By TWC2 volunteer Tan Yao Kun, based on an interview in September 2020

If the company ran out of projects on certain days — which happened on occasion — he would not be paid on those days, Hossain Alomgir tells me. If there was work, he would be paid $20 a day in basic salary.

However, before he arrived in Singapore for the job, a document issued by the Ministry of Manpower stated that his basic salary would be $575 a month. This document, the In-Principle Approval (IPA) for a Work Permit (see explanation in Glossary), would have reflected the details provided by the employer to the ministry when applying for a permit. But, Alomgir remarks, the reality is far from what he was promised. His employer chose instead to calculate wages on a per-day basis.

This practice is a contravention of the law. According to the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations 2012, Fourth Schedule, Part III, paragraph 4,

Except where the foreign employee is on no-pay leave outside Singapore, the employer shall, regardless of whether there is actual work for the foreign employee … pay the foreign employee not less than the amount declared as the fixed monthly salary in the work pass application submitted for the foreign employee.

The fixed monthly salary is made up of various components, among which is the basic monthly salary. Based on the law, then, the just and rightful basic wage that Alomgir should receive is not the one observed in practice ($20 per day on available workdays), but at least the $575 per month that was stated in the IPA as his basic salary.

This difference between theory and practice is common, says Alomgir. Especially when migrant workers are often paid extremely low wages, and may suffer deductions for food and housing, small differences in calculating wages can translate to big disadvantages. They are hardly trivial to them.

Because what he earned depended on how much work he got, his total pay (including overtime pay) could fluctuate between $800 and $300 a month. Sometimes he struggled to send money home after he had paid for his meals and phone bill.

That many employers ignore the law in this way points out a clear weakness of current regulatory efforts. Alomgir has been in three jobs so far, and all three employers have adopted this daily-wage practice regardless of the law.

Hurray, pay increase

He worked five years for his third employer, and his (as-practised) pay was increased twice. It climbed a measly one dollar to $21/day, then to $22/day. However, as mentioned above, he should not even have been on a daily rate as the law requires a monthly rate, so even these two figures are of dubious legality.

Alomgir then met with a workplace accident on 10 December 2018. Since the accident —  this interview is in September 2020, about 22 months later — he has been in limbo, unable to work at all.

In hindsight, even the “illegal” $20 a day looks like good money.

Alomgir’s story is not new. It is the reality faced by many migrant workers who experience being underpaid and struggle to recoup debts and expenses.