This is a three-part series.

Part 1: Islam Md Johirul
Part 2: Hossain Mohammad Monoar
Part 3: Commentary

With his work permit expiring on 9 April 2021, Islam Md Johirul began looking for a new job in March. He wasn’t entirely happy with the low salary of $650 a month at 6a Engineering Pte Ltd and hoped for a better option. This was why he told his boss Gary that he was not keen on getting the work permit renewed.

Johirul had four years’ experience installing security systems and electromagnetic locks, and felt that with his skill, he should be able to earn more than $650.

Meanwhile, his supervisor at 6a Engineering, Abdus Salam, had recently switched to a company called Pixels Connect and suggested to Johirul that he could move over too. Johirul then met with the General Manager of Pixels Connect, a certain Amir. The job interview, such as it was, took place in a coffee shop and they agreed on a basic salary of $900 a month.

The In-Principle Approval (IPA) (see Glossary) from Pixels Connect came through soon enough on 8 March 2021, and it stated a basic salary of $900 as agreed. But Johirul was surprised to see a monthly deduction of $200 for housing, which was not what had been agreed. Netting off this $200 deduction, his fixed monthly salary would be only $700, hardly better than his old job at 6a Engineering.

Around the same time, Abdus Salam reported that the work conditions at Pixels Connect were unsatisfactory. Workers there had to work extra hours but no overtime wages were paid, the former supervisor said to Johirul.

Johirul then asked Amir about the $200 housing deduction, “Why like that?”

Amir reportedly told him “Company rules”.

Amir added that if he (Johirul) didn’t like the terms contained in the new IPA, he could always reject the new job and as soon as the work permit with 6a Engineering expired, he could go home. However, Amir also said that if he (Johirul) rejected the job, he (Johirul) would have to pay Amir (or Pixels Connect) $1,100, plus the cost of the airticket and the pre-departure Covid-19 swab test.

There was some hint that if Johirul did not cough up the money, Amir would not buy the airticket and Johirul would end up overstaying and be at the mercy of the law.

Conversations with MOM

Johirul approached TWC2 for advice. We told him that Amir was out of line to ask for such payments and that Johirul should ask the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for assistance. We would later learn from Johirul that he spoke with MOM three times over a week or two.

In the first, which was a phone call, he explained to the “MOM lady” the background to the matter, particularly about the $200 housing deduction. According to Johirul, the MOM lady told him (in Johirul’s words), “This thing, MOM cannot settle.”

As an interesting aside, it was Gary, his boss at 6a, who gave Johirul the MOM number to call. It appears that Gary remained helpful to Johirul even as the latter was wanting to quit.

Johirul’s second contact with MOM — he recalls it to be on the morning of 8 April — was a face-to-face meeting. He met with a different “MOM lady”. After explaining the background once again, Johirul explored the possibility of staying on with 6a Engineering and getting the work permit renewed. Johirul believed that Gary was willing to take him back.

Johirul recalls that MOM’s response was to reiterate their inflexible policies. Now that an IPA had been issued in the name of Pixels Connect, there was no way 6a Engineering could renew Johirul’s work permit. It would seem that for all practical purposes, Johirul was now (in a sense) owned by Pixels Connect, and if Johirul wanted to return to 6a Engineering, Johirul had to get Pixels Connect to “release” him. He recalls the MOM lady saying that a letter would be necessary from Pixels Connect agreeing to a transfer. Manumission is the word that comes to mind.

The demand for “rejection money”

Notwithstanding his low expectations, Johirul then asked Amir for a transfer letter so that he could go back to 6a Engineering. Unsurprisingly, Amir refused, and this time demanded that the asked-for $1,100 be paid within two hours. Johirul recorded this conversation.

TWC2 listened to the recording and while we could hear a demand for payment within two hours, no specific amount was mentioned. Nonetheless, it was suspicious that a demand for payment be made at all, since under the law it is illegal for employers to ask for any payment or benefit from workers.

In fact, Johirul had mentioned Amir’s demand for $1,100 and the cost of the airticket to MOM at his second meeting, and the MOM lady told him he should not pay. See also our comment in blue.

What the lady didn’t say was what MOM could do to protect him if Amir and Pixels Connect then exacted retribution against Johirul for refusing to pay. It’s like someone calling the police to say that his child has been taken and held for ransom, and the police advise “You shouldn’t hand over any money”, but do nothing about looking for the child or perpetrator.

Armed with the recording of Amir’s demand to pay up within two hours, Johirul spoke with MOM a third time. This was the morning of 9 April, which was also the day his 6a Engineering work permit was expiring.

Basically, MOM’s message to Johirul was to get ready to go home if he did not want the Pixels Connect job. By this point, Johirul was feeling so defeated, he might have agreed that this was the only option left to him.

According to Johirul, MOM concluded the conversation by saying they would write an email to the company – presumably Pixels Connect – to say they should arrange his Covid-19 swab text and air ticket home.

One more twist

But there was one more twist. Just as Johirul was leaving the MOM building, he received text messages from Amir, saying that since Johirul had not paid up within two hours, Amir had filed a missing person report with the police. This may be related to an earlier threat by Amir that if Johirul did not pay, Amir would “make sure that he is forever banned from Singapore”.

Johirul went straight back into MOM and saw the officer again who assured him there was nothing to worry about. It’s not clear to him what the MOM officer did after this.

He was repatriated on 12 April 2021.

Johirul is trying to get his old job back and apparently Gary is willing but with arrivals from Bangladesh currently banned – due to a Covid-19 surge in the subcontinent – this may not happen anytime soon.

As for Abdus Salam — the supervisor from 6a Engineering who switched to Pixels Connect — he too left Pixels Connect around the same time, unhappy with the new employer. However, we don’t know the details of his story.