By Jiang Haolie
Molla Shohid will be put on a flight back to his village of Bhouria Challa in Bangladesh any day now. He does not know if he will be compensated for the promised wages that never materialised. He is not even sure of the day of the flight. His boss has kept him entirely in the dark.
The one thing he does know is that he still has not earned back the $5,000 he paid in agent fees. One full year of employment in Singapore has not paid off the debts he had incurred raising this initial sum. He will return home not just penniless but debt-ridden and with mouths to feed. This is the brutal weight on his mind that he brings up — in great frustration — when I sat down with him last Friday. He sits tightly and speaks fast, anxiety and defeat his only expression.
Before me is a pile of pay slips he has brought as evidence of how his monthly income has been slashed below his promised salary. Also in the pile are construction site passes and permits from his past nine years of periodic employment in Singapore. He is by the standards of most workers, an experienced old-hand. But this experience has not exempted him from being a victim of exploitation.
The facts of his case are as straightforward as they are common:
- An agent in Bangladesh promised a decent basic wage of $26 a day (about $621 a month) and a “guaranteed” two-year term of employment;
- The Singaporean boss (Jack) was also in Bangladesh, confirming this rate of pay. In fact, as Shohid tells it, it was Jack who personally wrote “$26” on a piece of paper, which Shohid is now citing as evidence;
- However, prior to departure, the agent passed him a document known as In-Principle Approval for Work Permit (IPA), which indicated that the company had told the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) that his basic monthly salary would be $384 which works out to $16 a day.
- He confronted his agent about this discrepancy. The agent then showed him a spreadsheet listing 17 names, each with basic salary written beside. Shohid’s name was there, and $26 was written against his name. Shohid was satisfied with this and flew to Singapore in October 2015 to start work.
Regardless of the drastically lower amount of $384 spelt out in the IPA, Shohid’s first two pay slips (for the first half and second half of November 2015) used a rate of $3.25 per hour, equivalent to the promised $26 a day.
Then it all went downhill. The third payslip (for the first half of December 2015) used an hourly rate of $2.50, which is equivalent to $477 per month, slightly better than the figure in the IPA but a far cry from the promised salary.
“Take it or leave it,” his supervisor said coldly to him when Shohid disagreed with the reduced $2.50 per hour wage.
One year later, with an impending economic downturn, Shohid is told he will be laid off. Several of the workers listed on that earlier spreadsheet had already been sent home. Making up the loss from the agent fee is now Shohid’s personal tragedy.
Patiently, we explain to him his options of bringing his case up to MOM, and also why has he little or no fighting chance to get back the promised wages. First, he had taken the bait: while in his words “agent say 100% give”, the written IPA is all that matters, not the spoken promise of an agent back in Bangladesh. The IPA is the legal document by which income disputes are referenced and settled unless a worker has also an employment contract, which, in this case, Shohid does not. Second, when given the chance to walk away from his reduced pay check, albeit at huge financial cost, he stayed on. This was an equivalent of unspoken consent. Altogether, the law was not on his side.
Hearing our explanation, he sighs deeply and leans back. He looks away blankly and then wipes his forehead. His eyes are wet with disbelief.
In hindsight, it is clear as day what anyone should have done: demand a rewritten IPA with the promised wages while back in Bangladesh and before coming to Singapore, and then when faced with an unreasonable wage cut in Singapore, elevate the issue to MOM immediately
One would ask why did he willingly walk into this trap?
Willing is hardly the correct description of exploitation. Instead, Shohid was caught in a mire of psychology, leverage and labour policy.
Psychology, leverage and a system stacked against you
While the promised salary seemed satisfactory to Shohid, he had objected immediately upon seeing the drastically lower wages reflected in the IPA. Nonetheless, the guarantees of the agent and the Singaporean boss who personally flew over to recruit workers broke his resolve. Desperation is the underlying factor: he had spent five months in a vocational training centre in Bangladesh for a skill that he has been an expert in for six years already, waiting endlessly for an employer to come by. His village has no use for welders. He has a family and he needed a job in Singapore desperately. It was a now or never situation.
“OK, I’m coming,” Shohid recalls saying. The risk of being cheated of his promised salary seemed small, and he joined the total of 17 men recruited that day.
In Singapore, one month into his employment when all had seemed well so far, what was only a negligible risk became a ghastly reality.
“Amin shouting at me”, Shohid lividly recalls the confrontation with his supervisor when he wanted to understand the reasons behind the pay cut. “Take $2.50! Don’t take, no work! Anything talk go outside, go back Bangladesh!”
Simple calculation shows that even without a debt to pay off, it would have been impossible to survive on that wage anyway. A Singaporean worker at this point of time would have walked out of that job, but that is no option for migrant workers in Singapore.
By MOM rules, his work permit is tied to employment with a company. Being fired meant a straight flight back to Bangladesh and a costly few months of finding a new employer in Singapore along with exorbitant agent fees. Job mobility for migrant workers, a central tenet of TWC2’s policy recommendations, is denied to workers like Shohid. His other alternative was to lodge a complain with MOM, but that could very easily mean a long, indefinite and unpaid stay in Singapore, waiting for a verdict. Even with a successful MOM settlement, he would still have to go home and face the prospect of having to pay another agent thousands of dollars all over again for a new job. The language barrier also meant that surmounting the bureaucracy of MOM disputes would be a distressing challenge.
With nine years of work in Singapore, Shohid was no stranger to the horror stories of victimised workers who dared to stand up to their bosses: left high and dry, beaten up, dumped out of their dormitories, robbed of their passports and salaries, and sometimes eventually forcibly repatriated. Such reprisals could easily be the same fate for him.
Desperation again is the underlying factor: the overshadowing debt of his agent fees was a severe limitation on his options.
“After Amin shout, I scared,” Shohid recounts his acquiescence in face of the staggering odds against him. An abject and pervading sense of helplessness and abandonment blanketed Shohid.
The one thing he could do, however, was work even harder. The itemised pay slips definitively show how, in order to survive, Shohid’s overtime hours shot up. But even this last means of self-agency is robbed of him when he received word of his lay-off on Friday. All but one of the 17 recruited with Shohid in Bangladesh, have since been laid off with the company’s down-sizing. All victims of the same exploitative system.
Shohid is by far, hardly the worst off. With close to a decade of qualified work experience and no blacklist, he has relatively better odds in finding employment again in Singapore, albeit at a cost. He is ironically the “lucky” few. There are many others who are completely debilitated upon repatriation with lifelong disabilities from work injuries, and those who have lost their lives in pursuit of a better life due to work accidents.
As the global economy descends into the doldrums, it is the migrant workers that will be hardest hit by the storms. They have the least leverage and the barest safety nets.
The shortest end of the stick
In this climate of economic uncertainty, self-preservation is a natural instinct. We all want to look after our own kind and kin first. It is easy to be unconscious of the hardest hit: they who have the very shortest end of the stick. Where self-preservation is an understandable reaction, inclusion as a society is a necessary counter-action. What could be mere painless and win-win changes to our migrant labour policy could easily mean the world and a better life for the many disfranchised migrant workers in our midst.
If there had been a cost-free recruitment system for workers while still in their home countries, much of this tragedy would have been avoided. No trap could be laid. Eliminating burdensome agent fees may seem to be a private matter between commercial parties and outside Singapore’s jurisdiction, but when the scale of abuse is as widespread as it is now, Singapore’s national reputation and economic health are at stake. Do we want to be known as a brutalist society, without a shred of moral sensibility and conscience? Is it a sustainable practice for our long-term economic health and productivity improvement when it is more profitable to exploit workers for profit rather than invest in them? Transparency and integrity are fundamental bases of any equitable and productive relationship between employers and migrant workers Why do we design and let continue a system that works against these values?
Job mobility too should be an option made accessible to migrant workers. Shohid would have been better placed to respond to the intimidations of his boss, if this was a right he could exercise. If MOM’s rules were different and Shohid, when his pay was cut, had the option of walking off the job and looking for a new one without first having to return to Bangladesh (and then having to pay an agent all over again), Shohid would have far better bargaining power. From the policy-making perspective, apart from providing leverage and breathing space for workers, it also aids the labour market and Singaporean companies by reducing unnecessary barriers to entry for skilled and qualified migrant workers.
Maximum economic output through maximum exploitation is hardly a palatable arrangement even to the most hard-hearted policy-maker, but it is not one far from Singapore’s current labour market reality. In this respect, MOM has the moral authority and also the moral obligation to protect our most vulnerable.
Three days after my talk with Shohid, I learn that he tried once more to get MOM to take up his case. He was refused, and he will be flying back home that same afternoon. He was aware of what little chance he had, but with so little to lose, any glimmer of hope, however dim, is all the light he had.
Even that light now is lost.