Last Sunday, I was about to leave for a family dinner when the phone rang. It was a Bangladeshi worker on the line, someone I had worked with for the past two years over his employment problems. His present job is “OK”, he said. However, he wanted to bring a friend to meet me later the same evening.
“My friend, he have problem,” said Alamin.
I tried to shift the date and time, but it was near-impossible. Alamin works seven days a week and most evenings. He’s only free Saturday and Sunday evenings. Reluctantly, I agreed to see him and his friend at 9:30 pm, cutting short my family dinner.
The two of them waited for me at a neighbourhood McDonald’s as I had requested. Alamin introduced me to Pervez, his friend from Bangladesh, who had just arrived in Singapore about a month earlier for his second construction job. (Pervez is not his real name — I don’t want to jeopardise his options by identifying him at this stage).
The tale he told was all too familiar from my volunteering experience at Transient Workers Count Too. It went like this:
Returning to Bangladesh after his first job, Pervez heard about a job opening at another construction company through informal channels. The “agent fee” would be $2,400, a sum he would need to pay as soon as he arrived in Singapore. This he did to the “agent”, who turned out to be a fellow worker — let’s call him Hasan — in the same company. It’s an increasingly common scenario; management are increasingly turning to trusted senior workers to recommend new hires instead of using registered employment agents.
The promised basic salary was $700 a month — a figure that the employer provided to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in its application for a work permit. The same figure appears in a document that MOM provided Pervez to inform him that his work permit had been approved.
Pervez started work on 6 August 2013.
On Saturday, 14 September, he received his first wages. It was only $592 in cash, unaccompanied by any payslip showing the calculations. The amount didn’t seem right. Although he had only started work a week into August, he had worked much overtime. The normal hours themselves should add up to about $587 when prorated for the portion of August he worked.
As for overtime, in that month alone, he chalked up 56 hours of it — as can be seen from his time card — which works out to an extra $308 in overtime pay. In total, his August salary should have been $895, not the $592 that he received. $303 is a big difference for someone on a low-pay job.
Pervez asked his boss straight away why the amount was so low. The boss said, dismissively, that as far as he was concerned, the basic monthly salary was not $700, but $570.
I did a quick calculation. Even on this lower basis, the total pay for August, inclusive of overtime, should still be $729, not $592. I cannot figure out how the latter total was arrived at. In any case, Pervez was not about to accept such an arbitrary cut in his basic pay.
What should he do? he asked.
Alamin looked at me too, half knowing the answer. He had been in the same fix in his previous job and had relied on me to help him put his case to MOM.
Pervez didn’t get much of a hopeful answer from me. He had two main options, both far from ideal:
1. Lodge a complaint at MOM now;
2. Continue working for the next eleven months and lodge a complaint at MOM when his work permit approaches its expiry date.
Why were these options far from ideal? Because they came with a hefty price or severe risks.
Option 1: Complain now
If he lodged a complaint promptly, he would surely lose his job. Having paid $2,400 for it, he would be in a net loss situation. Worse yet, he’d be trapped in MOM’s totally crazy system:
- He’d have to stay in Singapore for an unknown length of time (could be months and years) while his complaint is investigated and resolved;
- In the meantime, he is not allowed to work, unless MOM makes an exception for him to find a temporary job or transfer to a new permanent job; such permission is not guaranteed.
If he is not allowed to look for another job, which is a strong possibility, he will be broke and homeless while waiting for case resolution. That said, whilst MOM used to routinely refuse permission to seek a transfer job, more and more exceptions have lately been made. Nonetheless, because such permissions are ad hoc, it is very hard for a worker to calculate his chances before antagonising his existing employer by lodging a formal complaint.
Moreover, even when MOM gives permission to a worker to look for a transfer job, MOM gives only two weeks. “If you can’t find a job within two weeks, you must go back home,” it tells workers. This is absurdly short, especially when few employers have work permit quotas in hand. I wonder whether a typical low-wage Singapore citizen, after losing one job, can find another within two weeks. Is MOM genuine about allowing foreign workers to transfer or not?
In a July 2013 call for public views, MOM indicated that it was beginning to reconsider “Circumstances under which foreign workers could be allowed to change employers.” They may at last be cognisant of the inhuman problems their own policies cause and may be prepared to amend them. Yet, knowing the way bureaucracies work, it will be a while before any changes come into effect. It won’t benefit Pervez.
Option 2: Complain nearer the expiry of the work permit
If Pervez takes the second option and decides to continue in the job for a year before making a salary claim, he will have another set of problems. To make a claim that looks back over eleven or twelve months, he will need to have reasonable documentary evidence. The problem is that it is employers who control the evidence. Take Pervez’s case, for example:
- His salary is paid in cash with no unalterable, forgery-proof written record;
- He is not provided with a payslip showing detailed calculations;
- His time card is hopelessly casual. His August time card did not even indicate the month of August on it. Later on, it can be disputed which month the card was for. Moreover, the hours worked were hand-written and initialled by a fellow worker, not the supervisor or manager. I can imagine a scenario when, after Pervez has lodged a formal complaint at MOM, the employer disowns the time card and says it had not authorised this record of the hours worked. It will be easy for the employer to allege that Pervez never showed up for work on several days or that the record overstated his overtime hours.
Transient Workers Count Too has argued for years that allowing such abuse-prone employment practices to continue keeps workers at a severe disadvantage. The organisation has repeatedly argued for rules that require all employers to provide detailed itemised payslips, and to pay salaries through a bank. That way, employees can check how their pay has been calculated, with a third-party (bank) record of how much they were actually paid.
It seems that the ministry is finally paying heed. The same consultation call posed the question of “whether written employment terms and electronic payment of workers’ salaries should be made mandatory, so as to avoid disputes with employers about such terms and to ensure timely salary payments.” Even so, the requirement for an itemised pay slip is missing. Without it, how does a worker know whether the amount is correct?
Don’t for any moment imagine that ministries are open to much feedback or suggestions, even if MOM appears to be creeping towards the solutions that Transient Workers Count Too has been banging on for years.
A recent statement in Parliament (link to video) may give the game away. After Second Minister for Home Affairs S Iswaran spoke about how Singapore was co-operating internationally to combat human trafficking, Christopher De Souza (PAP, Holland-Bukit Timah) gently lobbed a question, asking “Would the ministry be open to more co-operation with impartial NGOs”? (4 min 03 secs)
Why did he tack on the modifier “impartial”?
S Iswaran, in his reply, noted that De Souza used the term (5 min 47 secs), but did nothing to disassociate himself from it and all the ugly connotations it came with.
What on earth is an impartial non-government organisation? There is no such genuine article. All NGOs have a mission; each is very partial to its mission — the very raison d’être of its existence. So what did De Souza and Iswaran mean?
But we Singaporeans do know what they mean, don’t we? It means pseudo NGOs that don’t criticise the government, but only offer cheerleading, bootlicking and the gentlest of “helpful” suggestions — behind closed doors, so as not to embarrass the ruling party. Independent trade unions for example would be intolerably partial NGOs. Government-run NTUC — ah, those folks are “impartial”, even though a cabinet minister sits atop it. Civil society speaking up for the underdogs would be insufferably partial; apologists from government-run think-tanks — now, they are “impartial”.
Such is the deformed language of our government.
This suggests that the government has no sincere intention to engage with real NGOs. Even in an age of social media and rising aspirations for greater democratic engagement, all they want is shadow-play.
Why are foreign workers like Pervez treated so badly? Why are case resolution procedures so shabbily ineffective? Why are some employers still depressing wages by their duplicity and trafficking-like behaviour? Because the government refuses to listen to and learn from those who know.