“The police wouldn’t let him make a report,” D told me Friday night. “They said he didn’t have proof.”
“That’s ridiculous,” was my immediate answer. Such nonsense agitates me. “It’s for the police to go investigate and find the evidence or proof. If every complainant has to bring along his own proof, what’s the police for?”
D is a volunteer with Transient Workers Count Too, and she was referring to a Bangladeshi worker who had a salary dispute with his employer. At the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), his employer produced an employment contract claiming the the worker had signed it. The worker said he had never seen that piece of paper before and that his signature was forged. As you would have guessed, the so-called employment contract detailed a monthly salary lower than what the worker said he was entitled to — that’s how the employer would get away with underpayment.
D said I was welcome to try myself and see if the police would serve me. There were plenty more workers from the same company with exactly the same issue; I could take my pick.
And that’s how I spent Monday.
In Little India
Monday morning, I met with four workers in Little India, all of them from the same landscaping and cleaning company — the same company as the worker who was under D’s care and whose attempt to make a police report was rejected. I asked each guy to give me the basic facts of his case, and to show me the photocopy of his supposed employment contract.
“Where did you get this document?” I asked each one in turn.
All of them said they got their copies from an MOM officer, who had told them that the originals came from the employer. In disputing their salary claims, the employer had produced these documents.
“When was the first time you saw it?” I asked further, to make sure their facts were consistent before we went to the police station. All said they had never seen the so-called employment contracts until the MOM officer showed the photocopies to them a few weeks ago.
I pointed to the signature against each of their names on the respective documents. “Did you sign this? Is this your handwriting?”
All said no. I then asked each one to give me two samples of his signature for comparison, at the same time observing how free-flowing his handwriting was. Two of them signed confidently with fast strokes, producing signatures totally different from those seen on the documents. The other two were barely literate, painfully producing a kind of chicken scratch, but also totally different from the document.
Not only that, having four documents in front of me allowed me to compare the four allegedly forged signatures on them against each other (not just against the men’s signatures). The handwriting on all four were very similar, like they had all been written by the same person.
After explaining to the four guys the difference between making a police report and an MOM report (so that we won’t waste time at the police station bringing up irrelevant stuff) and making sure they knew what they were about to do, and were agreeable to it, we went to the Police Cantonment Complex.
At the station
Today wasn’t too bad; we only waited about 15 – 20 minutes for our turn. I’ve seen worse days.
After introducing ourselves, and explaining that I was with Transient Workers Count Too, I told the desk officer the purpose of our visit: “These men are here to make a complaint about forgery. They have found out that there is, for each of them, an employment contract with his name on it and a signature that is not his. All of them had never seen those so-called employment contracts before.”
I then explained how this forgery would cause injury to them — through being deprived of their rightful compensation for work done.
After a brief discussion, it was agreed that since the four cases were virtually identical, the men would file a single complaint with all four of their names on it. The officer then turned to her computer and began the process of recording a statement. The guy with the best English acted as the spokesman for the group.
Sections 463 – 465 of the Penal Code make it very clear that forgery is a crime, punishable with fine and/or imprisonment of up to four years. Intent to cause damage or injury is an essential component of the offence; in this particular case that intent is as clear as day.
Section 464 defines forgery in multiple ways, one of which is that of “dishonestly or fraudulently” signing a document “with the intention of causing it to be believed” that it had been signed by the rightful party.
While at Little India, I had asked the men to tell me their story. It sounds awfully familiar; there are plenty of such cases in Singapore. The shocking thing is how by turning a blind eye to most such cases on the part of the authorities, the same scam is repeated again and again by rogue employers.
None of the men had a written employment contract when they first came to work. All were told — it would constitute verbal contract in law — that they would be paid a basic salary of $750 a month for a 44-hour week and that there would be plenty of opportunity to earn overtime pay. At least the last part was true — for many months, they worked 30 days a month.
However, from the beginning, they were not paid their full salaries. Every month, a certain sum, typically $500, would be sequestered by the employer — the men were led to believe this was normal practice — with the accumulated amount payable at the end of their contract.
Lately however, even the theoretical monthly gross wages were in dispute, with the men saying their overtime hours were not properly recorded, and when the basic salaries stopped coming, they lodged complaints with MOM.
The sums involved were quite large. For example, one of the men who had worked about three years said he was owed a total of $15,000.
When queried by ministry officials, the company said the men’s computations were wrong. It then produced the so-called employment contracts, which stated a significantly lower basic salary. With a lower basic salary, the overtime computation was also lower.
“Don’t you have any pay slips that record, each month, how your pay was calculated?” I asked the men. If they did, the pay slips would prove their claims.
As it turned out, the company did not issue pay slips. They gave out money in cash and asked the men to sign against a payment voucher which only the company kept. It’s not clear what details had been recorded on the payment voucher. And like so many workers hired from an agricultural economy to work in a modern economy, they had no idea about such things as pay slips (or for that matter, written employment contracts) and didn’t even know to ask. Not that they would have dared to ask even if they had known, because employers would immediately terminate any such uppity employee.
I don’t know about this particular case, but in other cases I have seen, the time sheets are also forged in order to show that the workers did not work as much overtime as they claimed.
So easy to solve, yet not done
As I said above, there are plenty of such cases. Yet nothing is done. A simple way to prevent such cases from arising is this:
- All companies with foreign workers must execute written employment contracts in both English and workers’ native language (using an MOM template) before a worker starts work.
- The worker and a company representative must show up at MOM to sign the contract, and be witnessed by an MOM officer, before the Work Permit is formally issued.
- A copy of the employment contract has to be lodged with MOM.
- The worker receives a booklet in English and his native language explaining his rights — medical care, accommodation, how overtime is calculated, no salary deductions unless provided for in contract, etc.
- Companies must produce a written pay slip with detailed computation every month and a copy of such must be given to the employee.
- Companies must make salary payments through a centralised payment system into employees’ bank accounts, so that there is an easy way to monitor that salaries (and correct amounts) are paid on time.
Yes, it may take a bit of work to set up such a system, but the nett result is less work for our bureaucracy, not more work. Just think of the man-hours spent by MOM officials (and now, police) investigating case after case. Why do all this fire-fighting when the fire can be prevented from starting in the first place?
Some may argue that whatever the system, some employers (and the occasional worker) will still try to cheat the other. However, with a documentation trail established by the system, disputes can be resolved much faster (thus improved efficiency); also the very fact that there is a document trail that points clearly to who is in the right and who is in the wrong will deter a lot of cases from arising in the first place.
Police report made
After about an hour, the report was done, but the desk officer would only give us one copy of the statement even though there were four men involved. We then wandered around Pearl Centre looking for a photocopy shop and after checking out several corridors, found a hole-in-a-wall manned by a Chinese woman.
She looked at the four men and asked me, “Are they from Bangladesh?” I couldn’t imagine why it was important to her.
“Yes, they are,” I replied, whereupon she broke into a simple conversation with them in Bengali. “Oh, you’re fantastic,” I said to her, impressed. So were the men, one of whom remarked that in all his years in Singapore, he had never seen an ethnic Chinese speaking Bengali. Apparently, the shop-owner used to go quite often to Bangladesh to recruit workers.
Since it was already lunch time, I bought them a meal as well. It’s not easy getting Muslim food in Chinatown. “Don’t be choosy,” I said to the men. “Just eat whatever we can find.”
* * * * *
Now I need to make an appeal on behalf of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). Funds are running very low, and needs are always great. When the Housing and Development Board said they were going to increase the construction rate of public housing over the next few years, I shuddered at the thought of more workers coming in, more rogue employers running scams and more problems for aid organisations like TWC2 to help with.
The attached brochure (click image at right) gives you an overview of the work that TWC2 does. Please donate what you can. All you need is a computer, a credit card and less than a minute of your time, to make a small gift via www.SgGives.org
(Once inside www. SgGives.org, search for “TWC2”)
More details about how to donate can be found inside the brochure.