By TWC2 volunteer Natalie T, based on an interview in August 2020

The promise of $780 a month was what pulled Bangladeshi-national Sajalal to Singapore for the fourth time. After three separate stints with other employers, doing mostly plastering jobs, Sajalal came back in July 2019 to work at Wang Da Construction.

He had managed to secure this fourth job with the help of a friend. Sajalal was in Bangladesh at the time and it was this friend who put him into contact with an agent, who then arranged for a call with the boss at Wang Da.

“Boss call me, tell me he pay $30 a day,” says Sajalal in our interview. Such a rate equates to a basic monthly salary of $780 — a respectable amount. Sajalal agreed to the job.

Of course, this would not come without a kickback. For securing a job at Wang Da, a fee of $1,000 was demanded. This figure is considerably lower than the average agent fee, which could go up to three, four, or even five times this amount for a worker with a few years’ experience.

Sajalal then asked his uncle, who was working in Singapore too, to pay the $1,000 on his behalf. The uncle met up with the boss and handed the money over in cash.

With a decent salary and a relatively small fee to pay, it seemed like Sajalal had gotten himself a sweet deal.

But when the company’s work permit application was approved by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and an In-principle Approval (IPA) letter issued, the basic monthly salary stated on the document was $500.

This figure wouldn’t have been decided by MOM. It would have been submitted by the employer-applicant to MOM and the ministry would have simply reflected that salary on the IPA document.

This $280 difference did not go unnoticed by Sajalal, who then enquired with his boss about the discrepancy.

“He tell me, don’t worry, just work properly and I pay you,” explains Sajalal.

At this point, and before he even commenced on the job, Sajalal really wasn’t sure how much he would be paid. Would it be $780 as verbally promised, or $500 as stated on the IPA?

Was the boss to be believed?

One can only imagine the stress-inducing uncertainty of being in a foreign country without any guarantee of a reliable salary.

It turned out that it was neither $780 or $500. Instead, after starting at the job, he was told he would be placed on a piece-rate. “You finish this, pay so much. Finish that, pay so much, ” Sajalal reports his boss as saying.

Here’s the breakdown of his earnings in the four months he worked at Wang Da: Around $900 for the first month; $1,050 for the second, $1,075 for the third; and $350 for the fourth (he had to stop work because of an injury). Sajalal isn’t clear how each of these sums was derived.

Instead, what is “clear” is the opacity of salary promises and lack of proper accountability that migrant workers like Sajalal face in their quest for employment.