“The police was at the gate of the shipyard that day, checking all workers arriving at work,” Nagelli Mahendar Reddy tells TWC2. “I think someone had informed them that there were illegal workers.”

Unfortunately, Nagelli was one of the ‘illegals’. He did not have a work permit. He and a few others from the same company were hauled off to a police station. In the course of interrogation there, they were physically beaten. Nagelli was punched in the stomach, hit on his right side and against his leg. Their manager had told them not to admit to the police that they were working in the country, but only visiting. However, the police seemed to know that such was not a truthful answer.

Why would any tourist have reason to want to enter a shipyard? In any case, Nagelli’s passport showed that he had entered the country 70 days earlier. What could he be doing all this while?

The country was Azerbaijan. Nagelli is now very upset with his employer for putting him in jeopardy in a far-away country.

Originally from Andhra Pradesh, India, Nagelli found a job with a Singapore company which applied for a Singapore work permit for him. After a short while working here, he and five others were told by their employer that they would be sent to Baku, Azerbaijan. The employer promised to ensure their stay and work there would be legal, says Nagelli. It is not clear what the company’s relationship was with that country; if sounded as if the company had won a project there but couldn’t find or afford local workers. Whatever the reason, the six men soon found themselves based there and reporting for work. That was February 2016.

After being arrested (20 April 2016), Nagelli was held in a lock-up (and beaten) for a day and a night. Eventually, he admitted that he was indeed working illegally, and was brought before a magistrate. A fine was imposed though he isn’t sure about the amount. “Company paid it, I think two or three thousand dollars for each man,” he explains.

The company was told to fly him out of the country within 12 hours. Even here there was a hiccup. With such short notice, the airfares were apparently exorbitant, and the company sought to delay the departure. But the authorities told the company that if they crossed the 12-hour deadline, they would have to apply for work permits, which would cost about $6,000 for each man. That was even more costly than the airfares quoted, so the men came back to Singapore.

Nagelli didn’t come to TWC2 for help over this incident. In fact, he went back to work at the Singapore location for the same employer. However, he had long been unhappy over shortpay — “the working hours all wrongly recorded,” he tells us — both in Singapore and in Azerbaijan. There was also a dispute over the meal allowance given to him in Azerbaijan. “Boss at first say all meals by company,” but later these ‘allowances’ showed up on his pay calculations as deductions.

nagelli_mahendar_reddy_224_bleedingHis unhappiness over shortpay and deductions eventually boiled over. One thing led to another, and on 24 June 2016, he was assaulted by his site supervisor. As the picture at right shows, he was bleeding over the nose. That’s when he finally came to TWC2.

As at the time of interview, this case is ongoing, but it is nevertheless worthwhile recording his Azerbaijan episode. It reveals something we don’t often see among work permit holders in Singapore — being transported to a foreign location to work.

Technically, it isn’t illegal under Singapore law. Our work permit laws are silent on this. It’s really a matter of private contract between employer and employee, though in Nagelli’s case, there was no written contract but some kind of verbal agreement. The employer assured him that an Azerbaijani work permit would be obtained; this they clearly and culpably failed to do. On the other hand, it could be argued that Nagelli bore some responsibility too. He could have (in theory) refused to go to Azerbaijan as ordered until he saw a work permit in hand.

We say ‘in theory’ because the economics and Singapore regulations are such that workers like him don’t have the economic freedom to resist. Workers like Nagelli paid large amounts to job agents to secure jobs in Singapore. In his case, he paid 155,000 Indian rupees (about $3,500). At the same time our laws give total freedom to employers with respect to terminating employees. Companies that hire foreign workers can fire at any time without any need to give a reason. Worse, our laws require that once a worker is fired, he must be repatriated and cannot stay on to seek another job here.

When the consequence of resisting an order to go to Azerbaijan is likely a termination of the job, being barred from seeking another one here without first going home, then having to write off all that was paid to the job agent earlier, it is in practice virtually impossible for a worker to refuse the employer’s order to go work in a different country. It is even difficult to display any sign of distrust, such as telling the employer, “I will go only after you’ve obtained an Azerbaijani work permit for me.” Doing so would be as good as losing the job.

With such carte blanche given to employers, it can be argued that Singapore laws effectively entrap low-wage workers in lose-lose situations. Our failure to do anything to cut out exorbitant agents’ fees and our failure to reform our laws to give job mobility to foreign workers are what make them vulnerable to such callous employers.

What would be interesting to see would be how Nagelli’s claim eventually pans out. Part of his salary claim relates to time he spent in Azerbaijan — he says he was shortpaid while there too. Would the Singapore authorities treat that period as within their jurisdiction? If not, it would leave workers like Nagelli high and dry, while employers can rejoice in their extra profit when they can pay their employees less than promised and get away with it.