Video and Text by Dixie Chan based on an interview in February 2021. Music: Flickering Shadows by Paul Mottram, Audio Network.

Azom Kayda is no stranger to working in Singapore. Since 2006, the 39-year-old Bangladeshi national has worked for five or six companies in Singapore, building roads and laying pipes, before moving on to work as a plumber. The experience on the whole has been positive, he says. but this latest stint at a renovation works company has left him in a hole.

Azom has not been paid for the last four months of work.

On 17 February 2020, Azom started work at DST Engineering, and his job involved travelling from one house to another where renovation works were being carried out. Azom would do the plumbing part. 

Within six weeks of his starting with this employer, the pandemic worsened and all construction work in Singapore came to a halt. Like most migrant workers, Azom had to remain in his room for the months of April, May and June during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Through those months, Azom was still getting paid. Not in cash like how it was in previous months, but through electronic bank transfer. The Ministry of Manpower had directed employers to switch to the electronic mode when it came to paying their workers, in view of social distancing guidelines.

Post-lockdown, work resumes

With the lockdown lifted from July, work resumed, but the employer reverted to paying his salary in cash. For Azom, this didn’t seem like a noteworthy detail. All he had to do was to sign the salary slip and receive the cash. And since he had been getting paid so far, there was little reason to doubt his employer.

“My boss talking happy happy, I happy happy sign. But [at] this time my boss and me good relation. I never thinking if I sign my boss never give salary,” says Azom.

However, cash payments do not generate the same independent transaction records that electronic transfers do. And sure enough, this would become a problem.

For September and October 2020, Azom was presented with the payslips for his signature as usual and, trusting his boss, he signed them. Unfortunately, he did not receive any money. The rent for his room, which was normally handled by his employer, was not paid either.

“September, October, November and December my boss never pay my salary,” says Azom. “And my boss [used to] pay my room rental money. [However, for] September October, November, December, until now, my boss never pay my room rental money.”

“All money I pay,” explains Azom with frustration. “This money I take from my wife brother… I take borrow,” Azom reveals. His brother-in-law is also working in Singapore.

As the sole breadwinner for his family of five, there was growing pressure on Azom to send remittances home. Through the fourth quarter of 2020, even as he was getting increasingly anxious about the salary situation, Azom continued to work. He continued to hope that his wages were merely delayed and that eventually, the arrears would be resolved.

By late December, when the payslips for November and December were presented to him for his signature, Azom’s patience had run out and he confronted his boss about the fact that the September and October wages had still not been paid. The boss’ response was to arrange his repatriation, texting him an air ticket. 

“My boss with me angry, I also angry with my boss,” Azom emphasised. “My boss say, ‘You want to do like that, date 31, December 31, this day your flight have.’ After that I very scared,” recalls Azom.

Now at an impasse, Azom stopped working on 26 December 2020. After the weekend, he went to the Ministry of Manpower on Monday, 28 December to file a salary claim over the four months of salary that was owed to him, as well as overtime wages for about 140 hours.

Handicapped by lack of evidence

Azom’s case won’t be smooth sailing, based on what he tells me about a meeting at MOM on 2 February that aimed to reach a possible settlement. Instead, the employer tabled the September and October salary slips that Azom had trustingly signed to “prove” that he had been paid for those two months. As for the months of November and December, the employer contended that Azom had not been working and so was not entitled to salary.

Says Azom: “MOM meeting time, my boss talking: ‘September, October I salary give already. [Signature] also take already. November, December, there my company no working. No working how to I salary give’ — my boss talking.”

(This is incorrect in law. The Employment of Foreign Manpower Act states clearly that even if an employer had no work to assign to an employee, the employer should still pay the basic salary for the month.)

On a Special Pass

The Ministry of Manpower has issued Azom a Special Pass so that he can stay on in Singapore to pursue his claim, but this may take months and the financial strain on him can only worsen. As a Special Pass holder, Azom is not allowed to work and the only way he can get by in an expensive city like Singapore is to borrow money from his friends and former colleagues.

But his worries do not end there. Miles away in Bangladesh, Azom’s family of five, which includes his 3-year-old daughter and 7- month-old baby son, is struggling to make ends meet by borrowing from their relatives. It is not only a great financial toll, but an emotional one as well.

Azom has yet to hold his infant son in his own arms. Working 2,500 km from home is a necessary sacrifice many Bangladeshi men need to make to feed their families. 

Will this bad experience deter you from ever coming back to Singapore to work again? I ask Azom.

Without hesitation, he says it won’t. Once the dust settles, he will seek another job here as he has done for the past 14 years. That is the unwavering strength and conviction of a father who is seeking to give his family a better life.