By Terry Xu
"Brother, it is ok that we are sent back if we did not do good in our job. But it is not fair that we are sent back because we are unwilling to pay the agent money. Where is the justice?"
The Online Citizen (TOC) was earlier alerted to a story by one of our readers. She said that she had spoken with a town conservancy worker in her estate and was alarmed to know that he is going to be sent back to his country because he cannot pay the $5,000 agent fees being asked of him.
TOC met with the worker in Pasir Ris.
Arriving on site, this writer was greeted by a large group of workers who had stopped work for the day. Their faces were filled with anxiety. They were pretty quiet at first apart from a few who could speak English better. But when I asked more questions, they started to open up and shared their problems with me.
They have been working in the constituency for three years, and had paid a sum of $10,500 when they first came over to Singapore. Subsequently they paid another sum of $2,500 to extend their stay here for another one year. So according to them, they paid a total sum of $13,000 to work for the period of three years.
They said they are being paid about S$700 a month, work 7 days a week, with no rest on public holiday and have had no medical leave for three years.
So have they earned back their agent fees? “No, haven't,” said the workers in unison. Apart from sending money back to their families, they also have to spend on living expenses in Singapore.
According to the workers, the main reason for their worries of being sent back is that they were told by their operation manager to pay their agent $5,000 first, or else new workers will be sent to replace them. Already two have been asked to leave and another, Rahman Hafizur, will be sent back on Saturday.
I asked if they have spoken to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) about this matter, and they said they did approach MOM once. They were shocked to know that the company is only supposed to pay $70 to renew their work permits and that there are no agent fees involved. Apart from that, MOM only advised them that if they were to pay the agent fees, they should get a copy of the receipt.
All of the workers I spoke to were filled with fear of being deported once the company found out they have spoken up publicly about it.
The residents whom I talked to were also concerned about this. They asked why these cleaners for being asked to leave despite doing a good job keeping the estate clean.
I called the operation manager of the Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC Town Council and was asked to speak with the cleaning company directly instead. So I paid a visit to the company.
When asked if it knew that the workers were being asked to pay agent fees in order to remain in Singapore, the company replied firmly that it had no knowledge of the agency fees paid by the workers and that it is not aware that the workers were being asked to pay agent fees by their manager.
The company said that the worker whom I interviewed have requested to go back himself two weeks prior and that the worker had signed on a letter to indicate this. When asked to reproduce the letter, the company said that it is unable to pass a copy to TOC as it does not have a copy and asked me to refer to the worker for the copy. (I later checked with Rahman and he said that he did not sign any such letter.)
I then asked if the workers would be sent back like Rahman.
The company replied by asking me if it is justified for a company to send workers home if they are not performing well or if they do not have a good working attitude, and took many days of medical leave and official leave. Yes of course it is but to me, they did not answer the question at all.
I had sent them a video recording of an interview with the workers. The company responded, “The last claim that you made that workers are worried of suffering the same fate is not true because around 40% of the current workforce will be retained due to their responsible working attitude and performance.”
But the question is why did the company not issue the workers with warnings if their job performance or attitude were indeed bad, as the company claimed? When I checked with the workers, none of them had received any warning letters of any kind.
In fact, audio recordings of conversations between the workers and the company’s managers proved that the managers were aware of the agent fees and had in fact asked the workers to pay the agent the fees. The first attempt to ask for the payment was in October and the workers were continuously asked to pay the amount till today, both in person and through phone calls.
The company also said that it conforms to MOM’s rules and that all of the workers work a six-day work week and are being paid overtime for work during public holidays. If they had any disputes with the company, they can go to MOM and ask for help.
Later, the company added another response to our query on the pay issue.
“Worker claimed to earn only $700.00 but bank statement proves to be more than $700.00, thus statement made by worker of company not paying PH or overtime is not correct,” the company said.
It said the workers are given payslips and timesheets to record the hours that they work. TOC asked if it could show us the copies of payslips and timesheets of the workers. It said it does not have a copy and told us to ask from the workers instead. When we did so, the workers, said there have not been any payslips issued to them.
TOC wrote to the Member of Parliament in charge of the ward, Mr Zainal Sapari, on 23rd December about this matter but he has not replied to our email at the time of writing. (letter sent)
The other 14 colleagues of Rahman fear for their jobs in Singapore even as they continue their work keeping the flats and estate spick and span.
Will they be sent home to Bangladesh, despite having done their job diligently and never gave anyone any problems?
Update : 7 more cleaners were sent back on 11th Jan 2014
Update : Reply from Mr Zainal, MP of the ward
6 Jan - After the story was published and an email sent to Mr Zainal.
Thank you for the alert. Appreciate it.
14 Jan - After the audio recording is sent to Mr Zainal.
On the part of the Town Council, our service provider shared that the seven workers were repatriated due to performance issues. The company stated that the accusations were baseless. I have alerted MOM and MWC on the matter for further investigation to establish the facts and take the necessary actions should there be any regulatory infringements.
Video interview with Rahman Hafizur who has been sent back on Saturday