By Nicholas Lee, based on an interview in October 2017

The promise of a higher salary and a better life — this is the main reason why most foreign workers leave their families and the familiarity of their home come to Singapore to work. But what if after taking on debts to pay agent fees and coming to a foreign land, he is only paid a fraction of what was promised and has limited options of recourse. What does an individual do?

I sit down with Ratan. He is a victim of this situation.

Ratan has been working in Singapore for the past three years as a construction worker, this being his second stint in Singapore. Previously, he clocked three years as a construction worker from 2001 to 2004. He shuffles uneasily as he recounts his story to me, piecing together his story in scattered English. I ask for a fellow worker, Aian, to help with translation in Bengali and Ratan noticeably relaxes.

As our translator narrates his story, the details of Ratan’s story emerge. Ratan paid $3,390 to a certain Mizan, whom he refers to as his employment agent in Bangladesh. Mizan secured a job for him in Singapore as a construction worker. Ratan was told that would be earning $1,600 a month before various deductions, which was reflected in his in-principle approval (IPA) of his work permit. He would soon realize it was just a farce, earning only $800 in his first month of work. Later, his basic salary would only be $548 monthly without overtime.

“Next month (the company will) give”, Ratan recounts the false promises by his supervisor. With his poor command of English and a glaring language barrier with his supervisor, it is difficult for Ratan to fully express himself. It is important to note here that his supervisor and bosses are Chinese nationals, which may further complicate communication issues.

At this juncture, I asked about his payslip, which would reflect his actual salary per month.

“Salary paper no giving”, which indicated he never once received a payslip. A detailed itemized payslip is required by law to be given to a worker, accompanying salary payments.  The absence of payslips lasted for three years.

On the 19 October 2017, Ratan confronted his foreman on his salary.

“Where money? I go MOM!”

“Just go MOM la!” retorted the foreman.

Ratan then called the “Big Boss” (Company director).

“Boss where (is my) money?”

“F*** you, C******”, followed by an abrupt end to the call.

A call to another executive or director (Ratan calls him the “second boss”) led to a wild goose chase in a cab, traveling to two locations for a meeting with him that never materialized. “Boss say meeting Potong Pasir, both time (when he) see him, (he) run other direction. Boss then say meeting Bedok, no coming again.”

At this point, you may wonder: Why did Ratan bear with what he considers short-payment for three years before finally deciding to bring this up to his bosses and then subsequently, MOM?

To fully appreciate the complexity of the situation, let us take a step back. Ratan is an experienced construction worker but he is illiterate, both in Bengali and English. He entered an agreement with an agent in Bangladesh, with the employment letter he signed being unintelligible to him. He comes to Singapore and then accepts an employment contract from an individual whom he never saw again. Like all other documents, he is unable to read this one. He depends on what he is told verbally: that he will be earning $1,600 monthly and his contract is for three years.

Ratan seems to know — how he knows is not clear — that if he reports his dissatisfaction to MOM, whatever income he makes stops; he will be issued a Special Pass pending MOM’s investigations and will not be allowed to work until investigations are complete. The entire process from investigation to compensation can stretch to a year and beyond. This is a huge disincentive to lodging complaints however unjustly a worker has been treated.

Couple that with an employment contract he cannot read, agent fees he needs to fully recover from earnings before risking the job, Ratan was evidently disadvantaged in his situation from the start.

Ratan is not the only victim of this trend. After finishing the interview, translator Aian looked to the queue at the Cuff Road stamp collection booth and asked if anyone was also promised a $1,600 monthly salary but did not receive it as such.  In no time, Muhammed walked over to share his story. As a skilled steel and glass worker, his 2016 In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit — which contains details submitted by the employer to the Ministry of Manpower — stated a basic monthly salary of $1,600 as well. A similar fate befell Muhammed, whose pay was arbitrarily reduced soon afterwards.

“Every day working 7am to 11pm, many many OT”

For the hours he put in, he was only bringing in $200-$300 monthly for his overtime, an extremely disproportionate amount. Either the hours were under-declared, or the rate of pay (used to convert hours to dollars) was erroneous. Then things got worse, culminating in a five-month period of no pay before he headed off to MOM in February 2017. Similar factors contributed to the delay between his pay discrepancies and his eventual report to MOM.

I note that it’s now October, nine months on, and his case seems to be still ongoing. He’s been forbidden to work all this while.

There seems to be an increasing trend of misleading salaries, with workers’ IPAs indicating a monthly salary of $1600 but who are paid much less  when they start work. The reductions stem from any number of devices, including various “deductions”. There seems to be a perception among employers or their agents that work permit applications are more likely to be approved or renewed if the declared salaries are $1,600 or higher, though we don’t know if there is any basis to this perception.

As reported in an earlier article on this site, at least two employers have openly declared in written statements that they falsely submitted a salary figure of $1,600 to MOM. See the article: Employer proclaims he lied to ministry, then gets away with paying less in salary.

We can eventually expect the ministry to take action, but for the workers hoping to get a fair settlement, the immediate prospect is a long wait in limbo. They have no clue when they can get back to work or return home…