By Jonah Foong, based on an interview in June 2017
Across the world, foreign labour is often cheap, and their working conditions abysmal. Tales of starving, overworked, and unpaid workers are not unheard of – a simple google search will turn up stories of ‘modern slavery’ in places like Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Over here in cosmopolitan Singapore, our workers may enjoy greater protection of rights, but abuse is still a prevalent issue. While the authorities make efforts to clamp down on such abuse, many employers manage to exploit loopholes or sweep disputes under the rug. For some of these workers, the ‘boss from hell’ is often the rule and not an exception.
However, not all foreign workers are subject to such treatment. For one Amin Ruhul, his was a bittersweet story of good boss, bad luck.
Amin first arrived here in 2012, having secured a job as a welder in a marine engineering firm. Like most foreign workers, his arrival was necessitated by circumstance. Coming from a poor family of farmers in Bangladesh, working in Singapore meant good income and an opportunity to break the poverty cycle.
Then only a fresh faced 22-year-old, he had no welding experience, and was paid a paltry figure of $17 a day. While it may seem like much back in Bangladesh, hefty agent fees mean that most foreign workers earn next to nothing in their first year of employ (according to a 2013 survey by TWC2, more than half of Bangladeshis in their first job here pay more than $7,000 in agent fees).
For Amin, this meant having to scrimp and save, as well as taking care to avoid any kind of injury that would render him unable to work. Over the course of two years, he became proficient at welding and managed to break even. Everything else seemed to be going well; he was given regular overtime, salary was timely, and he had an honest boss whom he liked. While these are things we take for granted in our daily lives, for the foreign worker they are blessings indeed.
Not everything was smooth sailing though. For all the hard work he put in, the pay never did increase.
On top of that, his employers chose not to renew his work permit at the end of his stint, and he returned to Bangladesh having earned little. For the next two years, it was back to a farming life for him. For all the dreams of a decent life he once carried, going back for good was probably the last thing on his mind.
Then in 2015, he received a call from his former boss asking him to return. After two years toiling the fields, the decision was a no brainer. This time, there would be no agent fee, and there would even be a pay increment – up to $26 a day from the previous $17.
The significance of this is not immediately apparent, but most foreign workers do not establish much of a relationship with their employers. For his boss to have phoned him personally to arrange a return is quite uncommon, and showed the level of mutual trust between the two. Amin of course, had nothing but praise for the man.
“Boss like, boss very good. Give me OT many many, money also on time.”
Despite that, Amin’s story seemed almost too good to be true. Most foreign workers encounter some form of injustice in their time here, and upon deeper probing, a more nuanced picture emerged. As it turned out, his manager had been cutting workers’ salary for taking sick days.
“Manager no good. One day take rest, cut $15. Sometime fever, maybe sometime $15, $18, but cut the money.”
Amin added that this meant some workers reporting for work even when feeling unwell, which could have resulted in dangerous repercussions. When asked if his boss could have known about this, he shrugged off the notion.
“I think boss don’t know.”
Really? Or was his view of the boss rose-tinted?
Misfortune struck when he injured his left thumb late last year, leading to his dismissal. Though he was well liked by his boss, there is little room for sentiment in a profit driven world – an unproductive worker represents a liability to the company. Now placed on a Special Pass to legalise his stay in Singapore while is case is processed, Amin is a victim of bureaucracy: documents take ages to process, and he is unsure of what his future holds. Without an income, he is unable to foot the rent, and has to borrow money from his uncle.
Despite the multiple setbacks, Amin remains calm and cheerful.
“I am happy,” he says. “I miss my family, but I want to [get back to] work.”
Perhaps many of us would feel hard done by, but for Amin, it is just another day in the life of a foreign worker.