By Marcus Chee, based on an interview in June 2017
Through nine months, Noor Mohammod was only given a meagre amount of $130 monthly by his employer, and the entirety of that money had to be allocated to pay a catering company so that he could get his daily meals.
$130. That’s all? I sit in shock.
With considerable trepidation — I almost fear yet another shocking answer — I ask how he managed to pay for basic things such as toothbrushes and shavers, haircuts, a phone to communicate with his family, and the other sorts of essentials you would expect any person to have as the absolute minimum for some human dignity.
He says he managed with the goodwill of his cousins and friends who sometimes shared their daily necessities with him and provided him with free haircuts. But the phone problem couldn’t be solved. After the phase-out of 2G signals in April 2017, he lost the means to communicate with his family. His friends had given him a 2G phone as a gift, but it was useless soon after. He had no money to buy a 3G replacement.
TWC2 ran a 3G phone exchange programme in late March, but Noor Mohammod was not, for unknown reason, on our radar at the time.
When I first meet Noor, I sense a certain level of distrust and wariness emanating from him. Noor is in fact my very first interviewee, and I guess my own uncertainty is showing too, adding to his caution. I approach his story gingerly, trying to understand what actually happened — and as I slowly tease out the key details, I see that it’s yet another case of salary non-payment.
Noor, 30, is from Chandpur, Bangladesh, the eldest son in his family. Among the few things Noor gets livelier speaking about is his family. But even so, the details are depressing. His family sold a partition of their land in order to be able to pay for his agent fee to come to Singapore.
He started his job with DNK Cabling Pte Ltd in April 2016, as a general worker whose tasks ranged from painting, casting to supplying water. His day began at 9am and he would not usually have any clue as to the sort of work expected of him on that day till the very work was given to him. Still, Noor worked hard, and at the promised basic salary of $1,650 a month, he hoped to give his family a higher standard of living and a happier life back home.
But, it was not to be. Monthly salaries were not paid. Over the course of nine months on the job, Noor estimates he was owed a total of $17,665 by his employer. (On a subsequent recalculation with the help of a TWC2 social worker, the figure turns out to be more like $24,000.)
It’s hardly any wonder that before me I see a man filled with dejection and disappointment.
Slowly, Noor opens up. He begins to share with me more of his story. Two months into the job, he diplomatically asked his direct supervisor about salary payment. The supervisor tried to sweep the issue under the rug by promising Noor that he would receive the month’s salary along with the next month’s in one big fat amount.
That did not happen. Noor did not receive any “big-fat amount”. Instead, he witnessed his boss threatening his colleagues when they tried to voice out similar salary grievances. Noor then decided to keep quiet, and wait in anticipation of an even bigger, fatter amount the following month. Needless to say, that didn’t come either.
One needs to hear the details to better understand why foreign workers like Noor hang on for as long as they do. Nine months in his case. There is intimidating behaviour by bosses, there is the sunk cost in recruitment fees — speaking up and having one’s job terminated is hardly going to help recover that cost. Migrant workers like Noor are often at the mercy of their employers; being in foreign territory, their fears of repatriation weight daily on their minds.
As I wrap up the interview and promise that I will share his story, a TWC2 volunteer by my side invites Noor to go for his free meal. It’s only then, for the first time, I see a smile light up his face.