Should we care how foreign workers are treated in Singapore?
By Alex Au, TWC2 Treasurer
For months, Hafeez suffered in silence. His employer had deducted S$500 a month from his already pathetic wage of $22 a day working as a forklift driver and general labourer at a glass supply firm. Do a simple calculation: If he worked 30 days a month at $22 a day, he would have made only $660 a month. Deduct $500 from that and what’s left?
Yes, he had some overtime, for which he was paid $4 an hour, but it did not add up to much.
Knowing few others except some other labourers from Bangladesh and with only a rudimentary grasp of English, Hafeez did not know who or where to turn to for help. He didn’t even know what the law said about deductions.
And then his contract ended and his Work Permit was cancelled. The employer arranged for an air ticket home and told him to make his way to the airport on the assigned evening.
With 24 hours left in Singapore, he had one last chance to ask a question: Was it within his employer’s right to deduct that?
Did he have to go back to Bangladesh with nothing to show for his time in Singapore, nothing to feed his family with, nothing to help him pay off the debts he incurred to get the job in the first place? Like virtually all migrant workers in Singapore, he had to pay his recruiter upfront to get the job; about S$3,000 in his case.
How was he going to face his mother, wife, four daughters and a baby son who depended on him to survive? Wouldn’t unscrupulous debt collectors come after him once they hear he was back in the village?
* * * * *
And so on his penultimate evening in Singapore, with increasing desperation, he walked around Little India asking, of total strangers even, where he might get a little help. By sheer luck, someone pointed him to a restaurant that the Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) was using as a soup kitchen to feed migrants who were out of work, out of money, abandoned or abused by their employers. Hafeez was one of about 250 men streaming in that evening. All of them with similar stories. Hafeez’s was not the most unusual.
But his was unusually urgent and so TWC2 volunteers swung into action, tired though they were from the endless flow of cases.
“We almost had to pull him off the plane,” a TWC2 volunteer told me. “He was that close to being sent home without getting what was due to him.”
The phrasing might have been a tad dramatic, but indeed, part of the action took place at the airport the next evening. But let’s not run ahead of the story.
Immediately the following day, a volunteer accompanied him to the Ministry of Manpower where they consulted an officer. Hafeez informed them that the employer had been deducting from his salary to make up these amounts, totalling $4,200:
- $3,500 for medical expenses,
- $340 for the airfare back to Bangladesh
- $360 being $30 deducted per month x 12 months.
(I couldn’t understand from Hafeez’s very basic English exactly what the last item — $30 a month — was for.)
The ministry official agreed that these would be illegal deductions. So, at the airport that evening, when the company representative attempted to pay him only $158.55 in wages, being the purported final amount net of these deductions, Hafeez refused to take the money. He even tore up the receipt that he was asked to sign. If he had signed it, it would have been acknowledgment that the $158.55 was all he was owed and nothing more . . . READ ON
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