The same evening that volunteer Liang Lei was doing interviews for his story Why do injured workers flee company housing and do they feel safe enough to return?, two other workers came to TWC2 with housing-related woes. But their stories also shine a light on the way employers try to bully workers into submission.

Borhan is stout strong man. This might explain how he defied “gangsters” hired to take him to the airport against his will. There’s an air of self-confidence about him, which may be why, despite that nasty incident, he seems open to the idea of moving back to company housing.

He started work with the company in August 2017 with a basic salary of $1,600 as stated on his In-principle Approval for a Work Permit and confirmed by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). However, the boss only paid him $1,300 a month, which didn’t include overtime pay either. Matters deteriorated in November, December 2018 and January 2019 when he wasn’t paid at all. So towards the end of January, he filed a salary complaint at MOM.

The boss’ reaction was swift. An airticket for Borhan was bought for a flight departing 31 January. Pushing him out of the country would effectively thwart his claim. Burly men, known euphemistically as repatriation agents, but usually referred to as “gangsters” by the victimised workers, came to escort him to the airport. However, Borhan stood his ground and refused to go. Perhaps knowing that laying hands on Borhan would turn things ugly and probably criminal, the men desisted, and Borhan managed to walk away.

Too afraid to continue staying in the company dorm — who knows when the repatriation agents might come again, and this time with fewer scruples — Borhan moved out to Little India.

Some days later, MOM called a meeting over the salary claim. The boss attended, as did Borhan. According to Borhan’s recollection of that meeting, the boss said the company was broke, which meant little immediate relief for Borhan over the owed salaries. The MOM officer made it a point to distinguish between the boss’ personal wealth and the company’s finances. As Borhan tells us at TWC2, “MOM officer say to me, even if boss have Ferrari I cannot force him to pay you.”

The matter of where Borhan was staying also came up during the meeting but was not resolved either. The MOM officer probably understood the circumstances and said Borhan could continue living outside “and see how.”

As this case shows, it is one thing to come up with a policy that employers should house their workers — nothing wrong with such a policy — but it is quite another to apply that ideal in real life. Bosses behave badly and the trust is so broken between employer and employee the worker may feel too afraid to go back. Or, in Borhan’s case, he may now be wiling to go back except that the company has no money to rent accommodation for him.

Evicted from dorm and physically assaulted

Rayhan is physically smaller than Borhan. He looks more like a university student than a labourer. Unlike the bigger Borhan who stood his ground, Rayhan was physically assaulted after lodging a salary claim with MOM.

He showed us a police report he made. It says:

On 13/02/2019 at about 0930hrs, our company’s driver came to my room and instructed my 2 colleagues and myself to follow him to our main office located at…

When my big boss [name redacted] arrived at the office at 1130hrs, he started hurling vulgarities at us and instructed me to return my work permit and dormitory pass. I followed his instruction and returned my work permit and dormitory pass to him. He then started to slap me and slapped my face a total of 10 to 12 times.

He challenged me to fight him and ask me to go to his office. I managed to run away and called for the Police when I was at Tuas MRT station…

Without his dormitory pass, Rayhan could not go back there to sleep that night. In any case he was probably too scared to get anywhere near his employer. He was homeless for a few days till he could find a friend to take him in.

At some point, MOM may be asking him sternly why he isn’t staying in company housing. If so, that’s picking on the small guy. MOM should be directing their ire at employers who do what they do.