By TWC2 volunteer Wei Ting based on an interview in February 2021

Two facets of Kamruzzaman’s story leave us shaking our heads.

  • The salary shortfall from the very start;
  • Being without work or income for twelve months after a fall from a ladder.

Kamruzzaman is no newbie. He has spent about twelve years working in Singapore, possesses a keen command of English and is wise to the various things that can go wrong. Yet, for this sole breadwinner of his family, and as pointed out by Alex Au, vice-president of TWC2, “things still went wrong — which only shows how little of their lives are within their control, and how much their fate is determined by others.”

Bangladeshi citizen Kamruzzaman joined Y T Lim Contractor around 15 January 2020. He had been introduced to this job by a former colleague. Y T Lim Contractor was his fourth employer after three previous gigs in Singapore, and he felt that he had sufficient experience to know what to expect.

Unfortunately, this would later prove itself to be the “worst company” he had ever worked with in Singapore.

He was prepared to overlook the demand to pay for the job. Such demands are so commonplace — even though they are illegal under Singapore law — that workers know that if they want to stick to principle, they may never find a job at all. Reality being such, it is no longer a question of resisting demands for payment, but one of looking for a job that asks for relatively less.

Kamruzzaman thought he had struck lucky. Whilst most workers in the construction industry with his experience would be asked to pay $1,500 to $3,000 upfront, Kamruzzaman said he was offered a “special deal” to work for free for the first two months. His $600 monthly salary would be diverted to profit one of the “partners” of the company, he tells me. The total amount of $1,200 seemed reasonable, so he accepted the deal.

Interestingly, Kamruzzaman added that eventually, the kickback deduction was never applied to his salary; the only cost he incurred was buying his own air ticket to Singapore.

However, he could smell trouble from the first day on the job. He noted the number of workers in disbelief — he estimated there to be approximately 70 workers contracted under the company, but the company didn’t seem to have enough work for so many. He estimates that 70 was twice as many workers as necessary for the work available.

His suspicions, sadly, proved to be accurate.

Kamruzzaman recounts that he was only called to work about two days a week. There was at least one occasion where he “go one whole week without work”. He says the company then paid him only for those days when he had work, and as a result, his income effectively became around $200 a month, a far cry from what was outlined in his In-principle Approval (IPA) which, he says, promised a basic salary of $600 a month.

Under the law, the basic salary stated in the IPA letter must be paid to the worker regardless of whether he has work to do. If Kamruzzaman’s tale is correct, then the employer was breaking the law.

Perhaps it was because the company only chose to pay him about $200 in the first month that they couldn’t deduct the $600 they had said they would as the first installment of the recruitment fee. But this is mere speculation on Kamruzzaman’s part. Events would later overtake this matter.

Accident six weeks later

Before salary issues boiled over, a worse problem hit Kamruzzaman. On 28 February 2020, he fell down a tall ladder, injuring his neck and shoulders. Doctors issued him medical leave for 26 days, but no longer had medical leave ended when Covid-19 came, followed by quarantines and stop work orders at project sites.

Our interview is taking place in February 2021, a year from the accident. In all this time, he has not been allowed to work. His work permit has been cancelled by his employer and the Ministry of Manpower has put him on a Special Pass. This means he can legally stay on in Singapore but is not allowed to work while he waits for resolution of his injury compensation claim.

Obviously, he has been unable to support his family which includes two young children aged four and five. In a wistful tone, he tells me he has not been able to see them in person for a long while. He speaks of his wife too. She is pursuing Economics at university, he adds with quiet pride.

For the past twelve months that he has been fruitlessly waiting, it has been his brother, who works at a garment factory, who has provided financial support for the family, but Kamruzzaman knows this cannot be a permanent thing.

We wrote, “… only shows how little of their lives are within their control, and how much their fate is determined by others.”

The law is clear that employers should not be demanding or taking payments in return for giving employment to workers. Yet the practice is commonplace. It is obvious that enforcement of the law, or even simple monitoring of the extent of violations, is neglected. The result is that workers like Kamruzzaman may have no choice but to pay. Their fates are not in their hands, but depends on whether the government is serious about doing its job.

As for workers who have suffered injuries, TWC2 has long argued that once medical leave has ended, workers should be considered fit to return to work. If, by then, the work permit has been cancelled,we should let them look for new jobs. The current system denying them the right to work while waiting for conclusion of the compensation claim causes unnecessary financial hardship. So again, in Kamruzzaman’s case, his prolonged period of unemployment and financial distress is not within his control either. It springs from bad policy design.

One thing about bad policy design — it’s easy to fix. It’s just a matter of will.