By Davina Tham
When eighteen workers demanded the four months’ salaries that were owed to them, their boss told them that they would only receive the money if they first signed a “condition paper”, says Mohammed Anisuzzaman (striped shirt). “But never show paper,” he adds, indicating that they were upset to be asked to agree to something that was not only unjust, but vague. However, even though the boss’ proposal was not written down, they were given to understand that they would each receive $1,000 less than what they were owed, and they had to pay their own airfare home.
Fortunately, the MOM officer overseeing this case rejected these terms outright, ordering the employer to reimburse the men for the full amount owed as well as bear the full cost of repatriation, as required by the conditions for the work permit.
It is a heartening story, says Alex Au, a senior volunteer with Transient Workers Count Too. “Too often in the past, workers complain to us that their MOM case officer pressurised them to accept ‘compromise’ offers, less than what they were owed,” he notes.
See for example Ahsan’s story in The scenic route to solving salary disputes.
Anis had lodged a complaint with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on 6 February this year, frustrated over receiving his monthly pay many months late ever since starting work with Allianzze Construction. At that point in time, he had four months’ salary outstanding. He was one of a group of fifteen. Three others, he says, had approached MOM a month earlier with similar complaints.
With eighteen men demanding their backpay, the company may have had a cash flow problem. So, only some of them were paid immediately and sent home. Anis and several others had to stay on in Singapore. They thought their case would be settled “in ten or fifteen day”, but they eventually had to wait about two weeks more.
When he and co-worker Nur (black shirt) turned up at the Cuff Road Food Programme on 4 March 2013 to talk to TWC2 volunteers, Anis was all smiles, having just received his full backpay of about $4,200 earlier that day. “But cannot go home yet,” he says. Apparently, MOM wants him to stay on for a few more weeks – something to do with needing to complete investigations into the employer, he believes.
At about this point in the conversation, another senior TWC2 volunteer, Debbie Fordyce, fishes a worn and dog-eared card out of her bag and puts it on the table. “Look,” she says, “here’s an old card from Allianzze Construction, given to me years ago from another worker who had a complaint against the company.” This little piece of evidence suggests that this employer has a chronic history of late salary payments. Perhaps MOM is finally beginning to take notice.
Another indicator of the seriousness with which MOM may be taking this case is hinted at when Anis reports that he and his co-complainants are currently being housed at a big dormitory complex – “have thousands workers there,” he says – near Kranji. Anis thinks MOM is paying for it.
“I don’t think so,” says Alex. “More likely, MOM is compelling the employer to pay for their continued housing until repatriation.
“And that is as it should be; it’s long being a condition of work permits. It is socially irresponsible to have employers kicking workers out and leaving them homeless.”
Anis first came to Singapore in 2008. He had a positive experience then, earning more money than he could have in Bangladesh. This encouraged him to return in June 2011, when he paid $3,600 to come and work for Allianzze. But then the troubles started. His pay, at a monthly average of $800, was always a few months late. This is in flagrant violation of the law, as all workers are supposed to be paid within seven days of the end of the month.
Despite his salary being continually held back, Anis stayed on to work in Singapore because he wanted to recoup the initial sum that he spent to come here. Even when the first year came to an end, he had not yet earned back the investment and had to agree to pay $500 to his boss to renew his work permit, he says. Demanding such payments from workers is also in contravention of the law.
But for Anis, all that is history now. He can look forward to returning home to Bangladesh. This experience in Singapore has not robbed him of the sparkle in his eyes, as he excitedly tells us about his plans for the future: He wants to get married, and will probably be taking over one of the two mobile phone shops his family owns.