By TWC2 volunteer Xin Yu, based on an interview in May 2019

Roy Mithu is not unfamiliar with Singapore. He first came here for employment at a construction firm in 1997 and has been serving the industry ever since, occasionally travelling between Singapore and his home country Bangladesh. In 2014, Mithu returned to Bangladesh to get married, and a year later, the happy couple welcomed a newborn son into their family. To provide better for his family, Mithu decided to return to Singapore for a job at another construction firm. What he did not foresee was that this time, he would be stuck in Singapore with no promising end date.

Mithu had stayed loyal to his new company, MD Construction, since returning to Singapore in 2015. All was smooth sailing until December last year, when Mithu realised his employer missed his pay check for the month. As with most other migrant workers faced with this all-too-familiar situation, he held off any complaints for fear of burning bridges with his employer. The employer’s right to cancel a foreign worker’s work permit at any time serves as a strong disincentive suppressing employees’ voices.

However, a month turned to four, and Mithu found himself struggling to get by without money. Then, all of a sudden, the company claimed there was “no more work” for him. Deciding that enough was enough, he finally mustered the courage to file a salary claim of $11,000 at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). It was at this point that Mithu realised he was far from being alone: about 70 other co-workers were filing claims too. When they toted up all that was owed by the employer, it came to about $500,000.

After three or four rounds of mediation at the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM), Mithu says, a compromise agreement was signed in which he would get $7,000 – a roughly 40% cut from the $11,000 owed. Yet, there has been no sign of any money. He is agitated, saying that the boss is claiming that the company has gone bankrupt.

Dipu, a colleague also with a claim filed against the same company, joins us and adds that their Chinese bosses have sent all their profits back to China. The workers are concerned that the money is pretty much untraceable and irretrievable. The chances of each of these 70 men receiving their pay checks have effectively narrowed from slim to none.

But maybe the payment under the settlement agreement isn’t due yet. Perhaps that’s why they haven’t seen any money.

We ask Mithu what was the payment due date stated on the settlement agreement. Mithu just shakes his head in despondence, saying “no have”. His answer is echoed by Dipu. But what does that answer mean? Was the payment due on the date of signing, or was it simply left open-ended? Unfortunately, neither man has a copy of the agreement at hand to show us, so we cannot check.

What this does show is how ill-equipped migrant workers are when faced with the technicalities of contracts and agreements. They don’t know what elements are essential to make a good agreement; they don’t know what details to pay attention to. Informing them of their rights is only one of many layers of knowledge and habits they need to be able to protect themselves.

At this stage, it’s not clear what lies ahead for the men. TWC2’s experience with similar cases hitting a wall indicates that MOM may have to get some money for them through the $5,000 security bond that had been put up by the employer at the time they applied for the men’s work permits. This route won’t yield much, maybe $2,000 per worker, a far cry from what they’re owed.

Throughout the interview, a look of resignation is apparent on Mithu’s face, but when I mention his family, it turns solemn and sad. “Boy, only four. Wife waiting for me,” Mithu laments with a heavy sigh of helplessness. “Once I get money, next day I fly back.”

Will he consider coming back to Singapore to seek employment again? “No,” is his quiet but firm answer. “Not happy here.”

MD Construction first came onto TWC2’s radar in mid 2017 when over 20 Indian workers approached us asking for assistance over their salary claims. Roy Mithu belongs to a later, 2019, batch, this time of Bangladeshi workers. TWC2 hopes the company (and any new companies formed by the same directors or their relatives) will never again be allowed to hire foreign workers.