Monday morning at a police station reporting another scam

“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.

The law

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.

The scam

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. A copy of the employment contract has to be lodged with MOM.
  4. 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.
  5. Companies must produce a written pay slip with detailed computation every month and a copy of such must be given to the employee.
  6. 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.

24 Responses to “Monday morning at a police station reporting another scam”


  1. 1 Anonymous 13 September 2011 at 11:32

    Quick edit, Alex… $750 a day is a lot of money, unless you are talking about our ministers.

  2. 3 Poker Player 13 September 2011 at 11:56

    The only investigative journalism done in this country (outside of trying to unmask the Temasek Review Emeritus moderators) is done in blogs. I stopped buying newspapers more than a decade ago – make do with what the office provides – no way any of my money is going into pockets of sycophants pretending to be journalists.

  3. 4 Singaporean 13 September 2011 at 18:15

    You have just recounted a creative management tactic that guarantees a low crime statistic. By making it difficult and full of hassle so people do not bother to report is a sure way to be able to report a low crime, no crime situation to the ministries, thus getting enhanced bonuses for effective security work. For those cases which were solved, sometimes not by them but by the owner themselves, the police will then visit you to do a survey, another tactic to ensure a good report done through surveys and recorded as a statistic to show their effectiveness, as solved cases usually elicit favourable responses.

  4. 5 Singaporean 13 September 2011 at 18:19

    Has it occured to you that these crooked employers may have secured help from certain quarters to protect them by making it difficult for reports to be made? You have managed to make a report, but why not the volunteer? This must be investigated by the CPIB to see whether such a link exists, unless they also tell you you have to furnish proof first before you can make a report. LOL

  5. 6 georgia tong 13 September 2011 at 21:48

    It is sad that MOM is doing so little to help. NGOs are more proactive and can come up with practical solution to the problem. If only MOM could act instead of turning a blind eye all these years. It is such a shame.

  6. 7 yh2 14 September 2011 at 02:30

    I second your suggestions to better inform workers and prevent salary cheating. Don’t office workers always try to have documentation trails with manager, vendors and clients? As you say, it LESSENS the workload whenever reviews, questions and disputes arise. Why is MOM so blind to the big picture?

    I spoke to a cleaning lady at my university – she also doesn’t get a pay slip; and she is paid in cash. She says the cleaning company is not paying the promised sum (little deductions here and there) but instead of making a report and creating ‘trouble’, she’s going to look for another job with a (reputedly) more honest employer. No pay slip, no evidence. Another unreported case.
    (add to point made by @Singaporean)

    I don’t have a job now, but I’ve donated something small. Keep up the good work!

    • 8 yawningbread 14 September 2011 at 11:12

      Your cleaning lady example — this is what I’ve suspected too. The same exploitative practices flow into the way employers they treat local workers, because companies typically have a mix of local and foreign workers as a result of MOM’s quota policy.

    • 9 famie 14 September 2011 at 18:32

      I am not sure the cleaning company you are referring to is [company name 1]. I have the experience of being involved with this company. I have since left because of the unethical management policies of the company, especially in salary matters.

      This company is one of three companies under the holding company of [company name 2], the other two are [company name 3] and [company name 4]. Together, they employ a few hundred Bangladeshi workers, most of them in town council estates.

      The modus operandi of these companies is to maximise collection of UPFRONT money from the Bangladeshi workers by misleading them with offers of high basic salaries of about S$600.00/month with minimum overtime work of at least 4hours/day. This will seem an offer too good to refuse when compared to a meagre sum of about S$50.00/month back home. They gladly paid hugh amounts of up S$12,00.00 upfront to the ‘boss’ of these companies, as demanded, for the job with the hope of recovering this “investment” within 12 months on the job. The higher the salary offered, the bigger the upfront money paid.

      However, this was not to be. Upon receiving their paychecks, they found to their dismay that the S$600.00/month offered is GROSS and not BASIC salary. On the vouchers they are forced to sign, the basic salary is indicated as S$9.00/day. This figure is arrived at by computing the S$600.00/month backwards to include double-pay for working on public holidays and 1.5 times for working overtime on weekdays. They end up having to slog for 24 months instead of 12 months to recover their “investment”. Is this ethical?

      Such malpractices is not conducive to our local workers. Can you imagine our local cleaners being paid S$9.00/day, let alone having to cough out such hugh sums of upfront money?

      Any effort by the MOM to regulate the influx of foreign unskilled workers, including raising the levy will be in vain as employers of such workers will continue to find excuses to employ them. Moreover, any increase in levy will be deducted from the workers’ paycheck. The upfront money the employers are raking in is just too good to resist.

      • 10 yawningbread 14 September 2011 at 22:25

        I edited out the company names from the above comment. The reason is that I do not know who famie is in real life, and other than saying in the comment itself that s/he once worked with company name 1, there is no way I can judge the veracity of the comment. While this may be true of most other comments, in this case the comment that has been contributed is potentially defamatory of a specific company, given the accusations made. Therefore I have to take due care.

      • 11 Poker Player 15 September 2011 at 00:15

        “Any effort by the MOM to regulate the influx of foreign unskilled workers, including raising the levy will be in vain as employers of such workers will continue to find excuses to employ them.”

        The problem is not the influx. It is policemen and civil servants trying to avoid real work. It is obvious that laws are being broken.

  7. 12 flyriverboy 14 September 2011 at 02:51

    MOM should start a taskforce in regards to the labour abuse, and to push them to do it, reports should be made to the UN human rights group, and stories made know in mainstream media.

  8. 13 Simon 14 September 2011 at 09:09

    Cases like this have been cropping up in increasing frequencies. I am sure the Government is stonewalling the issues by ignoring the occurrences to keep the noise down. It is embarrassing, like the Human Trafficking issue which they vehemently denies. It appears not to be in their priority list when it comes to doing something about it. Some of our errant employers are exploiting the inaction of the Government to continue the practice of cramming the workers in overcrowded quarters to save cost, not paying the salaries as committed in their contracts, or even providing the human decencies of caring for the foreign workers while under their charge. Does our Government even care ……..?

  9. 14 walkie talkie 14 September 2011 at 11:33

    Can any MP be persuaded to raise the issue in Parliament to create wider public awareness?
    (e.g. Worker Party’s MPs? or certain PAP MPs like Lily Neo who seems to tend to fight for the poor and needy?)

  10. 15 ricardo 15 September 2011 at 06:49

    Walkie talkie, email your MP(s) and the relevant Minister(s). In this day & age, it is as easy to to this as to whinge in public.

    There are laws requiring Ministers to respond immediately and to tell you what has been done after a reasonable period. I’m sure Mr. Au can tell us what these are.

    You will quickly find out which MPs are there just for multi-million Dignity and which ones at least try to Walk the Talk given by PM Lee on National Day.

    It is also more effective as your concern becomes official.

    Be specific and give your recommendations & suggestions.

    It is better to send 10 separate emails on 10 separate issues than one giant all encompassing complaint.

  11. 16 LT 15 September 2011 at 19:45

    I am an employer and a victim of MOM’s bureaucracy. Our ministries only know how to follow ‘codes’, ‘acts’ and ‘laws’.

    My maid theft case took the police over 13 months to investigate (at least 2 changes in officers in charge and countless statements) and close the case with a ‘warning’ to the maid as there is not enough concrete proof to charge her according to AGC.

    Despite finding remittance receipts of amount of monies remitted that is more than her salary, he police are contented when told that this amount was ‘borrowed’ from her friend. No further investigations can take place as to prove where the ‘friend’ get this amount of monies but as long as maid and friend concurs, police accept.

    We the employers having lost more than $10k of cash but as the investigations can’t prove that the remittance are the stolen goods, the accused maid n agent looked for MOM to chase us to pay up $900 (her per month salary savings and last month salary) and air ticket home. So we have to ‘lose’ even more money because she (to us a very clever thief’ I’d protected by the employment act and us being harassed by MOM to pay up despite police case still under investigations. It’s 2 different matters they say. Any further delay in paying her, would result in us being charged in court by MOM’s legal Dpt.

    As a tax paying citizen, i feel angst and victimized by my own country but that’s the law and the code and the act. What can I do but to blame myself for being unlucky?

    • 17 yawningbread 15 September 2011 at 20:00

      Even though the victim-perpetrator roles appear to be reversed in your case, what you described of the mindset of the authorities is similar. There is a great reluctance to get to the bottom of things. Instead, there is an eagerness to just close the case in a manner that most reduces the follow-up work by bureaucrats. Doing right and delivering a fair outcome appears to be nowhere in the equation. As you said, no investigation as to how the friend got this amount of money to lend your maid, which would strike anyone as the obvious line of investigation to pursue.

      • 18 LT 15 September 2011 at 22:05

        If I go into detail my whole ordeal dealing with our ministries, one can see how ‘useless’ they all are. From canceling of the work permit with MOM, to looking for action from police of SPF, levies payment with CPF, they basically right hand don’t know what left is doing and as a ordinary citizen, I become a postman. MOM tells me that I am
        Supposed to chase after a police IO for a letter to cancel her work permit, if not I will continue to pay levy.
        As an ordinary citizen, I end up paying for the incompetence of these civil servants who can’t even talk to each other. All MOM is interested in is indeed ‘closing’ whatever case they are handling and will chase or threaten by dishing the ‘codes’ and ‘acts’ with legal action. They is no sympathy , no interest, u r just a file number.

        I sympathize with these foreign workers who are conned into working for less than promised.

        Honesty MOM and SPF needs a major rehaul.

  12. 19 SoT 15 September 2011 at 21:45

    great article. i was about to make a donation, but couldn’t access TWC’s financial statements.

    anyway, it’ll be great if you could do a comparison of the financials of various charities to see which are overspending on unnecessary expenses like overly high staff or fund raising costs.

    cheers.

  13. 20 Francis 15 September 2011 at 22:24

    Thanks Alex for what you are doing. I admire your generosity. I donated a small sum

  14. 21 SH 20 September 2011 at 09:59

    “There is a great reluctance to get to the bottom of things. Instead, there is an eagerness to just close the case in a manner that most reduces the follow-up work by bureaucrats. Doing right and delivering a fair outcome appears to be nowhere in the equation.”

    I totally agree with this statement and I had encountered similar experience. Many years ago, my phone was stolen from me when a man ( looks like a Bangladesh, but I am not sure ) snatch it from my bag.

    Stupid of me to put it in the front pocket of my bag which was not properly secure, I know. But I chased that man a few blocks until I lost him at a traffic junction. I went immediately to the nearest police post to report snatch thief.

    However, at that time, the police claimed that because I wouldn’t be able to identify the man after they caught him, filing a report of thief will be disadvantages to me, wasting my time and etc etc. In the end, they would only allow me to report lost of phone.

    I was still a student then and was quite shocked and somewhat traumatized of the whole incident, that I went with what was suggested at that time. I regret the decision even to this day, and thought this is proabably one of the ways the crime rates are being “suppressed” in Singapore.

    That was also the day when I lost all confidence in our police.

    • 22 yawningbread 20 September 2011 at 10:16

      I have news for you: When I was at the police station, I saw a notice giving a list of things for which “No police report is necessary”. The list includes loss of phone. In other words, now you can’t even report what you managed to report a few years ago.

  15. 23 patriot 21 September 2011 at 00:25

    The Police not looking into complain and report shows and proves that Singaporeans are not living in a police state. Good for some of those unemployed and professional fraudsters who depend on felonies to survive and prosper. They certainly wish that the Police will not go after them.

    patriot

  16. 24 azi 5 October 2011 at 21:10

    Dear Alex,

    How many times have we had these poor workers sit outside MOM in protest against their bosses greed. One would think that by now someone higher up would have looked into this and tried to change the pattern. The sad thing is that i believe that the people in power don’t even care about their own people what more those poor disadvantaged from other countries who get cheated here. I’m talking not only about these workers but also women who are brought here to be ‘married’ to men.

    At the end of the day, human rights is just another dirty word for these people to push under the carpet, no one is going to upset the status quo and people who dare to might find themselves being shown the door.


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