By Joell Tee, based on an interview in July 2018

The fan whirs quietly overhead and the workers file in in an orderly manner to collect their tokens for dinner. Scattered laughter and chatter make for a warm and homely atmosphere. It is my second time at TWC2’s DaySpace and yet I do not feel like a stranger in this place.

I am here to conduct my first interview with a worker. I do not know what to expect and I am slightly nervous. But my nerves quickly dissolve after meeting Robin. He has an amicable demeanour, a round face and kind eyes. We warm up to each other quickly as he shares candidly with me about his life and the challenges he has faced up till this point.

Robin has been married for twelve years and is the sole breadwinner in his family. He has one son and affectionately calls him ‘baby’ despite being ten years old this year. Given that he has been out of a job for three months, his family gets by “borrow borrow take” from friends and his brother back in Bangladesh. His face falls a little as he tells me that school is expensive and costs the equivalent of about $400 a month. He is not sure if his son can continue to stay in school; only his wife knows these things, he adds.

He first came to Singapore in 2007 and has spent about ten years here. He ran into his first salary problem when he was working with Chiang Wah in 2016. With no pay for four months, there was little Robin could do to make ends meet. He sought help from TWC2 and MOM and managed to obtain $4,500 in backpay. He went home in 2017.

A year later, Robin returned to Singapore after paying $4,000 to a man called Zhakir, for a new job at Khan M&E. Zhakir, as described by Robin, was also Bangladeshi, working in the same company under an S Pass. Robin, while still in Bangladesh, sent the money to his brother, who was working in Singapore at that time, and who passed the money to Zhakir. I remark that $4,000 is not a small sum and he laughs, reassuring me that at that time, he felt it was the right decision because Khan M&E was a “good company with good salary”.

To whom did the $4,000 go? Zhakir alone or was it shared with the boss too?  Robin grins while telling me he is “100% sure” this was what happened. That said, we have no way to verify his belief, though TWC2 has heard of many similar cases.

Unfortunately, the company closed last month, says Robin, because it had cashflow problems and could not pay employees their salary. Robin estimates he’s owed $2,700. After losing his job, Robin has not been able to contact Zhakir. He thinks that Zhakir has fled to Bangladesh.

Since then, Robin has been three months on a Special Pass. Under this Pass, he is explicitly prevented from paid employment, though when the case is concluded, he should be getting the option of looking for a transfer job.

Robin has been given to understand by his case officer at MOM that they’re working on getting him “insurance money”. But he’s also been told that this route can only produce half of what he’s owed. Why is this so? According to regulations, MOM has the right to forfeit the security bond of $5,000 that the employer had previously put up. However, according to TWC2 volunteers who have seen many such cases, what MOM usually does is to negotiate with the insurance agency. Rather than suffer a forfeiture, the insurance agency is to cough up a sum of money as no-fault ex-gratia payment. The 50% of the claim value, extracted this way is known amongst workers as ‘ang pao money’.

Robin is not satisfied with such a solution and does not want to accept MOM’s offer. He wants to fight further till his demands for full salary are met.

Yet, despite these troubles, Robin likes Singapore. He still feels he can earn more money here compared with Bangladesh. The job scape is bleak there, he says, and staying home to support his family would not be ideal because “money little, not enough.”

But it’s the Zhakir part of his story that is worrying. What I gather from it is that there are S Pass holders who exploit their close relationship with their bosses to become illegal job agents themselves. The corruption of the recruitment culture such as paying for jobs — embedded in Bangladesh due to widespread poverty — has crept into Singapore. Greed and the lure of profit means Singaporean employers may have become participants too.

I thank Robin for his time and attempt to make sense of our interview. I speak to a senior volunteer Alex Au who tells me that the “root of the problem lies in the fact that a prospective worker from Bangladesh has no easy access to information as to what jobs are available. Thus, he must rely on middle men who exploit their position and connections for profit.”

He adds: “This is why TWC2 urges MOM to completely restructure the recruitment process using digital technology. For example: a centralised job portal for all work permit jobs. Prospective workers can see what jobs are available and apply through the portal.”