I was given only $9.50 for 18 days' work

HOW would you react if you were paid $9.50 for 18 days of work?

That's the amount Mr Rafiq Miah Abdur Rahman claimed he got for hacking walls.

On paper, the 27-year-old construction worker's pay sounds better - $259.50 for the month of January last year.

But then, he claimed his employer deducted $150 for food expenses, $50 for a security deposit (which should be returned to him when he eventually goes home at the end of his contract) and another $50 for a loan from the employer, leaving him with just $9.50.

It was better in February though - Mr Rafiq said his take-home pay was $37 after the employer deducted $350 in total from $387.

In March, it was $174 after a similar $350 deduction from $524, he claimed.

Mr Rafiq was unable to show The New Paper his payslips. After signing them, he claimed his employer retained the payslips.

His pay was a fraction of what he said he was promised by an agent in Bangladesh - about $1,200 per month basic, plus overtime pay.

Migrant worker welfare groups, Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), told TNP that migrant workers in Singapore like Mr Rafiq are often caught in a bind.

Said Home's executive director Jolovan Wham: "They do not have the freedom to change employers and jobs. Moreover, they are often heavily in debt by the time they arrive here."

That mix, Mr Wham claimed, opens them to possible abuse by unscrupulous employers.

And although the the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) advises such workers to make their complaints early, they may not dare to speak up for fear of being sent back, said TWC2 executive committee member Debbie Fordyce.

Assistant Professor Jack Lee Tsen-Ta from Singapore Management University's School of Law said the amount which workers are paid is a matter of agreement between the workers and their employers.

He added: "Of course, this raises the issue of whether the workers are knowledgeable enough and in a sufficient position of strength to properly negotiate a fair rate of remuneration with their employers."

Some migrant workers take a loan from their agent to fly here to land a job and might end up with no income for a few months to pay off that loan.

Others have their pay docked because they have to be placed in workers' dormitories. Mr Wham had highlighted the case of a machinery mechanic named Mr Mostafa, 25, on his Facebook page.

The worker has, since July 2010, received a daily rate of $15 for eight hours of work.

But his actual take-home pay is even lower. His employer deducts $30 as security deposit, another $30-plus for gas and power supply, and a cost labelled as a levy of between $5 and $20.

Mr Mostafa told TNP: "I asked my boss (about my pay) about two to three months after starting work. "Boss said he don't know. He was very angry and said that he wanted to send me back."

Mr Mostafa is currently on a Special Pass while awaiting the outcome of his work-injury compensation claim after falling onboard a ship while at work last September.

Is there an argument to be made for a minimum wage then?

Singapore considered minimum wage legislation recently, but decided not to implement it, said Associate Professor Ravi Chandran from the National University of Singapore's Business School.

"There are a lot of pros and cons with minimum-wage legislation," he said.

The issue of implementing a minimum wage was also hotly debated in Parliament in January last year.

The arguments against a minimum wage include the negative consequences of causing low-wage workers to lose their jobs, increasing business costs, eroding the competitiveness of businesses and removing the incentive for training while doing little to lessen income inequality.

The Government argued that in place of a minimum wage, the Workfare Income Supplement scheme is better at helping low-wage workers earn a better income without the risk of displacing them because the cost is borne by the Government.

Mr Zainudin Nordin, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower, said employers must also be responsible for their workers.

He added: "They have to take care of workers, and by taking care, I mean from every aspect of things.

"They cannot be at a point where they cannot survive. It must be logical and rational and, to me, humane."

Impact of raising wages

But what is the impact of raising wages?

Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Zainal Sapari said: "I'm all for higher pay, but at the end of day, we also need to understand that when we ask for higher pay for foreign workers, the cost must be passed to someone.

"If there is an increase in business costs, would it affect competitiveness and lead to higher inflation?"

Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC and chairman of the Migrant Workers' Centre(MWC), urged workers and other members of the public who are aware of unfair treatment of foreign workers to refer the matter to MOM or MWC.

This is Mr Rafiq's third job here and he will be returning home soon laden with an $8,000 debt. In his previous job in a plumbing company, he was paid the promised salary of $550 a month, plus overtime.

After two years, he was able to return home in 2010 with about $6,000 in total earnings.

Despite his experience here, Mr Rafiq said that he would still want to to work here if he can find the money to do so.

He explained: "I want to pay back the money I borrowed. If I stay in Bangladesh, I cannot pay the money my whole life."

This article was first published in The New Paper.