The waste!

On 25 May 2023, Ponmugan (not his real name) was tasked to lift concrete slabs with another worker. He hurt his shoulder. Actually, he was supposed to be a carpenter – at least that’s what his Building and Construction Authority basic skills certificate says.

He felt he needed to rest for a day or so to recover, so on the following morning (26 May) he told his supervisor so.

8 am. Ponmugan: “Today I no working. I go room sleeping.”

10:30am. Supervisor (Chinese man) comes to Ponmugan’s room and says things that Ponmugan does not understand. The only bit he managed to catch was “Working or no working?”

Ponmugan: “Today no working.”

1:30pm. Supervisor comes back to the room and tells Ponmugan: “Permit cutting. You speak to boss.”

And with that, Ponmugan was fired; his Work Permit cancelled.

His English, as TWC2 would discover later when we tried to speak to him, was very poor. It was the first time this 29-year-old Indian national was in Singapore. It was hardly surprising that he could neither explain his condition or his thoughts to his supervisor, nor understand what else the supervisor was trying to say.

It is entirely possible that the supervisor interpreted “Today no working” from Ponmugan as some form of strike action.

Ponmugan didn’t seem to know anything about procedures for seeing a doctor, nor the local custom of obtaining medical leave certificates (“MCs”) from doctors if one needed to recover for a day or more. It seemed never to have occured to him that he should go to a clinic. In any case, even if it had, he might still have hesitated from doing so for fear of costs as he had yet to receive his first pay cheque.

The father of two young children had been working for ten years in his home village in the deep south of Tamil Nadu as an unskilled construction labourer. Despite his relatively small build – he was only about 160cm tall – he was used to hard work, but he could also have assumed that the employment practices of India applied to Singapore. There, many workers in construction are day labourers; they are paid for each day they worked and can ask for (unpaid) days off without the formalities of seeing a doctor, but just by explaining themselves to the foreman in a common language they’re both fluent in.

How would someone like him, with only six years of education, virtually no English and his first time here know about different practices in different countries? Did no one explain our formal procedure for MCs to him? From our conversations, it didn’t seem so, not in India before departure, not in Singapore when he was first put through Onboarding.

Tell us about the few days at the Onboarding Centre, we asked

He arrived on 25 April 2023 and was housed at the Onboarding Centre for four days, Ponmugan said. During that time, he had to undergo a medical check-up (“Blood test, urine test, blood pressure taken”) though he was not told what was being tested, why the tests had to be done, and not given any results. We don’t think he had any idea either what the consequences would be if he failed any of the tests. He did not need the Covid vaccine as he had been vaccinated in India.

There was a presentation in Tamil, and Ponmugan recalled that it was mostly about the rules of living and working in Singapore: not to waste water, wear safety gear, and so on, though our impression was that he might not have paid much attention. There were no handouts.

How much for the job?

Ponmugan was very distressed to lose his job. He had paid 380,000 Indian Rupees for it, he said. We asked him to break it down for us.

His job search began in the thrid quarter of 2022. In September he found an agent and paid him 150,000 rupees for a job that promised $1,500 in monthly salary. He used land and jewelry as collateral to get a loan, and also took another loan at a higher interest rate without collateral, the second one on the strength of a Singapore job.

He then attended a skills training centre in Chennai where he underwent training for woodwork, receiving a basic skills certificate (January 2023). The training centre charged him 130,000 rupees.

There was also an online job interview, but strangely, he had to fly to Calcutta for three days to participate in it. It was not clear to us why, if it was an online interview, he still needed to go to Calcutta, but maybe it was because he had to demonstrate certain wood formwork skills during the interview.

He passed the interview and in April 2023, he received an In-principle Approval (IPA) for a Work Permit (issued by MOM) for a company in Singapore that had a very Chinese-sounding name. Ponmugan noticed that the basic salary stated on the IPA was only $18.33 a day. He queried the agent, who assured him that that’s the amount that had to be put on paper in order to get approval (not true), but actually, Ponmugan would be paid the promised $1,500 a month once here.

Ponmugan must have felt reassured, and he then paid the agent another 100,000 rupees.

In all, he paid $380,000 Indian rupees. At the (slightly varying) exchange rates of Sept 2022 to April 2023, it was equivalent to $6,300 – $6,500.

He arrived in Singapore on 25 April, went through Onboarding and began on the job on 2 May 2023. Barely three weeks later the Work Permit was “cut”.

Tried to salvage the situation

When Ponmugan contacted TWC2, among the first things we noticed was that he didn’t even have a Work Permit. He was still presenting us his IPA, which had yet to be converted to the usual credit card-sized Permit. We felt sorry for him to have lost the job so quickly, and as we would later discover, very likely through misunderstanding and incomprehension.

Ponmugan wasn’t saying the sprain was serious. After a few days, he said he was ready to go back to work, but as noted above, he had been fired within hours of his (non-)conversation with the supervisor.

TWC2 tried to speak to the management to salvage the job for him, but by then, we were told the flight ticket had been bought and the administrative officers we managed to reach were not in a position to reverse the situation. The Human Resources Manager was on leave. Basically, the answer we got was “no chance”.

The company paid Ponmugan $730 for the 24 days he was employed. That works out to $30.42 per day, gross. We don’t know how much of that was basic salary and how much was overtime pay, but it was still a far cry from the monthly $1,500 that the agent promised him.

Ponmugan flew home, dejected, in early June 2023.