By TWC2 volunteer Lee Xin Yu, based on an interview in December 2020
I meet Miah Salam and Rahman Ziaur at TWC2 on a Tuesday evening. I speak to them as they await their turn for a consultation over their salary claim they have filed against their employer, Picket & Rail, a solid-wood furniture retailer. For two workers of a furniture company, they sure had to make do with a lack of furniture.
Well, to start off, they lived in Picket & Rail’s warehouse on Tagore Lane – a furniture warehouse, I emphasise. With jobs making high-value items of plushy comfort and varnished gleam, all they had were half-cut piles of wood coated with a rich layer of dust to serve as their quarters. While Ziaur had moved out of the warehouse weeks before the Covid-19 lockdown began for them, Miah was not so lucky. He had to serve three months of quarantine in this environment. “Air no good, sleep no good,” he laments. I don’t imagine these six words to make the grade in describing the sheer discomfort of living amongst dusty machinery and wood cuttings for three whole months.
Living in a warehouse is convenient though – for their employers. A blurred line between residential and industrial spaces means that it is easy to get employees to work overtime (OT). Miah and Rahman tells me they “always OT” and often had to work on Sundays too.
As I pepper them with questions on life in a warehouse (I cannot help myself – I have never met anyone who lived in a warehouse!), Miah pulls out his phone to show me a video of space he worked, ate and slept in.
Inspected by the authorities
My eyes are immediately drawn to two beds lying in the midst of all the unfinished wood piles and shelves. Now, I’m not too sure if it is the beds or the juxtaposition that catches my attention – mixed retail concepts may be all the trend now, but a warehouse housing such a hybrid concept takes it to a new level.
How is that even safe? Or legal?
The guys then tell me the bed frames were a step up from before, provided by the employer only after an inspection by the authorities. Before that, they were sleeping on floor mattresses.
Their life of make-do’s continues to unfold as the video plays on. The centrepiece of their kitchen – which is just a corner of the warehouse, really – is an electric cooker. There is no gas supply in this warehouse, so there is no stove. Nor countertop, nor cabinets. Just a forlorn electric cooker sitting on the ground a few metres away from their beds. All meals are prepared on the ground at the level of feet and sandals.
I can’t help but think about my own kitchen. A few days ago, the handle of my kitchen tap came off, so I clumsily fixed it and awaited a plumber to arrive and replace the faucet for me. I am sure most Singaporeans take this approach: we get things permanently fixed should they break.
However, for some segments of our society, a better and permanent solution is not an option. They have no choice but to get used to make-shift arrangements.
Temporary fixes as operating principle
But their living conditions is not the only thing that is make-shift.
Ziaur and Miah’s description of their salary claims also gives me the impression of slapdash payroll practices. While their specific claim is still in dispute, they are hardly alone in alleging that they’ve had to suffer wage shortfalls from their employer. TWC2 sees thousands of salary disputes: legal obligations to pay agreed salaries are somehow taken with little weight when it comes to a migrant worker’s salary.
Bad living conditions may be good for a video. But even for people who have to bear hardship and discomfort daily, salary non-payment or short-payment is one line that’s drawn in the sand. Or sawdust.