By Darren Tan, based on an interview in August 2018

By July 2018, Munshi Kader was reaching the end of his temporary job with a chemical factory in the Pioneer district of Singapore. He had worked two six-month stints at this factory, and the boss liked him enough to want to retain him permanently.

“MOM reject new application to work in factory,” he tells me in our interview. It’s not clear whether the boss submitted a formal work permit application to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) or merely made an informal enquiry, but the answer was in no doubt.

Kader then stressed the irony of the situation with acerbic laughter: “But I have already been working there for one year, which MOM before approved.” In case your reporter didn’t catch the irony, he repeated: “Temporary job can work in factory, permanent job cannot. What meaning?”

Kader is another example of a foreign worker snared by the barbs of MOM’s bureaucratic absurdities.

A senior volunteer then explained to me the likely source of this particular difficulty. For unknown reasons, MOM discriminates by nationality when it comes to approving foreign workers for manufacturing companies. Only Chinese (including those from Hong Kong and Taiwan), Malaysians, and Koreans are allowed. As a Bangladeshi, Munshi Kader is not allowed. Nor are Indians or Sri Lankans. Immediately one visualises skin pigmentation, but that criterion isn’t explicitly stated on the relevant page on MOM’s website.

However, workers whom MOM have put on the Temporary Job Scheme (TJS) can access manufacturing jobs. This may have something to do with the fact that TJS employees do not count against the quota, and therefore the nationality rules governing quotas do not apply.

So, in Kader’s case, when his TJS term with the chemical factory came to an end and the boss considered converting him to normal Work Permit employment, the occult nationality rules opened up like a chasm beneath his feet and swallowed him.

But why was Kader even on TJS?

His story began in September 2016 when he joined Foxx Construction Pte Ltd. By the second quarter of 2017, salary non-payment had become intolerable and he lodged a complaint at MOM.

“I work seven months, and [of that] five months no salary,” he explains. “Total owe me over $16,000.”

However, his case went nowhere because “boss run away”; no settlement could be reached. Unfortunately, Kader cannot tell us what efforts MOM made (or is making) to track down the boss.

MOM then put him on TJS and by June or July 2017, Kader had found a temporary job at the chemical factory. A new Work Permit was issued to him. TJS jobs normally come with six-month terms, but Kader’s was extended by another six months. Further extension was not possible at the end of the second term, which would be July 2018. That was when the chemical company boss wanted to retain him permanently but found he couldn’t. Neither employer or employee was happy, all because of an incomprehensible rule at MOM.

Then Kader brings up something equally absurd. MOM left him technically “illegal” for six months. This side story has something to do with his passport. According to Kader, MOM had kept his passport since around the time he lodged his salary complaint. Kader knew from memory that it would expire at the end of 2017 or early 2018. A little before that, he asked MOM to pass him his passport in order for him to get it renewed.

“I ask MOM, but officer say cannot give me,” he recalls. Kader does not know the reason for such a decision.

In July when the TJS job ended, MOM returned the expired passport to him. Kader then went to the Bangladesh High Commission to get it renewed. Not only is the High Commission charging him $165 for renewal — a king’s ransom for a low-wage worker — but is charging him an extra $6 for the six-month delay in renewal.

We joke: “MOM should reimburse you that six dollars because it’s all MOM’s fault.”

“Anyway,” I say, changing the topic, “you look happy now.”

“Not happy, ” Kader insists. “I lose $16,000 from the first job. But twelve month of temporary job not earn enough. This temporary job basic salary only $600. Everyday I have to work [overtime] to 10pm, 11pm to make money.”

For comparison, the basic salary from the Foxx Construction job was $1,600 per month, though, as told earlier in this story, for most of the months he was there this nice sum was not paid at all.

Kader indicates that he is tired of fate and bureaucratic nonsense. He is looking forward to getting his renewed passport soon and going home. His second child was a baby when he left Bangladesh to join Foxx Construction; he wants to see and play with the now-two-year-old boy.