By Kan Ren Jie

For many Singaporean employees, it would be unthinkable for our employers to stop paying our monthly salaries.   Many of us are accustomed (and excited!) to see our bank balance increase every month like clockwork.   However, this basic confidence is denied to many foreign workers.  My conversations with two men, Ali Abbas (pictured above) and Mahmud Sayed, reveal that unscrupulous agents and companies can cheat these workers by neglecting to pay their wages, or by preventing them from finding work at all.

Ali, 33, has been working as a lifting supervisor at a construction company.  He is owed over $5,000 in unpaid wages from last August to January this year.  Ali complains that each time he asked, “Boss promise me next month, next month, next month…”, but as expected from those non-committal replies, the promised wages never came.  His superiors even attempted to deceive him; according to Ali, the company tried to assert that his wages have been paid: They “never pay, but say give [have given the money to me]”.

Even after he approached the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for assistance, delays continued.  Ali was informed by his superior that his wages would “take time” to come, and that “next month then show”, even though he had already been working for nearly five months without pay at that point.

Today, while he waits for the resolution of his salary dispute, Ali is trapped in idleness; unable to find another job, he tells me: “I worried…[my] family how.”  Ali is anxious for his wife and four-month old son in Bangladesh; he tells me that he “want [to] take care of family” and “give time” to his wife, but how can he do so if he is denied his wages?

Beyond his salary dispute, I discover a more insidious issue: that of illegal agents and their dubious practices.   Ali explains to me that he obtained his job through a “friend friend” – another work permit holder working for a related company, but moonlighting as an agent.

Commenting on the practices of these illegal agents, TWC2 Executive Committee Member Debbie Fordyce notes that there is “no guarantee that the job [they provide] is going to be good, and the workers have no ability to check with their employers”. Consequently, workers are greatly disempowered and risk ending up in a floundering company. As such, the process of finding work in Singapore is often a dangerous leap into the dark for workers.

Ali realized that “[his] company last time got work, now don’t have”.  His “agent” was not helpful either; Ali tells me that the “agent” was sent back to Bangladesh not long after introducing the job to Ali. “I work 3 to 4 months, then that man go [back to Bangladesh]”. Ali is now left in the lurch, unable to recover any part of the substantial fee of $5,000 Ali paid to this “agent”.

Mahmud Sayed’s problems with illegal agents are similar to Ali’s.  Mahmud arrived in Singapore in October 2015, after having paid a fee of $10,000 to another dubious agent.  When I ask about how he found that agent, he casually informs me that it was his “brother’s agent” and that his “brother arranged job”.  Evidently, such informal arrangements do not hold up well.  When he arrived in Singapore, he was shocked to find that “permit no give” — he was not issued a work permit, due to problems with his agent’s arrangements.  All this in spite of that exorbitant placement fee.

Like Ali, Mahmud was stuck in that all-familiar time of frustrating idleness. Each time he asked when he’d be issued his work permit, the answer would be: “Next week, Next week…”

This has consequences. Without a work permit, no dormitory would admit him, and quite understandably too, since dormitory managers wouldn’t want to be seen harbouring an illegal worker. TWC2 reckons that was why Mahmud was told to sleep in a lorry parked near Kranji Dormitory. When he asked about proper housing arrangements, he was again given that all-purpose answer: ‘later later later’.

Thankfully, MOM has opened an investigation into his case and Mahmud has since been issued a special pass. He also has (slightly) better housing arrangements now.

What strikes me most from my conversations with Ali and Mahmud is their great sense of confusion; Ali describes his disillusionment with working in Singapore, compared to the great hopes he had before arriving, and the rosy picture painted of Singapore by others. As he puts it, it is “first time coming, then after coming, not good. How can?” He tells me that his dispute makes “no sense”. Evidently, this experience has made him distrustful of local companies and the strength of our labour laws.  If we do not stand up for the rights of foreign workers, we leave our reputation as a law-abiding society in tatters.