Shortly before Covid-19 infections exploded in Singapore’s migrant worker dormitories, TWC2 had a letter in the press alerting the public and the authorities about the vulnerabilities of our migrant labour population.

Among them, we mentioned how there is a common practice of employers imposing fines (salary deductions) on workers for taking a day off even when they are not feeling well. This would be in addition to losing their wages for the day. For employees with already low salaries, the threat of fines would deter many of them from choosing to rest. However, going to work while slightly ill — perhaps the onset of something more serious — makes disease transmission much easier.

Most of the time, workers report fines in the region of $50 per day of absence. Besides being unreasonable, this is a big loss to workers whose daily wage may only be in the $18 to $26 range.

Earlier in July 2020, we heard from Bangladeshi worker Sharif about an employer who threatened a fine of $500. Five hundred dollars. It was a bit of an old story, as Sharif was recounting what happened a few years back in his third job. By the time he was telling us this anecdote, he was in his fifth or sixth job.

Here’s what Sharif said to two TWC2 volunteers:

For readers’ convenience, here’s a transcript, in which we first set the context in terms of how much he paid to secure the job (approximately $5,000) and how long he worked there (eleven months):

Sharif: Agent money pay the… Singapore… Bangladesh money ah… three lakhs.

TWC2 Junior: OK which year — 2016, 17, 18?

Sharif: This one, er, seven…, this one I think er 15, 16 … like this.

TWC2 Junior: Sixteen.

Sharif: 15 to 16. I cannot remember lah.

TWC2 Senior: Tell me again, how much your agent fee for this company?

Sharif: This company pay the Bangladesh money, pay the three lakhs.

TWC2 Senior: And then how long you work in this company?

Sharif: This company also eleven months.

TWC2 Senior: Eleven months.

Sharif: Then after ah… [background noise]

TWC2 Senior: Then tell me, you said that you wanted to take ‘off’ for one day, is that right?

Sharif: Ya, right.

TWC2 Senior: And what did your boss say when you want one day off?

Sharif: One day you take off, money cutting 500.

TWC2 Junior: Money cutting 500.

Sharif: Salary cutting.

TWC2 Senior: And what did you say to your boss?

Sharif: I say ah, ‘Boss my body no good lah, tomorrow I no go working.” So I confirm. Boss also no happy, I also no happy. But I sleeping already. He also money cutting already. I take [unclear] already off ah, he money cutting. After, I go back time, he give back already. The ticket…

TWC2 Senior: The 500 dollars, he gave back to you.

Sharif: At that time, he give back already.

TWC2 Senior: In this company, the number three company, what was your basic salary?

Sharif: This company basic 24 dollar.

TWC2 Senior: And were you an electrician in this company also?

Sharif: Ya, electrician.

TWC2 Senior: I see…

As readers can hear from the recording, the boss threatened to deduct $500 when he wanted to rest in the dorm one day instead of going to work. He wasn’t feeling well (“body no good’) but the boss would have none of it.

With a basic salary of $24 a day, Sharif was earning only about $620 in monthly basic salary, so $500 would have been a huge hit. But by this point, Sharif had either already decided to quit or he knew his Work Permit was not going to be renewed, and quite likely, at the back of his mind he calculated that if the boss wanted to make good on that threat, he would be lodge a complaint at the Ministry of Manpower. He had little to lose since he wasn’t planning to stay on in the job anyway.

Fortunately in Sharif’s case, the boss thought better of going through with it and “returned” the money when Sharif was given his ticket to fly home to Bangladesh.

Most other workers would not be so confident. Most other workers wouldn’t want to lose their jobs, so they would have no way to resist their boss’ demands to work even when unwell. Or they’d just have to accept the monetary loss without demurral.

As electricians are relatively in demand, Sharif had a bit more bargaining power than the average migrant worker. Even so, he had to pay about $5,000 to his “agent” — probably an unlicensed recruiter — to secure this third job of his. This amount would be equivalent to eight months of basic salary.

It is one thing to deduct a day’s wages for absence without medical leave, it is quite another to impose fines.

TWC2 urges that stern action be taken against such company practices. As Covid-19 has shown, this is not just a matter of labour relations. It has external consequences, affecting public health.