Mamun speaks to a TWC2 volunteer

My eyes widen as Mamun tilts his phone screen. “Who want transfer letter ask me.” A phrase almost unheard of from migrant workers’ bosses! And then a real transfer letter, properly addressed (albeit on the second try)…it might as well be a winning lottery ticket! I look up excitedly, but Mamum’s expression doesn’t match my optimism.

“New company apply transfer already, but MOM not approve. Because work permit cancel. MOM say my one no problem. Problem your boss.”

With a sigh, he launches into a tangle of a story that takes me a full two hours to unravel. Let me summarise: In February Mamun’s boss neglected to pay the monthly levy for his foreign workers; as a result, MOM revoked their work permits on 2 May 2023. Sensing the company was seeing rough times, Mamun secured another offer as well as the requisite written consent from his employer to be allowed to transfer. But MOM rejected the new company’s request for transfer — because Mamun’s work permit was invalid. Mamun immediately visited MOM for guidance, where an officer explained that to re-validate the work permits his employer would need to purchase a $600 levy bond for each worker in addition to settling all the arrears. The boss agreed to pay, but only for the workers who did not take up his offer for a transfer letter. In his words: “I won’t be paying for you … as u want to transfer. I have to send you back.”

“I now many scared.” Mamun says about his current employment troubles “I think any day boss give ticket I have go back. I go now my house, bank man also coming ask money.”

Mamun’s relationship with his employer isn’t ideal, but it’s also not out of the norm. Returning for his third work stint in Singapore on New Year’s Day 2023 Mamun had what you might call a ‘cold’ welcome by his new employer, navigating his own way to four days’ quarantine then eventually needing to call his agent in order to track down the boss and get to his dorm. His first day at work – hauling electrical equipment – turned out to be quite different from the ‘electrical maintenance’ role he signed up for. But with debts both from family troubles and recruitment fees, he decided to give it a go.

No more food

Over the past few months, salary and allowances weren’t always delivered on time or in full. Despite MOM recommendations, his boss still pays the workers in cash and sometimes in instalments, making it difficult to track or report any potential ‘inconsistencies’. At one point this led to a desperately polite message in the company group chat: “Dear Sir, we were supposed to pay our catering bill today, we couldn’t pay, so today our food has been stopped.”

That’s not to say the boss is bad. Cash-flow in the construction world isn’t always easy, and even Mamun is sympathetic to the string of bad luck the company’s faced starting even before he was recruited. Reportedly, the sub-contractor above them quit the project, and the main contractor refused to pay until the work was further completed. Mamun’s boss said he had not received proper payment in the first place, but wrote “Your salary we will pay. If you guys cannot wait when we in bad times then I no choice I will send all of you back.” For Mamun and the other workers at the bottom of this barrel, “Boss say never get pay… but I don’t know. All I know is salary late. Levy no pay, work permit cancel.”

Thus Mamun finds himself in no-man’s land, holding a transfer letter but unable to change companies. His invalidated work permit, suspended by MOM due to actions entirely outside his control or responsibility, somehow limits MOM’s ability to approve the transfer. And from the perspective of his employer with a struggling business, there’s little incentive to pay the levy bond for a worker who will leave the company; better to send him home. Despite TWC2’s appeals to MOM, within a few days Mamun was already on his way to the airport.

For all of Singapore’s clear-cut rules and efficiency, this tangled tale is distinctly Kafka-esque. The knotted chain of main contractors, sub-contractors and sub-sub contractors can leave workers only the frayed ends of a complex business landscape. Moreover, the fact that workers can fall into this crack in the system certainly doesn’t help address persistent manpower shortages. Will Mamun come back for a fourth contract in Singapore? Can he raise the money to pay yet another agent when the loan for this round remains outstanding?

The employer failed to pay the levy, but it’s the workers who pay the price. In this case: 28-year-old Mamun, repatriated from an opportunity for reliable work to an extended period of joblessness and debt.