoming impatient. At one point, according to Sikder, “Then he say, ‘Die also must continue working. You accident, you die, I not care. I claim insurance and I send your body back.'”
Sikder decided that seeing his mother was more important than the job, and since he wasn’t permitted home leave, he would resign. Except that he didn’t know how to tender his resignation.
He made his way to the Ministry of Manpower on 17 November 2014, and there was informed by an official that according to records, he had worked only 26 weeks with this company. This was to his advantage because it meant that under the law he needed only give one day’s notice. He should be able to fly home within a week at most. The official helped him draft a resignation letter.
Sikder delivered the letter to the company office which was in the same building as his quarters. “The building is a two-storey bungalow,” he explains. Downstairs is where “I sleep”, and “upside is office.”
On 18 November, the boss confronted him for his impertinence. “Nine p.m., boss coming and say he cannot release me. He will not buy ticket. He say, ‘I cannot send you back. You talking false.'”
The next day, Sikder made to way to MOM again. Incredibly, the MOM official he saw this time (not the same person as two days earlier) told him that the earlier resignation letter was “not OK”.
“That letter, MOM write for me one, how can not OK?” a still incredulous Sikder remarks.
So he had to write out another letter, with an additional paragraph on top. In view of the response of the boss to the previous letter, he was advised to send this one by registered post.
A week later, he was visiting MOM again. He had still not got his air ticket, and now there were additional complications over his last salary. As to the latter point, the MOM officer in charge was being extra diligent. “He calculate my salary and say boss not yet pay me everything for my last month, and so MOM want to call boss for meeting to settle salary.”
A meeting date in December was pencilled in. “What? Now I have to wait to December before I go home? My mother very sick. I must see before she die.”
An exasperated Sikder asked around and a friend told him he should seek out TWC2 for advice.
TWC2 social worker Louis Ong advised him how he could cut the Gordian Knot: waive the salary arrears — it amounted to just a few hundred dollars — and close the salary case. That should leave the employer no further reason to delay an airticket. Sikder promptly agreed. TWC2 wrote an email to MOM conveying Sikder’s decision.
Sikder remains hopeful he is finally out of the bureaucratic meat grinder and will be able to see his mother within a few days.
I remain curious about the question of job continuity, so I ask Sikder to explain why he thinks he has been with the company since 2011.
After a two-year stint in a shipyard, 2008 – 2010, he came back to Singapore to join a construction company O&S Builders in 2011. According to Sikder, it had two partners, one called Terence, another called Sean (I am not sure I got the names right, since Sikder’s pronunciation was heavily accented). His Work Permit was renewed in 2012, but soon after, was granted about three months’ home leave to visit his ill mother.
This precedent of getting home leave was what he was relying on when he first asked his current boss for home leave in November 2014.
In 2014, however O&S Builders was restructured, with Terence leaving the business. Sean continued to run the business under a new name: S&S Building & Construction Pte Ltd. Employees continued working, though when Sikder’s Work Permit came up again for renewal, it was re-issued under the new company name.
Technically, MOM was correct in advising him that as far as official records went, he had only been with the employer less than a year. It does nonetheless raise the question of the benefits (e.g. annual leave) that continuing service should have accrued to him. Do they vanish at each Work Permit renewal, or every time an employer decides to restructure the business?
I think out aloud as Sikder finishes his coffee. But it’s too abstract for him. His thoughts are drifting to his mother and to home.