Zhong Zhenjie (right) with TWC2’s Ethan Guo (left)

At the age of 36, Zhong Zhenjie is unusual in that this was his first time working overseas. Most of his peers would have started out much earlier, at least in their early or mid-twenties.

Being new and in a foreign country, Zhong panicked when he encountered a sudden problem that could leave him homeless and penniless.

In September 2021, when he first arrived in Singapore, the local employment agent who helped bring him here took a $400 housing deposit from Zhong. He was promised that it would be returned at the end of his employment contract.

Zhong unexpectedly quit only four months into the job. He was working in a chip manufacturing facility. The job wasn’t difficult, recounted Zhong, just monotonous and “unmanly”.

“In China, if people hear of such jobs where you get paid for not doing much, everyone would flock to it!” Zhong laughed as he described the automated nature of the work he did. “But I prefer to do work where I can interact with other people”.

That was not however the reason he left his job. It was the late shift work that got to him. Zhong knew what work was awaiting him in Singapore, but he was not told that he would be on the permanent night shift. This involved him working from 7 pm to 7 am. Lamenting that perhaps he was not young anymore, the stress on his body was so bad that Zhong started displaying physical manifestations such as throwing up.

He did try asking his employer if he could move to the day shift. His request was denied. Perhaps the employer feared that it would open the floodgates to other employees also wanting the same. Feeling disappointed with himself but left with no other option, Zhong gave notice to leave the job. Little did he know that was just the first of the problems he would encounter.

Rent deposit

To begin with, his employment agent wouldn’t return the $400 housing deposit to him as earlier promised. That left him incensed. Even though Zhong didn’t earn much – his basic salary was only $800 prior to deductions for food and lodging – he was motivated less by the need to get his money back than the desire to be treated right. To Zhong, a promise was a promise.

With only a small handful of friends he knew and trusted and not knowing who else to call, Zhong contacted the police, which helpfully passed on the number to TWC2. We immediately acted on his case by following up with his employment agent. It soon became evident that there was more to the story.

When Zhong signed the housing agreement with the employment agent and handed over the $400 deposit, it was stipulated he would not get it back if he had not stayed at least six months on the job.

After our intervention however, Zhong talked it out with his employment agent and came to a settlement. The agent would allow Zhong to continue staying at the apartment until he departed Singapore. Zhong then made arrangements with his employer to purchase a flight home.

It was probably the best outcome given the circumstances. Therefore, we were happy to let the matter rest until Zhong brought up fresh problems when we checked-in again with him a while later in mid-February 2022. And this time, he seemed really desperate.

Flight delayed

Zhong left his job at the end of January. His flight home, originally scheduled for mid-February, was delayed till March. He was now homeless because the housing contract had officially ended. And to top it all off, his employer had deducted seven days’ worth of wages from his final pay because he had taken that amount of medical leave. However, Zhong had sent almost all of his money home to support the family and was left with nothing to survive in Singapore.

The employer seems to have flouted the law on medical leave. Having worked at least three months on the job, Zhong was entitled to paid medical leave and thus the deduction was wrong. Furthermore, the employer was also ignoring the Manpower ministry’s rule on providing basic upkeep for work permit holders for as long as they remain in Singapore. Basic upkeep includes accommodation, food and medical care if needed.

TWC2 sent an urgent email to the ministry (MOM) requesting for assistance. We arranged to meet with Zhong a few days later.

Acting upon our complaint, not one, not two but three different MOM personnel contacted Zhong to assist him with his problems. He was soon to enter isolation in anticipation of going home (a requirement for China). At bare minimum, MOM was going to ensure his employer provided him with three meals a day during this time. We were also hopeful his medical leave issue would be resolved by the time he left Singapore.

For now, he was staying with a former colleague, who brought food back from the company each day. This was his sole meal of the day and it broke our heart.

Not wanting Zhong to endure hunger even a day more, TWC2 provided him with a cash subsidy so that he could buy food. While we do not want to absolve employers from their responsibility to provide meals, we also recognise that it may take a while for employers to be brought on board. Our subsidies are meant as bridging assistance for workers like Zhong, whose employers fail to provide meals despite their obligation to do so.

Zhong was visibly moved when the meal assistance was handed to him. Before accepting it, he even stopped us to first ask if there was any way in which he could give back in some manner or to pay it forward.

“Why would a stranger in a foreign land want to help me?” Zhong mused aloud. “I can’t understand”.

This episode, Zhong said, has left a deep impression on him regarding how warm, genuine and helpful Singaporeans were.

Not just TWC2 but also MOM

Ever since the official complaint was made, he could feel as if special attention was being given to him, which he really appreciated.

Despite this unfortunate episode, Zhong still wants to return to Singapore for work. He just has to be careful about finding the right job placement next time. Jobs in Singapore can easily command twice the salary of equivalent work in China, according to Zhong. This makes it very attractive for someone like him wanting to earn more in order to support his growing family. And this is despite the booming economy back home.

When asked if his parents, wife and two young daughters must miss him back in Shandong province and can’t wait to see him again, Zhong said yes, but that it was more important for him to be away making a decent income now while he could.

Twist of fate

In an ironic twist of fate, Zhong’s wish might have just come true – his flight was suddenly cancelled due to the rising cases of Covid-19 back home. To make matters worse, there was no word as to when the next flight out would be scheduled.

Still stuck in Singapore and desperate for income to remit home to his family, TWC2 helped Zhong to request for work under the Temporary Job Scheme (TJS). TJS allows for workers who are forced by circumstances to remain in Singapore to obtain temporary employment and have the means to sustain themselves and their family back home. One common TJS job often cited by workers is the packing of frozen chicken. It is a tough job with long hours spent in a cold room, but the money was supposedly good if one was able to put in overtime work.

At the point of writing (late March 2022), MOM was instead checking with Zhong’s former employer if they would agree to take him back in. They were also still following up on the wages that were deducted for being on medical leave. Hopefully, he gets to receive this sum of money and the temporary work, both of which would go a long way during a crisis situation like the one he is facing.