Jahirul has two stories. We will begin with the lesser one where he alleges he was assaulted by his boss.

Ever since the first day at work, in May 2024, the boss had been impatient with him, often scolding him as he did his job. It’s a small landscaping company which does gardening work in private properties. Jahirul was unhappy with his boss, who, he said, was verbally abusive boss from the outset, such that he confided in his agent very soon after starting work. Apparently, the conversation took place on the day he was taken to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) by the Singapore employment agency Employment Hub International Pte Ltd to get his Work Permit issued.

But, instead of things being resolved, they reached a head on 20 June 2024 when the boss punched him in the sternum – according to Jahirul’s complaint.

The story goes like this: The boss had arrived with three pieces of machinery in his car and Jahirul was asked to unload them. Not long after, the boss said to the worker that he was doing it too slowly, and to move faster. To that, Jahirul replied “I’m doing it.”

As Jahirul tells it, the boss was angry that he spoke back, and then went physical. He pulled on Jahirul’s shirt, pushed him against the car door and punched him. The boss also said he would cancel his Work Permit and send him back to Bangladesh.

Although initially pinned against the car, Jahirul managed to free himself and moved some distance away. He called the police. But when the police asked him where he was so that a patrol car could be sent over, he had no idea. Jahirul was only six weeks into his job – his first in Singapore – and wasn’t familiar with Singapore’s geography.

He had his wits about him though, and he asked a woman nearby to take the phone and tell the police where their location was. She helped him to do so.

While the police were on their way (but the boss didn’t know that Jahirul had called them) the boss kept wanting him to get into the car. Jahirul said that the boss wanted to drive him straight to the airport, but we’re not sure how he knew of his boss’ intent. Regardless of that, Jahirul refused to get in and played for time until the police arrived.

The constables then spoke to both parties separately and calmed things down.

Jahirul went to MOM to lodge a complaint, but a week later, we learnt that the police asked him to come down to the station for an interview. However, and importantly, it seems to us that Jahirul was not hurt.

But he had lost his job, a mere six weeks after landing at Changi Airport – a job for which he had paid about $12,000!

When Jahirul mentioned this princely sum of $12,000, we knew there would be a second story. It will almost surely be the bigger of the two stories because the damage it will inflict on him is going to be much bigger than the alleged assault.

But for now, the point remains – what a crazy way to run a business and motivate your employees. Punching and threatening them with repatriation do nothing for productivity and loyalty.

It could well be that this is a case of an individual employer’s personality. However, we would wonder, nonetheless, if there are structural factors that might engender such behaviour. The process of getting an In-principle Approval from MOM to bring in a worker is fast and easy, so long as an employer has quota in hand. So, after a worker is sent home (and his quota slot is opened up), it is easy to replace him with another. Employers who are quick to temper may be equally quick to threaten repatriation.

Another factor is almost surely the near-universal practice of employers not paying for recruitment costs. It is the workers who have to pay these costs (plus lots of profit for intermediaries). It is almost cost-free for an employer to throw out a worker and replace him.

On the other hand it is financial disaster for a new worker to lose his job after having paid thousands of dollars for it.

It should not surprise anyone that, knowing that the cost of termination falls almost entirely on the worker, employers may feel that the threat of repatriation is a useful tool either to demand submission to unreasonable work demands (including salary underpayment) or it is the kind of threat they reflexively deploy when they get frustrated.

But either way, it contributes nothing to productivity and good labour relations. At a macro level, it can’t be in Singapore’s larger interest. It’s no use preaching about productivity if these systemic factors that work against it are not fixed.