By Zhan Nanxin, based on an interview in April 2018

Akther, a young looking construction worker, sits down at TWC2’s free meals station for the first time, with a serious looking injury.

Like many, Akther came from Bangladesh to Singapore in hope of being able to remit money back home to support his family – but his hopes soon turned into a nightmare when he got injured while renovating the theatre in Singapore’s iconic building The Marina Bay Sands.

While Singaporeans were celebrating Valentine’s Day with their better half, Akther found himself in an accident. He was taken to his company’s nominated clinic in Boon Lay. Despite being open that very night, there was no doctor in sight, and Akther had to bear with his pain for a night before being able to see a doctor.

The general practitioner looked at his crushed middle finger and declared Akther’s injury as too serious for a GP’s intervention, referring him to Ng Teng Fong Hospital instead. There, Akther was given 12 days of medical leave, and a bill. Despite it being a work-related injury, the company driver who accompanied Akther did not pay — normally, companies entrust their drivers with enough cash to pay medical bills — leaving Akther to pay to pay the bill of $90 himself. It’s a relatively hefty sum compared to his meagre pay.

On top of that, Akther says he faced undue pressure from the safety officer. According to him, the safety officer, acting as the company representative, demanded Akther’s phone so as to delete photos of his injury, medical bills and medical leave. This left no evidence or documentation of his injury. Akther alleges that this colleague even told the doctor to cancel his medical leave. However, the fact that Akther did get medical leave suggests that this alleged effort was unsuccessful, or that Akther’s recall of the incident was hazy.

Getting reimbursed for what he paid doctors and hospitals and asking for his medical leave wages proved to be another hurdle. The company wanted him to sign a document before they would pay. Akther is unable to explain what that document was — it could be entirely legitimate — but as a foreigner whose main language is not English, the wise thing to do would be to first take a copy and consult someone about it before signing.

“Sign here and you’ll get your pay and MC money,” Akther said the management told him. “If not, you will not get any money from me.”

“Let me think about it.”

“No. Now.” The company insisted.

It was the last straw for Akther. Unable to bear the perceived unfairness any longer, Akther looked for a lawyer, seeking protection from his employer.

Even before the accident, Akther had been disappointed with the employer over money. He says he was underpaid since 2014 when he began working there. He says the agreed salary was $26 per eight-hour day, but initially the company only paid him $24. However, his pay was gradually raised to $25 over the following four to five months.

In addition, he had grievances over overtime pay too. At a monthly salary of about $676, the overtime rate should be around $5.32 per hour, based on the Employment Act. But Akther tells me that he received $4 for every overtime hour that he put in.

The company did not issue salary slips; salaries were paid in cash. This means that Akther can’t produce evidence of those hourly rates.

Akther’s case is an example of how foreign workers are vulnerable to exploitation, even when the law clearly says he should be issued detailed salary slips.

When asked if he has raised this issue to the Ministry of Manpower, Akther asks in return, “How to go MOM? I go, talk to who?”

His response speaks of his sense of helplessness. In a foreign land that speaks a different tongue from him, Akther and many other construction workers are afraid to fight for the right treatment that they deserve: knowing that they’re underpaid, yet unable to do anything about it for fear that they’ll be repatriated home once they upset their bosses; knowing that it was wrong of the safety officer to have taken his phone and deleted his photos, yet unable to protest.

Campaigns to inform foreign workers of their rights are well and fine, but the reality has to be faced: rights cannot be actuated in conditions of asymmetrical power. Employers control whether they keep their jobs or lose them, whether they stay in Singapore or be sent back. Employers control whether their families get their next meal.

Asymmetrical power can be addressed by counter-balancing laws that ensure access to remedy and justice. For these foreign workers who build and maintain Singapore’s iconic city skyline, our laws need to be improved, monitored and enforced.