By L. Narasimhan based on an interview in March 2019

“I wander around the city, going from place to place trying to find a new job,” says Sukhwinder Singh, when I ask him what he has been doing for the past three months. “I wake up in my apartment, eat at Gurudwara [temple], and then go out in the sun to wander some more.”

Sukhwinder was employed at Ng Electrical for three and a half months from August until November 2018. One day, he was told the job had come to an end. Not just him, but nineteen of his colleagues as well. The reason that they did not know at that time was that the employer had not paid the monthly foreign worker levy to the Ministry of Manpower — a condition for keeping their Work Permits alive.

That day at the end of November, they were called to a meeting with the employer, who looked at all of them and said that their permits had been terminated and that they will no longer be allowed to work in the company. As for the owed salaries, “If you want to complain to MOM, go right ahead, we don’t care,” were the final words from the employer.

Sukhwinder had not been paid for the entire period he worked. As were the others.

He warms up to me quickly as we continue our conversation in his language: “I got nothing. Nothing from the employer. On the first month the boss said I’ll get my money the next month. But next month came and went, and I still did not get any money. In the last month, the boss came down, called all the workers and told us that we no longer have work for you.”

Like the great majority of migrant workers in Singapore, Sukhwinder had paid to get this job. “I have not even managed to cover my agent fees. I do not know what to do.”

Sukhwinder worked in Singapore for about five years before deciding to go home to India for some rest. His mother had been alone, as his sister and brother were married. Then he decided to come back to Singapore for another shot at employment. He paid $4,000 to an agent who found him this job with Ng Electricals. That ate into whatever little savings he had — which wasn’t enough — and then put him into a debt with some of his friends.

Not being paid and then losing the job after a few months landed a brutal blow to his financial position. With little left to do, he and three compatriots went to Ministry of Manpower to lodge their complaints. He was desperate when he came to the ministry, he says, and he asked the officers there for any help they could provide. He quickly learned that at best it would be a very slow process. All he got out of that first meeting was a Special Pass to help him “wander around”, in his own words, while he awaits settlement of his claim for three and a half months of effort in the scorching sun. Sukwinder says he is owed about $2,200.

That amount may not be much, but it’s everything to a man who invested all he had in buying this job. And even if he succeeds in his claim, it’s still less than the “agent money” of $4,000 that he paid last year.

His employer, Sukhwinder has heard, has done this before. In the broken English he has picked up over the years here, he tells me: “Boss opened three companies before. Boss not pay levy, company close down. He again make company and hire me. Then he not pay levy. Company close. MOM cancels my pass.”

We can’t verify this specific allegation, but it’s a pattern TWC2 finds familiar. Unscrupulous employers and directors of companies hire workers with no intention of ever paying them. They extract labour for three to four months, stop paying the levy and rely on MOM to cancel the workers’ permits. declaring bankruptcy, they escape paying the workers altogether. But with the aid of free labour, they amass wealth for themselves. See further comment below.

Fortunately, there are those at MOM with compassion as well and who try their best to help unpaid workers. A samaritan officer gave Sukhwinder some tips on dealing with the rules. While it is true that he may not be employed with the Special Pass, nothing stops him from looking for a new job in the meantime. According to Sukhwinder, the good-hearted officer told him that he should begin looking for a job, and once he has found one, the officer would issue a “permission to look for job” letter.

The process sounds a bit comical, but the officer is trying to make the best of the rules. The “permission to look for job” letter is only for two weeks. How is a labourer with no contacts here and no centralised jobs site to refer to, going to find a job within two weeks? It’s a herculean task even for the privileged folks like us. So the officer is advising Sukhwinder how to get around the rigid rules.

Sukhwinder is now wandering and looking for a job. Over and over, he keeps asking me and other TWC2 volunteers for a job. When I take down his phone number for record-keeping, he insists that I call him back as soon as I know of any job opportunity.

On bosses setting up and closing companies serially in order to get free labour, this, theoretically, shouldn’t be happening. On 6 February 2017, then-Minister for Manpower Lim Swee Say told Parliament that ‘culpable directors’ of companies that fail to pay their employees would be ‘debarred’ from hiring more foreign workers. The minister added that a culpable director is one who ‘deserve[s] blame for not paying salary regardless of whether it is due to negligence, intentional or otherwise.’ He then explained:

‘In other words, if you are a director of a company, and you have contributed to the non-payment of salary, the debarment applies to this director as well. So, this director can go on to open and start a new company, the debarment will follow him to the new company until he pays up the outstanding salary to the ex-employees.’

Given the above hearsay from Sukhwinder (hearsay that is supported by the reported comment by the boss that he couldn’t care if employees filed complaints at MOM) it would be an interesting question whether MOM is still applying that policy.