By Cheryl Lim, based on an interview in May 2018

With his jaw tightly clenched throughout our entire one-hour conversation, 41-year-old construction worker Rahman Habibur, repeatedly asks me, “Can you get back my money? You can help?”

“We will try our best,” I reply.

With his hand on the official court order he brought to show Transient Workers Count Too, Rahman then responds, “My money, I must [get].”

According to the court order, his employer Jin Hong Construction Pte Ltd owes him $7,032.86. The order is dated 19 January 2018.

Rahman Habibur, who first left Bangladesh to work in Singapore in 2002, joined Jin Hong in February 2017. The job was introduced to him by a friend who had previously worked there.

Rahman shares that the job came with a monthly basic salary of $1,250, a promising sum which is higher than the average Bangladeshi construction worker’s basic salary in Singapore. He says this figure is documented on MOM’s In-principle Approval for a Work Permit (IPA), though he doesn’t have it with him to show me.

“I have two kids, eight and two,” says Rahman. “My wife doesn’t work.” This makes Rahman the sole breadwinner of his family. With the promised salary of $1,250 a month, Rahman could remit a decent sum of money back home.

But in the five months he worked there, he only received a total of $900, given to him in fits and starts each month. “Separate, $200, $250….” Frustrated, he quit in August 2017. Indeed, it’s unimaginable trying to survive on approximately $220 a month in Singapore, let alone remit money back home.

I can understand Rahman’s frustration and stress. He must have felt helpless in his role as breadwinner.

The root problem apparently was that Jin Hong Construction was was not receiving payments from the main contractor. That however does not alter the legal obligation of Jin Hong to pay its employees promptly.

Today, it has been almost ten months of struggle to get back his money. Rahman has been unemployed since August 2017. To pay his rent at a guest house, he borrows money from his friends. For meals, he’s been with TWC2’s Cuff Road Project since September 2017.

What has happened within these ten months?

After Rahman’s bold move of quitting, he approached the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for assistance. MOM hosted mediation to try to get parties to agree on a settlement. However, after months of trying to come to a consensus, Rahman’s battle escalated. His case was referred to the Employment Claims Tribunal. One might think that at a Tribunal, he would have a greater chance of getting his money back. It didn’t turn out so  straightforward.

Rahman went to the Tribunal three times. The first time, Rahman’s case was acknowledged and registered. The second time, he brought his documents to prove his case. The employer was expected to argue its defence too, but according to Rahman, no one turned up. The case was then adjourned to 8 January 2018 to give the employer one more chance. But Jin Hong did not show up. once again. The Tribunal then issued an order in Rahman’s favour. The order said payment should be made to him by 19 January.

It is now May 2018. Rahman has not received a cent. This is yet another example of the near-impossibility of enforcing Tribunal orders, an issue that TWC2 is very concerned about. To me, it seems as though employers can easily avoid their responsibilities.

The latest update from Rahman is this: The MOM officer in charge has just told him that the ministry too cannot get any cooperation from the employer and so they have arranged for Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC) to give him $4,000. MWC is a bipartite initiative of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the Singapore National Employers’ Federation (SNEF).

Rahman is vehement that he cannot accept the offered $4,000. When I ask why, he replies, “Agent fee $4,500. $4,000 less than my agent fee.”

I understand where Rahman is coming from, and I feel the injustice that he has been trying to express to me throughout our conversation despite our language barrier.

At the end of my conversation with Rahman, I refer him to our TWC2 office at Golden Mile Complex, where our social workers may be better able to explain the harsh realities to him. The fact is, the matter lies beyond Rahman’s control.