Jail for bosses who mistreat workers, says judge

In a landmark judgement from the High Court, Justice V K Rajah not only dismissed the appeal of an employer who caused great suffering to over 600 foreign workers, but stated for the record that employers who “persistently”  mistreated their workers, or even engaged in “a single serious transgression” should be jailed.

In so doing, he gently chided the prosecution for not appealing the light sentences meted out by the magistrate in a lower court. If the prosecution had appealed, he would have increased them, the judge said.

Having lost his appeal, Paul Lee Chiang Theng will now have to serve his four weeks’ sentence. He has already paid the fine.

Mohamed Kamaluddin, one of the over 600 workers, died as a result of the Paul Lee’s neglect.

Here is a video made by Shelley Thio, and executive committee member of Transient Workers Count Too around the time the workers appealed for help when a few of them of them came down with chicken pox in their crowded quarters.

The background

Paul Lee registered two companies in 2008. Goldrich Venture was incorporated in March 2008 and Gates Offshore in May the same year. He had received assurances from a shipyard, Halcyon, that there would be large projects in hand.

Under Goldrich, he brought in 187 workers, the bulk of whom arrived between April and July 2008. Even though these workers had no work — the early promises from Halcyon did not mterialise — he brought in a further 431 workers under Gates Offshore, most arriving August to November.

By January 2009, Kamaluddin was dead. The Online Citizen and Deborah Choo carried the story.

The 618 workers from Bangladesh were housed in unacceptably crowded and inadequate spaces, as you would have seen from the video. They reported that they got only two meals a day. Most crucially, they had no work, and no pay.

Also evident from the video was the attitude of the police. According to the men interviewed, the police had been called several times; they came, took a look and went off each time. Until someone died. This is consistent with what I had said in an earlier article, Crime and Ambivalence — the police don’t see any crime being committed even when workers are treated worse than animals. There is something very wrong with the so-called law enforcers in Singapore.

Paul Lee Chiang Theng (above) faced a total of 100 charges under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA), to wit:

  • 7 charges for failing to provide acceptable accommodation (he pleaded guilty to 2, with 5 charges taken into consideration for sentencing)
  • 20 charges for employing workers without valid Work Permits (he pleaded guilty to 7, with 13 taken into consideration).
  • 73 charges for failing to pay salaries on time (he pleaded guilty to 24, with 49 charges taken into consideration for sentencing)

Later, at the appeal stage, Justice V K Rajah noted that “Although the Appellant had failed to pay salaries to most of his 610 workers, the Prosecution only charged the Appellant with regard to 73 workers with the Appellant pleading guilty to 24 of the salary charges and the other 49 salary charges taken into consideration for the purposes of sentencing.” The same could be pointed out about the accommodation charges.

Lee had been sentenced by the lower court thus:

  • Fined $4,000 for each of the accommodation and Work Permit charges he pleaded guilty to (total $36,000)
  • Sentenced to four weeks’  imprisonment for the salary charges

Not wanting to go to jail, Lee then appealed against the prison sentence.

Salaries now paid up, according to Lee

Justice V K Rajah noted that after the case came to light, Lee “was able . . . to pay all the salaries, the transport cost of the repatriation, and an additional cash allowance of $500 per worker.” The cash came from insurers, to which Lee is now indebted, but here’s the funny thing — the figures cited by the judge amounted to only $1,445,200. Divided by 618 workers, it meant just $2,338 per worker.

If one deducts from there the $500 ex-gratia payment and the cost of airfare back to Bangladesh (about $800), that leaves just $1,000 for salaries per worker. On average, the workers had been in Singapore for about five months (some as long as nine months), so it seems to work out to $200 per month per worker in salary. This does not sound right.

High court’s observations

As noted above, the appeal judge rejected Lee’s appeal, affirming the 4-week jail sentence. The fines levied by the magistrate’s court were not under appeal.

What is noteworthy is that V K Rajah made a number of observational statements in his written judgement (Click here for full version. Ref: Lee Chiang Theng vs Public Prosecutor 2011, SGHC252), which may be useful in future cases for sentencing purposes. These include:

22.  On appeal, the Appellant argued that he never profited from the workers, but in fact, suffered heavy financial burdens in paying for the workers’ lodging, food and allowances. He claimed that the workers were not paid salaries because there were no jobs for the workers and this was, he alleged, a factor beyond his control.

This is a common excuse used by employers, who often take the position that when their employees are not assigned any work, no wages are earned. This is illegal. There is still the basic salary that has to be paid. Moreover, employers often pro-rate the monthly basic salary by the number of days that they had work for their men. Foreign workers often report that in such-and-such a month, the boss didn’t assign work for, say, 16 or 17 days, and then cut their basic salary by 16/26 or 17/26 (assuming 26 weekdays in a month). This too is illegal.

The appeal judge made it clear that Lee, as employer

28 . . . was legally bound to pay the salaries of the workers that he brought into Singapore regardless of whether Halcyon actually provided jobs for them.

It was a point the judge reiterated further down in his written decision, saying, that the welfare of workers

34 . .  is a legal responsibility that cannot be shirked or excused by a deteriorating economic climate or by defaulting business partners. This legal responsibility is even more significant when the foreign workers are of particular vulnerability, ie, where they are unskilled workers with little bargaining power and unable to fend for themselves.

The judge then observed, and in doing so, provided guidance for future cases:

33. As there is a lack of clear precedents regarding the consequences arising from the commission of the offences under the EFMA, it is important to emphasise that employers who persistently fail to discharge their legal responsibilities towards foreign workers will ordinarily have custodial sentences imposed on them. I ought to also emphasise that a single serious transgression in relation to this genre of offences might also attract a custodial sentence. When precisely the custody threshold is crossed will necessarily have to be fact centric. The seriousness of the offence will of course be exacerbated when a large number of foreign workers are brought in and the employer fails to fulfil his legal responsibilities towards them. Other possible aggravating considerations are, inter alia:

(a) a persistent failure by an employer to discharge his responsibilities, eg, the employer has been in continuous breach for an extensive period of time with no efforts of rectification,

(b) an employer’s failure to discharge its responsibility that renders the employee susceptible to physical harm or otherwise results in a situation that compromises the worker’s overall welfare or well being, and

(c) an employer’s cumulative commission of various offences under the EFMA or different conditions in the work permit with regard to the same worker (eg, failing to pay the salary and housing the worker in unacceptable conditions).

The appeal judge took the opportunity to express his disagreement with the lenient sentences given by the lower court. With respect to the accommodation offences, for which Lee was only fined,

39 . . .  I viewed the Appellant’s failure to discharge his obligation in providing acceptable accommodation much more seriously [than the lower court] – such breaches that expose and cause physical harm to one’s employees deserve a custodial sentence to reflect the abhorrence towards such offences. In my opinion, had the Prosecution appealed, the accommodation charges would have attracted a custodial sentence in order to be commensurate with the severity of the harm caused and the level of general deterrence required.

With respect to the salary offences, the jail sentence for which was the subject of appeal,

41. Therefore, it could not be said that a sentence of one week’s imprisonment per charge with four charges to run consecutively was manifestly excessive. Indeed, given the number of workers involved here the sentence ought to have been heavier.

In conclusion, Justice V K Rajah emphasised that employers of foreign workers have serious responsibilities and

42 . . . A serious failure to discharge these responsibilities, ie, in relation to the payment of salaries; the statutory levies due; or the provision of suitable accommodation will ordinarily attract a custodial sentence.

And then ruled that the magistrate’s lenient sentences should not be used again as guiding precedents.

43 . . . Perhaps I should also make plain that the custodial sentence given in these proceedings should not be viewed as the benchmark for similar offending conduct. Had there been an appeal to enhance the sentences, I would have been inclined to significantly increase the term of imprisonment.

Altogether, the appeal judge made this point — that stiffer sentences would have been appropriate — several times in his written decision. The court’s guideline for future cases could not be clearer.

26 Responses to “Jail for bosses who mistreat workers, says judge”

  1. 1 polis farce 29 November 2011 at 11:49

    Four weeks jail and a paltry fine is too light for the culprit. There is no bite at all.

  2. 2 polis farce 29 November 2011 at 11:57

    The police for not taking action should also be put on trial. Are they in cahoots with these errant employers and businesses?

  3. 3 SG Girl 29 November 2011 at 12:59

    I’m at a loss for words after watching the video…

  4. 4 Tan Tai Wei 29 November 2011 at 14:02

    The appeal judge thought, rightly, that he could not play the prosecution’s role, besides the judge’s, and enhance the sentences, despite his surely also right sense of justice in this particular case, which sensed that the lower court’s sentences were way too lenient. For doing so would undermine the entire system of justice administration, that requires the fair balance of separate and specialised roles, where the judge does not double as prosecution also, and so unfairly weigh the court against the accused.

    But then shouldn’t we find it disturbing to recall the former Chief Justice’s almost habitual practice of even doubling sentences, when hearing only appeals of the defence for lower sentencing? Think of the consequence of, I’m sure, many cases where defence lawyers pragmatically advised clients not to appeal for fear of that ‘Prosecutor” CJ’s unjust habit, and not on grounds of fairplay. Surely, rather than discourage appeals, a fair justice system should entertain appeals as an important way to prevent mistakes, etc, given the fallibility of the best of all.

  5. 5 ricardo 29 November 2011 at 15:46

    I sent the following to teo_chee_hean@mha.gov.sg

    I believe government guidelines requires he responds within a set time and detail his action (or inaction) within a slightly greater time scale.

    If everyone who comments on this blog does the same, we might see positive action.

    Dear Mr. Teo,

    I refer you to “Lee Chiang Theng vs Public Prosecutor 2011, SGHC252” where Appeal Judge Justice V K Rajah made the observation,

    “Had there been an appeal (by the Prosecution) to enhance the sentences, I would have been inclined to significantly increase the term of imprisonment.”

    and other very pertinent comments.

    There are 3 important issues here.

    Firstly, the Police declined to take action until someone had actually died.

    Secondly, the District Judge meted out very lenient sentences even though the employer was obviously guilty of multiple counts of severe criminal neglect which might be taken as involuntary manslaughter in some countries.

    Thirdly, the Public Prosecutor seemed happy with these lenient sentences even though there were other multiple offences the employee had obviously committed against defenseless people.

    I am not sure if the High Court comes under your Ministry but I believe the Police & Public Prosecutor do. Please advise me if this is not the case and tell me who I should be speaking to.

    It is unacceptable that there is one law for rich employers and another for poor workers. Please look into this matter.

    With confidence in your integrity and justice.

  6. 7 Saycheese 29 November 2011 at 16:22

    The police, MOM and district court judge are only doing what is right in our system. The lower mortals slave for the benefits of the privileged, which is also the reason for HDB to be priced so as not to raid the reserves while ministers pay themselves inappropriately. So be a little more conscientious in your NS trainings – you never know when they may unleash the Gurkha contingent on you!

  7. 8 Mark 29 November 2011 at 16:51

    You may wish to note that this was a magistrate’s appeal, and Justice V K Rajah was presiding as a High Court Judge. Nevertheless,it is correct that his decision would bear greater weight in light that he is an Appeal Judge.

  8. 10 enough jail space or not? 29 November 2011 at 22:47

    If we really have to jail them, do we have enough manpower and time to investigate all possible cases and prosecute?

    And enough jail space for all those convicted?

    For instance, if 2 or 3 protest on the streets, we have the (dedicated) manpower to catch and also jail space to jail them for breaking the law. But what happen if 10,000 protested and the law must also apply fairly for all?

    • 11 sgcynic 30 November 2011 at 13:16

      Focus on the wrong issue.
      Of course, if the injustice is allowed to fester and breed, it is likely that we would not have enough resources to investigate and prosecute. However, whose fault is it then not to nib the problem in the bud and allow it to flourish? They are highly paid to do their job, aren’t they?

    • 12 Chanel 30 November 2011 at 16:43

      Are you implying that jail space availability and prosecutory/police manpower adequacy should be considered in bringing juctice to criminals????!!

  9. 13 Su 30 November 2011 at 15:02

    What a disgusting shame. As a Singaporean, it is hard to believe that the POLICE were culprits in this whole sham! Shame on them and shame on us for allowing this to happen.

  10. 14 Chanel 30 November 2011 at 16:37

    Modern day slavery in our own backyard !!! Uniquely Singapore indeed

  11. 16 hahaha 30 November 2011 at 21:20

    They should be “jailed” with the same workers whom they mistreated, for 4 months!

  12. 17 Rabbit 1 December 2011 at 02:52

    Before we start blaming the policemen who were just rank and files civil servants, reluctantly carrying out order from the top, we want to know who set the guidelines (during WKS era?) for the policemen to do what they did at the scene. As such it was being seen peasants were treated with less dignity and fair justice. A life or two was taken and employer just paid a fine with shorter imprisonment. Case close and the dead victim family can live happily thereafter and Singapore returns to its world beautiful image?
    I hope the ministries involved do not give us the crappy excuses that such incident was “UNAVOIDABLE” in a complex world when it can be avoided because who started the mess or created the mass?.

    A perfect storm is not created overnight. Many factors were at play and accumulated over the years, can MOM/MHA get away from being less guilty than the employer being charged? A case like TT durai’s scandal, before he was charged, there was a list of cronies behind the affairs and other authorities oversight. Point is, investigate the roots of all problems.

    Was there another PAP miscommunications between ministry of manpower, Immigration dept and our home affair resulted in nagging problems like this that will never (want to) end?

    When we heard employers daringly tell the world they have send a horde of daily rated work permit holders to Casino at whims and fancies, they have directly humiliated and indirectly challenged MOM openly. With such bold display of frankness came directly from employer’s mouth to the regulating authority, what else can they not do to their workers, more so to the vulnerable lot?

    When LHL think employers are king, expect all other ministries/unions involved in worker’s affairs to be less rigorous to give employer their much needed authority and arrogance to exploit the systems. I am starting to visualise such employers kissing our leader’s feet for all the good years.

    Please bring in the knife (employers) and unlimited meat (workers) and than serve the higher mortal in the name of GDP bonuses (how many months again?).

    Singapore seriously need an overhaul which should start from our leader and adults before we even bring it to school textbook on the value of treating lesser mortals with basic dignity.

    • 18 Leuk75 2 December 2011 at 03:26

      Sorry, I disagree about the leaders and adults. I think it it is not them per se but there is something seriously wrong with our social values when we embraced this Animal Farm Orwellian Pig attitude. So some workers are less equal than others?

      I also question MOM and the permits. If the work for these workers are not confirmed, under what grounds does MOM gives the greenlight to issue the work permits to hire in the FWs? Don’t they actually check that the employer has already secured a contract for the work first?

      MOM is just as culpable in this case as the employer and the police in abetting modern slave trade. Shame.

  13. 19 Shai 1 December 2011 at 04:01

    Oh goodness 4 weeks sentence and still have the audacity to appeal? What kind of a human being is he. I have no words at all and I almost teared watching the video.

  14. 20 Anonymous 1 December 2011 at 13:46

    Let’s see how the parliament with it’s ministers tackles this issue. This would be a hot issue of contention in the next election I guess. All eyes are watching.

    It’s a shame though that this perpetuates and proliferates in Singapore. As I walk through Serangoon Rd, I see workers sleeping by the drains and on the cement floors of dark Alley ways with just a hand towel under their heads. There’s plenty of police patrolling in that area but are the relevant people blind, ignorant, nonchalent, indifferent or umempathetic? Only when it has been addressed publicly in court is there a sudden hoo-haa. What a satire!!!

    Developed country with ”undeveloped-country ethics”!!!

    • 21 Mussolini 2 December 2011 at 09:19

      They won’t. PAP is pro-business and only goes after small fishes. To then all humans are digits from which to extract value.

  15. 22 Mussolini 2 December 2011 at 09:17

    The entire fascist PAP leadership AND the SPH and Today collaborators should be put on trial – not just the police.

  16. 23 Civilian 3 December 2011 at 20:54

    still very bothered about the fact that someone died and the boss is just thinking about how to lighten the punishment.

  17. 24 reservist_cpl 5 December 2011 at 15:17

    I also find it sad that Singaporean workers are often not protected by the Employment Act. At least foreign workers have legislative protection.

  18. 25 Sing 7 December 2011 at 23:14

    This is disgusting & shameful!!!

    If we continue to feel disgusted & sad over these things, everything will continue to be the same & we are just as guilty for realising but doing nothing (thus allowing)!

    We need to spread this news, this page & other related pages. Paul Lee Chiang Theng’s pics, name & other info should go viral the next few decades to compensate for his hardly-punished heinous crimes & as a deterrent to future rich criminals like him who profited through inhuman deeds! If the law doesn’t adequately punish him, & there were hardly any deterring consequences, we the people of Singapore should do our part, & also put everyone culpable in the public stand too so that they are held accountable to the public!
    E.g. we need to find out the chain of events of how the victims’ many pleas for help were ignored by the very people who are trained & duty-bound to serve & protect those that need their help. The police need to cooperate with us & be held accountable to us (the tax-payers), their employers.

    You can find a photo of that criminal here: http://www.straitstimes.com/BreakingNews/Singapore/Story/STIStory_738268.html

  19. 26 The Pariah 30 January 2012 at 11:04

    Applause for Justice VK Rajah – a precious voice who yet again has spoken for the voiceless, the vulnerable. He was also on the Horizon Towers Appellate Court panel and that judgement set the rules to protect the minority where the law failed to.

    Likewise, the recent ST commentary about hand specialists in the private sector who maltreated or undertreated foreign workers’ surgeries goaded me into probing MOH and SMC as to the institutional checks-and-balances to compel doctors to report such incidents as a first line of defence against unscupulous, incompetent and/or negligent doctors.

    It looks like SMC was “sleeping” but now apparently they will be initiate disciplinary inquiries. Let’s watch ….. and see what happens. We should not look the other way when such amorality is exposed.

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