By Benjamin Wong
Ilias Mir Anisur (above left) and Badal Barai (right) are part of the third group of workers from the same company, Lian Shing Construction Co Pte Ltd, to approach TWC2 for help. Despite so many workers lodging complaints with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) over a 12-month period, the company is still allowed to bring in more workers, say these two.
Late December 2011, we carried the story of Asadullah, who was twice abducted by repatriation agents to prevent him from reporting his employer to MOM. See Twice abducted by repatriation agents, Asadullah goes home poorer than when he arrived. Just before his departure, he also made a video to warn his countrymen of his experience.
Then in July 2012, nine more came and told us they were unjustly treated. They said they were not paid properly for their overtime work, and suffered apparently illegal deductions for ‘agent money’. These nine are reportedly still here in Singapore — some on temporary job schemes — waiting for their Lian Shing complaints to be resolved.
Ilias’ and Badal’s story was a familiar refrain — about short salaries, unsanitary housing, and poor working conditions.
Ilias has spent many years here in Singapore; first arriving fourteen years ago, in 1998. On 19 July 2011, Ilias transferred to Lian Shing Construction. Through the years, he has worked in various companies, but none like this one.
He claims that his In-Principle Approval (IPA) states a salary of $600, and that he should have been given about $1,000 a month after the inclusion of overtime pay. Yet since starting with the company in July 2011, he has not been paid his full salary. “Every month, only $400, $500,” he says.
“Everyday working 7am to 7pm, working 3 hour OT,” he explains. Yet, he wasn’t paid for three hours of overtime. “But pay only 2 hours, 1 hour not paid,” was his complaint.
“Saturday working after 12 [noon] but not paid [overtime rate].” As someone who has worked here for years, he knows that he is entitled to overtime rate Saturday afternoons.
“Sunday paid single only.” Many companies pay double rate for Sunday, though the law is ambiguous about it.
I ask Ilias if he has taken this issue up with his employer, and his reply astonished me.
“I many time complain to boss already.” Ilias replies with increasing agitation.
Then switching to play the role of the boss and mimicking an expression of smugness and nonchalance, he continues, “But boss say, ‘Ok go, go back lah.'” Even the implied threat of workers complaining to MOM doesn’t seem to faze the boss, who, reports Ilias, goes on to tell his unhappy employees: “Go MOM… if MOM say must give you salary, then give you.”
It sounds like the boss has no fear that MOM will ever insist he pays up in full.
Perhaps the boss knows that lodging a complaint with MOM means the men will lose their jobs altogether. Ilias quotes his boss as saying: “If you want to work here, you accept this salary,” and that if the workers were prepared to take the pay he was offering regardless of what’s stated in the IPA, there’d be “no problem.”
Ilias spots his friend and co-worker, motions him to come over and introduces me to Badal. Like Ilias, Badal too is on a Special Pass waiting to settle their salary case with Lian Shing. “Have seven of us go to MOM, we all not happy,” Ilias says.
This group of seven went to the ministry on 19 November 2012. Noting that it was more than a year since starting work with Lian Shing, I ask Ilias, “Why wait more than one year to go to MOM? Why November? Why not earlier?”
“We didn’t want to because, you see ah, we spend a lot of money to come here. Everyone have family. So we keep quiet and work.”
But more than a year of working under terrible conditions and a less than caring employer was just too much. “You know, we are actually construction company, but we doing cleaning job! Everytime longkang got dog or cat die, no protection must have to clean. I told boss, no protection how to do this one, very strong smell. But boss scold me.” Longkang is Malay for drain. Having been here 14 years, Ilias speaks like a Singaporean.
Badal then chips in, describing the poor state of the company dormitory that the workers have to endure. “About two room, maybe about 60 people staying. Only two toilets. Dorm very bad, mosquito, bugs, company don’t care anything. You know the wood — the plywood? Inside also got bugs.”
“We working very hard, [yet] payment not satisfactory. We thinking, better to come back [for] another company. That’s why we go MOM in November,” Ilias explains, and Badal nods in agreement.
The Ministry of Manpower, on receipt of salary complaints, sets up a mediation session between employer and employees. For some reason, the ministry treats non-payment or underpayment of salaries as a dispute to be reconciled by compromise rather than a matter of wrongdoing that ought to be investigated. TWC2 leaders have argued that MOM’s approach is wrong.
How wrong can be seen from Ilias’ and Badal’s account of what happened. They report that at MOM, Lian Shing offered a measly, hardly justifiable sum, as “compensation”, to the seven workers. “Boss offer — in front of MOM officer! — $800. We claiming $9,000, lot of thing boss never pay,” Ilias recounts.
The men rejected the ridiculous offer. “So next month we go court.”
It’s not actually a court, but a tribunal hearing before the Commissioner of Labour, who will make a definitive ruling as to how much the company owes the men.
More workers in the pipeline
Ilias and Badal knows the company’s track record is notorious. “Previous guys claim $4,500, same case, give to 13 people. We know.” It’s not clear what he means but it seems to suggest that a similar offer of $800 was made to them.
Thirteen people? A group of this number from Lian Shing we haven’t seen before. Is this yet another batch of complainants?
Ilias, Badal, and the five other workers in his group make up only a portion of about 80-90 workers that the company hires in total, says Badal. “New people is still coming. They don’t know. Maybe they scared cannot claim. But we everything know.”
That Lian Shing continues to exploit workers with such impunity bewilders not just us at TWC2, but also the workers. Clearly, there have been no penalties, at least none heavy enough to deter Lian Shing from treating its workers this way. “This company court case before, but still like that!” Badal exclaims.
For Ilias, his experience at Lian Shing has marred his time here, a negative blot on what had been a good memory of work in Singapore. “I tell you, I sixteen years working, I didn’t see like this cheating company, I never see like this.
“I like to work in Singapore, my last time bosses very good. But this one…” Ilias leaves his sentence unfinished, shaking his head.