By Chang Ya Lan

At eight in the morning, Md Golam Kibria Rokon Uddin Molla would already have arrived at the construction site, dressed in his construction attire, ready for a hard day’s work. The company that he worked for was in the business of structural construction work – in other words, laying the foundation for the myriad of high-rise buildings in Singapore, including the ubiquitous Housing Development Board (HDB) blocks. Kibria’s role was in situ concrete casting: he would cast cement into ‘forms’ constructed out of metal plates, and the hardened cement would be the structural foundation of the building. Needless to say, without the form work and the concrete casting, there would be no building.

Putting in foundations is a job immersed in mud. On occasion, it required him to handle the cement with his hands and even walk around in it; it was normal for him to end the day with cement stains all over his trousers. “Dirty and very hard work” is how Kibria described his job. If he was lucky, he would toil in Singapore’s infamous hot and humid weather. On less fortunate days, when the weather changes its mood for the worse, he would have to work under torrential downpour.

“Even rain also concrete casting,” Kibria says in a surprisingly matter-of-fact manner, as though he’d long since been used to the difficulties of his job. “Once start, cannot stop,” he adds, revealing that he often worked overtime beyond his basic working hours of 8am to 5pm, sometimes even overnight, because of the need to pour concrete smoothly without interruption. Working on Sundays, too, was not an unusual occurrence.

For all this, Kibria, 26, earned about $900 a month. His monthly earnings would have been more than that if his employer had dutifully adhered to the Ministry of Manpower’s guidelines on Sunday pay; Kibria revealed that his employer failed to pay him double of his basic pay when he was asked to work on Sundays. Still, Kibria hung in there; after all, like almost all foreign workers in Singapore, he had an outstanding debt of $2,000 to pay to the agent who found him this job.

It eventually turned out that the denial of his right to double pay on Sundays would be the least of Kibria’s problems. Right from the start, his employer displayed cavalier tardiness in the payment of its workers’ salaries; for Kibria, the payment of his salary was constantly delayed for up to three months. This struck him as unusual and wrong, especially since he did not have such a problem with his last two employers. Furthermore, Kibria needed his salary to be paid on time because he needed his “food money”, $130 a month for meals catering, which had to be paid by the workers themselves. Above all, his employer’s erratic salary payment robbed him of financial security, as he would often wonder whether he would be paid at all.

Everything came to a head sometime in March. Fed up with not knowing when he would be paid for the hard work that he’d done in the last two months, Kibria, along with five other new workers who were also waiting for their overdue wages, confronted his boss, who happened to be on site: “Boss, when can you give me salary?”

His boss’ response was entirely unexpected. “Boss so angry, scold me,” Kibria says, his previously relaxed mood giving way to some agitation. “Boss keep saying ‘later, later’. Five minutes [to hear me out] also cannot. Then boss say, ‘Because you ask salary, they [other employees] also want salary. What’s your name? Give me your work permit, send back you!’”

Dumbfounded and at a loss, Kibria handed his work permit to his boss, who stomped off to make a phone call to the office clerk. Kibria was left stranded on the construction site, not knowing whether to resume working – indeed, if he even still had a job. Moments later, Kibria was informed that his work permit had been cancelled and that he didn’t work there anymore.

That was in March. It is now the middle of May and Kibria has been out of a job since. “This company, the boss very unreasonable,” Kibria adds, shaking his head. “They sent back two workers for asking for salary.”

To make matters worse, now that he no longer has a work permit, he is not allowed to complete an excavator skills-upgrading course for which he had pre-paid $1,000 of his hard-earned money on his own initiative. Kibria was in the last stage of the course, but now he cannot take the final exam. The company has also not refunded him his course fees. “But next time can start all over again if got new pass,” Kibria says.

However, there is something very wrong with this scenario. As Alex Au, TWC2 Treasurer, opines, “This does not sound right. The training company should refund him. He doesn’t know when he’s getting a new work permit and whether a new boss will even allow him time off to take the course. The training company may not even be around by then.”

In the meantime, Kibria is focusing his efforts on using official channels to get back the two months’ salary that his ex-employer owes him. His recounting of meeting with MOM on 1 April 2015, however, raises serious concerns about the flaws of the existing MOM regulations on wages.

“Boss come to that meeting,” Kibria explains. “He said, ‘I already give you salary.’ He said only March haven’t give and he already paid February.” At this point, Kibria’s ex-boss produced a salary voucher, which is typically issued when a company pays its workers’ wages in cash.

“I said the voucher not true,” Kibria continues. “Signature doesn’t look like my signature.”

With an allegation of forgery in the mix, the MOM advised Kibria to file a police report. To his frustration, the police transferred the case back to the MOM. Kibria finally disentangled the bureaucratic knot and lodged a complaint at the Labour Court.

If Kibria’s ex-employer did in fact forge his signature, this case further reveals the problems with allowing companies to pay their workers in cash. As Alex says, “TWC2 has argued for a long time that we should enact laws that make it compulsory to issue workers with salary slips showing a detailed computation, and for all salaries to be paid through a bank. This will provide objective proof whether the computation is accurate and whether, in fact, the salary has been paid to the men. This is the simplest solution in the world, and yet, for reasons unknown, MOM doesn’t seem to be moving forward on these proposals.”

It is people like Kibria who are caught in the regulatory gap – people like Kibria, a jovial, sociable person, who simply want to make an honest living to give their families a better life back home. For all his toiling in the sun, in the cement, in the rain, and overnight to lay the structural foundations for the HDB flats that we live comfortably in, Kibria deserves to be treated better.