For a year, construction worker Rubel was packing chicken parts in a factory in Senoko. Now he’s staying in a hotel in the Clarke Quay entertainment district, paid for by the Ministry of Manpower, according to him. Somewhere between the chicken thighs and the entertainment district there was a small story about Covid-19 affecting a fellow dormitory resident and how Rubel himself was put under quarantine for possible (but ultimately no) exposure to the coronavirus.
Rubel has a lot of stories. For this article, we’ll recount the one story that really doesn’t have anything to do with him. Instead, it’s about his cousin Alam Shahin, a certain Forhad and a company called Chu Cheng Construction Pte Ltd.
In early 2017, his cousin asked him to help make a payment to a recruiter named Forhad. Forhad was asking for $8,000 and since he was working in Singapore, wanted the payment made into a bank account here. Cousin Shahin was then still in Bangladesh and unable to make the money transfer.
Rubel himself didn’t have a bank account. So he enlisted the help of a friend who had. Rubel deposited $8,000 into that friend’s account and the friend transferred the sum to Forhad.
Then nothing happened for a month. When asked why, Forhad told Shahin that an extra $1,000 was needed — reason unclear. So Rubel was roped in again to send another $1,000 Forhad’s way.
And still nothing happened. The In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit (see explanation in Glossary) had been issued by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), thus confirming that the job was real and a Work Permit would be waiting for him after arrival. But where’s the air ticket? asked Shahin.
Eventually Shahin and his family had to make their own way to a travel agency in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to buy their own ticket. That cost a further 30,000 taka — approximately $500.
Here is a voice recording (2 min 16 secs) in which Rubel describes what happened in early 2017. The transcript is below. At places, we explain what Rubel meant in italics.
TWC2: Rubel, you said to me that in 2017, you helped your cousin brother get a job in Singapore.
TWC2: And you were helping your cousin brother to pay the agent…
TWC2: Mr Forhad….
TWC2: who is a Bangladeshi man in Singapore.
Rubel: Bangladeshi man live in Singapore….[passing vehicle] ….. Ya, he Bangladeshi man but working in Singapore.
TWC2: How much did your cousin brother have to pay to get this job?
Rubel: I pay the first time eight thousand then two month already he never bring to my cousin [he didn’t bring my cousin into Singapore], so never bring to my cousin, he never give the airticket. Then suddenly, one day call me, he ask me give to [him] some more one thousand plus. Then I give him also the one thousand for transfer the bank account…. the his account.
Rubel: Then after [later], I give after money also he never bring my cousin. Then my family of my cousin Bangladesh travels, agency travels go [my cousin’s family went to a travel agency in Bangladesh] then again need to pay the airticket, then he will coming Singapore [then he came to Singapore].
TWC2: So, let me understand this. At that time, your cousin brother was in Bangladesh.
TWC2: But the agent Mr Forhad was in Singapore.
TWC2: And your cousin brother asked you to help him pay eight thousand dollars…
TWC2: to Mr Forhad.
TWC2: And, er, how did you pay? In a bank transfer, you say?
Rubel: Bank transfer.
TWC2: So you pay from your bank account to Mr Forhad account or how?
Rubel: Forhad account I transfer but I, ya,
TWC2: How did you transfer into Forhad account?
Rubel: I don’t have the account [I don’t have a bank account of my own] but I help the some other man [but I got help from some other man]. Other man have the account, I just first time I top up his account, then I transfer it the Forhad account.
TWC2: So, did you have proof that you transfer to Mr Forhad account?
Rubel: Yes, this proof last that time I have, all proof I pass to MOM officer.
TWC2: So, total you transferred nine thousand dollars.
Rubel: Nine thousand dollars and then buy airticket from Bangladesh, thirty thousand taka.
TWC2: Thirty thousand taka was paid in Bangladesh to buy an airticket.
Rubel: Yes, ticket for Singapore coming the five hundred [five hundred Singapore dollars].
Outrageous job broker’s fee
Rubel has a copy of Shahin’s In-Principle Approval (IPA) on his phone. He shows it to your writer.
In-principle Approval (IPA) issued by MOM to Rubel’s cousin Alam Shahin in early 2017
The IPA shows that the employer was Chu Cheng Construction Pte Ltd. Interestingly, it indicates that no employment agency was involved in the hiring and “Agency fee to be paid” was zero.
The $9,000 asked for is not shown on the document and thus has not been declared to the authorities, though Rubel did have proof of the bank transfer, he says.
What’s also interesting is the salary. The basic monthly salary was stated as $494. Minus a housing deduction of $85 per month, Alam Shahin would get a nett salary of $399. Of course, if he got overtime work (not assured), overtime wages would be added on.
The recruiter’s fee of $9,000 paid to Forhad was 18 times the basic monthly salary and 23 times the nett fixed salary. Cousin Shahin would need to stay on the job for a few years at least to recover the amount he paid to secure the job.
Short payment of salary
Having spent another $500 to buy his own airticket, the cousin came to Singapore and commenced on the job. Almost immediately, a new problem arose, this time directly with the employer.
There would be a $100 deduction from each month’s salary for “Savings money”. Usually, when en employer does this, the boss tells the workers that he is helping them save, and that the accumulated amounts will be returned to employees either at the end of each Work Permit period, or at the end of employment.
It appears that the cousin bore with it for a year, and understandably too. It would be foolhardy to protest this deduction for then the boss might simply cancel the Work Permit. Singapore law allows employers to sack workers and cancel Work Permits at will. Shahin needed to work for a few years to recover the $9,500 he had sunk in; he could not afford to risk his job.
But then, after a year, the boss refused to renew the Work Permit.
TWC2: During this job, your cousin brother worked in Chu Cheng Construction for how long?
Rubel: One years.
TWC2: For one year.
TWC2: Why did he not continue, why did he not continue working?
Rubel: This company the saving money deduct the every month one hundred dollar. This… his company say when he go back, they will give this money, return back.
Rubel: But he after say one year finish then say cannot renew, continue. Need to go back. Then my cousin asking to his boss then every month the deduct, the saving money one hundred dollar, give me back. Company never give him too. Then, that’s why my cousin go MOM, so claim this money. Then after, my cousin all history pass to MOM.
TWC2: Thank you.
Cousin Shahin then marched off to MOM to file a complaint, at first about the unpaid portion of his salary. Soon enough, the role of Forhad and the amounts paid — within Singapore jurisdiction — must have come out too.
Under the Employment Agencies Act, no one may perform the role of an employment agent without a licence. So Forhad must have been committing an offence doing what he did. And by using Forhad’s services, the employer does not have clean hands either.
In any case, if it was true that the employer withheld $100 each month from the cousin’s salary — it is an offence under the Employment Act not to pay the full salary promptly — it may prove hard for the employer to paint himself whiter than white. Which of course raises the question whether the employer pocketed a part (big part?) of the $9,000 that Shahin paid to get the job. If so, that’s an offence too.
But we don’t know how the case ended
It appears that MOM opened an investigation based on Shahin’s complaints. Rubel now became the witness, and he was asked to stay on in Singapore to assist with the investigation.
More than a year later, Rubel has not been called to give evidence in court. In fact, the latest he heard from MOM is that “case finished already”, and that he should be going home.
We try to find out from Rubel how exactly the case finished, but he doesn’t really know. All he heard was that Forhad is no longer in Singapore. A quick web search failed to pull up any news story about Chu Cheng Construction being charged for offences.
After a longish detour in the conversation about chickens, hotels and Covid-19,
TWC2: Can I come back to your cousin brother case. Did MOM catch Mr Forhad?
Rubel: Last time, catch Forhad. Then after, er… he the automatic go back already, how I don’t know. How to close.
TWC2: So you don’t know. So your cousin brother get back the eight thousand dollars?
TWC2: Never get back.
TWC2: I see. Saving money get back or no get back from Chu Cheng?
TWC2: Also never get back.
Rubel: [My cousin] Go back already.
TWC2: So you don’t know how … company catch or not? The company boss…
Rubel: That time, ah, company boss, the case or what I don’t know, because that time my relations no good already. Because my mother or my cousin, my auntie also the relation is very bad already.
TWC2: So you don’t know what happened to your cousin-brother case.
Rubel: After, I don’t know what happened. Because I know also my cousin this year coming. The lockdown before coming, another company. [My cousin came back to Singapore to join another company before the Covid-19 lockdown].
TWC2: So your cousin came back for another company, another job.
One can’t help wondering how much the cousin paid for the latest job.
Increasingly common for illegal agents to be operating out of Singapore
From our casework and interviews with workers, TWC2 has observed that it is increasingly common to hear of Work Permit holders in Singapore acting as recruiters. The old stereotypical picture of recruiters circulating in the villages of India and Bangladesh is out of date. The recruiters, raking in illicit profits and possibly working hand-in-glove with employers, are right here under our noses.
More than ever, it is now Singapore’s problem, and Singapore stands to be judged how it tackles it.