Kibria and Selim aren’t their real names. As for why we’re not using their real names, see the final paragraphs below. It will hammer home how endemic the problem of illegal “agent” fees and kickbacks has become in Singapore, and pose the question why little has been done about it by the authorities.

The background is this: Kibria and Selim both worked for the same renovation company for about three to four months starting in April 2019. Not once did they get any salary. By August, they had become very frustrated and were about to make their way to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to lodge salary complaints when they discovered that their Work Permits had been revoked.

They would later hear from ministry officials that the employer had not paid their foreign worker levies either, and this was why the permits were revoked.

Their salary claims were referred to the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) which organises mediation sessions between employees and employers. However, the boss didn’t show up for any session and so no resolution was possible.

TADM then referred the cases to the Employment Claims Tribunal for adjudication around November 2019, and since the boss didn’t show up there either, the court issued judgements in their favour.

Kibria has in hand an Order of Tribunal for $5,100. Selim, for $3,100.

“You both worked four months,” your writer asks them. “Why the big difference in claim value?”

Selim answers. “We not work same site. He (Kibria) have many overtime, but [the project to which I was assigned] no overtime.”

In the big picture, that’s a minor detail. Right now, the big question is how to enforce the Orders. Singapore has no practical system at all. Employers can happily ignore court orders, leaving unpaid workers high and dry.

Moreover, the unpaid wages are not the only sums Kibria and Selim will likely lose. Both paid handsomely to secure their jobs. There is no way they can get their “investment” back now.

Agent money

Kibria found this renovation job in the months leading up to April 2019 through a friend in Bangladesh. This friend introduced him to a guy called Minto who was a Bangladeshi worker in Singapore, doing a side business as a recruiter. Minto arranged the renovation job for a fee of $3,600, which had to be paid in Singapore. Kibria then borrowed the needed amount from a bank in Bangladesh and sent the money over to another friend here who then paid Minto on Kibria’s behalf.

Kibria mentioned this to TADM in the hope of adding it to his salary claim, but it was not accepted. “I talk to TADM [about it] but TADM not care,” he says.

We explain to him that much depends on how much evidence he has and secondly, such complaints are anyway under a different department of MOM.

Selim’s story is an even more blatant one. “My agent is not really agent,” he says. “He is the company supervisor, name Joinal.”

Joinal, like Minto, is also a Bangladeshi migrant worker in Singapore, padding his income through charging new workers for the privilege of a job. Joinal charged Selim $3,800 for the job.

Adds Selim: “But Joinal say ‘Don’t pay me, pay another man’.”

This other man is yet another Bangladeshi worker whose role was obviously to help Joinal cover his tracks.

One begins to wonder if the “China boss” whom neither Selim nor Kibria ever met, was a proxy owner of the company, a figurehead. “Joinal, he control everything in the company,” explains Selim.

Trying to move on

With the prospect of recovering their owed wages so poor, not to mention the $3,600 and $3,800 paid to get their jobs in the first place, the two guys’ focus now is to get new jobs as quickly as possible. Covid-19 has further delayed their plans. It’s been 14 months since they began working with the renovation company, and they’ve not had any income since.

Selim has had little luck so far, but Kibria has found a possible new job in another renovaion company — let’s call it Company B.

“I meet Company B owner for interview last week,” says Kibria. “He ask for $1,800 agent fee.”

“I say I no money now, so he say, can pay $1,000 first, then every month salary cutting $200.”

The boss of Company B was proposing a “generous” installment plan of $1,000 downpayment and 4 months’ deductions of $200 per month.

They both think $1,800 sounds like a good deal. Selim interjects, “Other company, all asking minimum 2,000, or 2,500, like that.”

They ask your writer for anonymity in telling their story. They’re still looking for new jobs and do not want to jeopardise their chances. Paying for jobs is a fact of life they have to live with.

“This one, complain also no use. MOM cannot solve.”