By Avijit B, based on an interview in March 2019

Gafur has had a turbulent time since the day he arrived in Singapore. In the space of seven months, he went from the hope of steady work abroad to the frustration of being stuck without work and pay. Borrowing money from relatives to pay for rent and food, he is eager to recover his outstanding salary and move on. As he sits with me and shares his story, however, it is clear he has had no such luck.

Gafur came to Singapore in August 2018. He worked here once previously, so he had a good idea of working conditions. The agent he spoke to in Bangladesh made it sound simple — he would speak to his (the agent’s) brother based in Singapore to have Gafur work for him; Gafur would be paid a salary of $1,600 a month; and would earn back the fees demanded by the agent ($3,300) within about two months.

Ultimately however, Gafur wouldn’t make it three days before realising something was wrong.

“The agent bluff me”, he says, “he put me in brother company, but brother company no good. Many cases.”  From what he heard, the company was behind in salary payments to many of its workers. When his employer came to him asking him to sign a paper stating he had paid only $600 in agent fees, Gafur refused. His employer made it clear, “No sign, go home”. Fully aware he was nearing 50, he knew that if sent back this time, it was unlikely he’d be able to work outside Bangladesh again. “I scared” he shared, “[so] I sign”.

Knowing his employer was unlikely to pay him regularly or on time, Gafur went straight to the Taiyuan Construction & Engineering, the company for which his employer was providing manpower. He told them he could work as a sprinkler systems installer, and they agreed. Gafur then transferred to this employer and started immediately, hoping to get the steady paycheck he came to Singapore for.

By November 2018, three months after arriving in Singapore, he was still without pay. A friend of his suggested he check his work pass status on the SGWorkPass app. Gafur checked, getting a shock when he realised his pass had been cancelled nearly three months back. “I go suddenly police station”, he says, “they say go custody”. Being an overstayer, though unwittingly, he was detained till the police could ascertain if he overstayed deliberately.

He spent three days in custody before his case was transferred by the police to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) where he told officers that he had not been paid. The MOM agent showed him a picture of two people, asking if they were his employers. Gafur didn’t know — he very likely never met the company owners or directors — so MOM issued him a Special Pass to extend his stay in Singapore, perhaps so that investigations could be conducted.

Since then, it’s been the same futile story. Gafur would go to MOM at the pass expiry date, where they would ask him if he had spoken to this employer. He would say no, following which they would give him an extension on his Special Pass validity. He had tried to go back to the Taiyuan offices to speak to them twice, but both times found the offices closed. “I scared gangster catch me, send me back” he says.

“Cannot find boss,” is the explanation Gafur says  his case officer gave him for why there has been no progress on his salary claim. This is really strange. It’s hardly difficult looking up the public company records: the sole owner and director is a Singaporean living in Toa Payoh. Did MOM really try hard enough to locate him?

Gafur’s last remaining hope may soon be gone. Earlier on the day he sat down to share his story, MOM had only given him a day’s extension. The signal was clear, after 4 months and 13 extensions, MOM may be giving up on his case.

According to TWC2’s Alex Au, MOM’s stated process begins with mediation at the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) between an employer and the worker with outstanding salary claims. Gafur’s understanding is that since MOM couldn’t find his employer, they cannot even commence the first step.

“This is not the right way to go about a case like this,” says Alex. “They should have set a mediation date and sent a letter by registered post to the employer to ask him to attend. If he does not, Gafur’s case should be directed immediately to the Employment Claims Tribunal.”

If the employer still does not show up at the Tribunal, “then the tribunal which is part of the State Courts should issue a summary judgement in Gafur’s favour.”

“That way, there is an official, enforceable record of the employer’s debt.”

Currently, Gafur has nothing.

Undoubtedly, enforcement of a court judgement is costly, time-consuming, and generally impractical for low-wage migrant workers. Given such cases, Alex shares, TWC2 has long recommended a Salary Default Fund. The concept is simple — if the employer defaults, the fund kicks in. A worker with a court judgement confirming his claim can present it to the fund. The fund takes on the claim and pays the worker the judgement sum, perhaps with a discount.  “The small guy can move on” Alex says, “the fund and its lawyers can chase the employers”.  The Fund would ideally be in touch with banks to deny credit worthiness to defaulting employers, putting pressure on them to pay up. It could potentially be started with seed investment sourced from Foreign Worker levies.

As for Gafur’s case, TWC2 thinks it unlikely he’ll be able to recover the full $4,800 owed to him. The only of hope is the security bond that Taiyuan, the employer, bought. The insurer behind the bond may persuaded to stump up some money for him — perhaps $2,500 — in lieu of forfeiture of all $5,000 of the bond. Gafur’s MOM officer mentioned this option to him, but Gafur has not yet accepted it. He remains frustrated that he cannot get the entire owed amount back. He had a simple aim of making a regular paycheck to support his family back home. Instead, after seven months, he’s likely to be sent back with little to show for his time in Singapore.