A simple salary claim became a 14-month saga, eating up a good chunk of state resources. It was completely unnecessary, since the solutions that would prevent such disputes from arising in the first place are almost no-brainers. Yet, for reasons unknown, the Ministry of Manpower has not adopted the suggested solutions proposed by Transient Workers Count Too. In the meantime, hundreds more salary disputes have become similar sagas.

Instead of taking the shortest route to solutions, Singapore officialdom seems to prefer the longer, scenic route.

Ahsanur Rahman Rupchand Gazi, 27, was featured in an earlier story, Old dreams asunder, Ahsanur finds new hope, speaking to TWC2 writer Spiegel about his tiger prawn farming ambitions. That story gave a bit of the background as to why he was lingering in Singapore — his employer owed him backpay.

After a few months in which in his contractor boss only gave him a few hundred dollars a month “makan money” instead of the promised $25 a day, he lost patience and lodged a complaint at the Ministry of Manpower in April 2011. He said he was owed, by his calculations, nearly $5,000 for the six months he had worked for P S Lim Construction. At a mediation session called by the ministry, the boss first offered to settle with an offer of $1,000.

Ahsan recounted to TWC2: “I shock he offer so little. I say cannot accept. Cannot.”

The boss then improved his offer several times until it was $2,500. But Ahsanur refused anything less than the full amount.

According to him, MOM officials then suggested to the employer that the offer be raised to $3,000 and in turn suggested to Ahsanur that he ought to find such a compromise agreeable. The employer demurred, and anyway, Ahsanur thought any compromise was insulting.

With that session ending in stalemate, more meetings had to be called. At one of the subsequent sessions, the employer brought payment vouchers which purportedly showed that Ahsan had been paid in full. The boss pointed to signatures on them acknowledging receipt. Ahsan was even more shocked. “They are forgery, not my signature,” he told your writer with some vehemence.

“If they say they pay me everything already, then why the first day, they offer me money to settle?” he asked rhetorically. “Why, when I say cannot accept, they offer more money? When I say still cannot accept, they increase again?

“What it mean?”

Such offers to settle should “prove” that his salary had not in fact been paid, he pointed out, to both MOM on that day itself, and to your writer during the interview last year.

He then went to a police station on 2 June 2011 to make a police report. Quoting from it:

” . . . the company had not paid my salary since the day I started working. I then reported the matters to MOM and also went to Transient Workers Count Too and met Debbie Fordyce for assistant regarding the matters. I was informed that I would be paid S$25/per day by the company. However each time I asked for my salary every month, my company boss said that just take loan money about $100/ to $200/ first and I pay your salary tomorrow or next day however still failed to do so. Each time I took loan money. The company asked me to sign on the payment voucher stating that I have took the loan money but I was not given a copy after I signed. After several meeting with (MOM), My Ex-Employment gave me 15 Payment Voucher that I have signed but I do not agree and sure that 4 out of the 15 payment voucher is not signed by me and also did not received the cash stated on the payment voucher. I wish to state that I am not the only person signature forged by my company as my previous colleague had also reported the matters to the police.”

Ahsan was kept in Singapore on a Special Pass for months after that, as the police slowly investigated the allegation of forgery. Meanwhile, his mother’s health worsened and he began to feel guilty about not being able to go back to be with her. There were times when he felt like giving up and just going home.

But the authorities would not let him abandon the claim. Once set in the motion, Ahsan could not stop the process and go home. The most likely reason was that should it be proven that the signatures were genuine, he would then be charged with making a false report. The authorities would want him in Singapore so they could prosecute him. And thus, he languished.

 

Detailed pay slips, time sheets and payment through bank should be legally mandatory

If there had been proper documentation, it would have taken just one session at MOM to sort out which side was right and which party was in the wrong, saving a lot of public servants’ time. TWC2’s long-standing proposals to MOM addressed that very weakness: make proper documentation legally obligatory.

Specifically, employers should be required to

(a) keep accurate time sheets for hours worked, including overtime;

(b) provide each employee with a copy of his time sheet and a detailed computation of salary, overtime pay, extras and deductions on pay day each month;

(c) require workers to open bank accounts (usually savings accounts, so they have a bank book);

(d) deposit monthly salaries into employee’s bank accounts.

With such timely and detailed documentation, and an audit trail of payment through bank, it should become easy to prove whether correct salaries have been paid, and when. It should make life much easier for MOM officials. Yet, the policy-makers have not taken up TWC2’s suggestions.

Moreover, one can reasonably expect that when employers are faced with such binding requirements, the instances of salary non-payments would go down, since the absence of documents and an audit trail would by themselves be incriminating.

In this age of urging productivity improvements, why aren’t simple solutions to reduce inefficiency not taken up?

 

One year later

Meanwhile, the police referred Ahsan’s case to the forensic science specialists, but it was several months before TWC2 found out, informally, the results. The investigators managed to prove that the signatures on the payment vouchers in question were not Ahsan’s, but they were unable to prove whose it was. The results were enough to vindicate Ahsan, but were not sufficient for prosecuting the employer for forgery. TWC2 also learnt that the forensic exercise cost some $17,000 — nearly four times the disputed salaries in question — a cost borne by the taxpayer.

On 30 April 2012, Ahsanur was called for one more meeting at MOM. Present were an MOM officer (who, for this article, is referred to as AKT) and the boss’ son. The indented blue text are from Ahsan’s verbal report to TWC2:

 “AKT call me to talk to me inside one room. He say, ‘You take this money, settle this case, how much he give you, you [ought to be] happy because your mother is sick.'”

While Ahsan wanted to settle and go home, “but this is so much less” than the amount owed.

“How can settle like this?”

“AKT say to me: ‘You don’t go bend (crooked) way, you take the money and go home.’ I say I don’t go bend way, but cannot settle like this.”

AKT then called the boss’s son to come into the same room. Ahsan recalled:

“AKT ask him how much he can give me. $2,200. I cannot accept. ‘Okay,’ AKT then ask boss son, ‘you can up some more?’ Boss son say ‘I can up to $2,400.’ I say I no accept. Then AKT say to me, ‘You take this money go home because in this case we don’t know who will win.'”

In this case, we don’t know who will win? A statement like that seems to suggest that MOM was treating the matter as a negotiation between two parties, almost like a game of chance, rather than something it should determine through investigation as to who is right and who is wrong. Whether such an approach is MOM policy, or simply a shortcut taken by an officer to lighten his own job is impossible to say. But what followed next might indicate the officer’s thinking.

“Boss son say, ‘You no take this money [then] maybe you no see your mother and maybe this case go another two years.’

“AKT say, ‘You take this money, then good for you, happy happy you go back.’ He ask me which one important, my mother or the money.”

Ahsan felt, from that last statement, that AKT was joining the employer in emotionally blackmailing him to accept a reduced offer. “Always he shelter to my boss,” was how the worker described the perceived partiality.

“Then AKT say, ‘I am government officer. If you no take this money then I writing to my big officer, then I close for you this door, I cannot help you again, close the door for you.’

“After meeting finish, AKT say, ‘You take this money, if you no take then you take this much (making a zero hand sign).’

“This officer, why talk to me like this?”

With that session leading to no resolution, Ahsan was given a hearing date before the Commissioner of Labour – informally known as the ‘Labour Court’ – in May 2012, thirteen months after Ahsan first lodged a complaint at MOM.  The determined and spirited guy that Ahsanur was, he presented his own case  before the Commissioner, and unlike the stand taken by the MOM case officer, the court ruled unequivocally in his favour.

The employer was compelled to pay up every cent of the $4,854 that Ahsan was owed.

Ahsanur finally left Singapore on 25 June 2012, a very happy man, and glad to be seeing his beloved mother after such a long absence.

But for Singapore, it was a case of solving a problem in the most time-consuming and costly way possible.