By Alston Ng, based on an interview in December 2017

Pressing against the table and straining to be heard, Majumder Dilip Kumar (above left) recounts how he came to live off the goodwill of friends for the past two months. A note of morose resignation is unmistakable; he does not see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. As he tells his story, his eyes are transfixed on me, as though searching for solace or reassurance. By the end of our conversation, he asks, with a hint of exasperation, “How go back?”

Majumder’s predicament is a familiar tune that grinds against the cogs of an otherwise well-lubricated economic machinery. He began work with a construction firm, Fair Values Concept, in May 2017, but has not received a salary since. On 1 December, he returned to his dormitory, only to find its door bolted with a new lock and his possessions confiscated. What precipitated this abrupt eviction? It appears his complaint on November 30 against his employer over unpaid salary “backfired”.

When asked on what he plans to do in the foreseeable future, Majumder returns a quizzical look, as though in disbelief at the notion of a plan. Along with two co-workers, Majumder is expected to show up at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on December 27 to negotiate a financial settlement with his superior. Beyond the meeting — which may well prove fruitless — Majumder is taciturn about how he spends his day.

Upon further probing, Majumder reveals he is tempted to canvass for odd jobs. Not having been paid for months now, he needs money badly but is well aware that he isn’t allowed to under MOM’s rules. Nonetheless, his desperation is palpable and his quiet resignation soon gives way to a contagious indignation: his family of seven in Bangladesh awaits his remittances.

“My daughter … ten years old… school. My boy … four years. My brothers work, but Bangladesh… no money. Mother, wife, sister – no work… I no money!” he exclaimed, his pitch rising steadily as he details the dire straits that his family faces.

Indeed, something is amiss. How could he have worked for so long without fair compensation? What happened between May and December? Majumder’s co-worker, Gazi (above right), faces the same predicament. He explains how the boss buys time by giving him small amounts so that at least he can buy food: “Boss give some money, then we sign, but never pay salary.” Each week, they would petition to their employer, requesting for their work to be compensated in full. However, their requests would be blithely dismissed. Employing a strategy of deflect-and-defer, their superior managed to obtain their continuing labour for half a year through piecemeal allowances of variable quantities each time the issue of pay is broached.

“Sometimes $50 … na, take and go… Sometimes $100… na, take and go,” Majumder re-enacts.

To receive this allowance, however, Majumder and Gazi would have to acknowledge having received a misreported sum. On average, they might receive about $500 each month, but, according to Gazi, they would be instructed to sign a voucher with a stated sum of $700 or $800. Confronted with the constant threat of deportation and the perennial fear of going hungry for a week, they saw capitulation as the only option. After all, receiving a paltry allowance beats receiving nothing at all.

Another issue bears heavily upon their hearts: debt. To find work in Singapore, Majumder and Gazi took up exorbitantly priced loans to fork out $5,000 in “agent fees”. Most egregious, however, is the fact that their employer has brazenly admitted to both men, possibly on separate occasions, that he has lined his pockets with those “fees”, a clear violation of MOM regulations. Majumder says he has an audio recording of this admission.

Their employer’s audacious acknowledgement of wilful wrongdoing is telling. But its juxtaposition with Majumder’s distress as he ponders how he can find alternative sources of income is even more so. Indubitably, it reeks of an entrenched and uninterrogated power imbalance that belies the pristine edifice of our regulatory institutions.

At MOM, Majumder and Gazi will face the uphill battle in negotiating for their wages. Knee-deep in debt, both had worked for months without getting their dues and endured their employer’s mistreatment in hopes that their acquiescence may one day be rewarded. If history is any indication, the arbitration process is unlikely to get them what they deserve.

Majumder’s story echoes an agonising refrain to which the migrant workforce is no stranger. All the same, his story, as well as that of Gazi, cries out for justice. To all with ears to hear, perhaps it is time we ask: have we unfairly mischaracterised the migrant labour workforce? Are we making faulty assumptions about their de facto bargaining power in the market? Do the present regulations incentivise malfeasance and exploitation?