Zhang Bo (left), Zhao Shougui (middle) and Wang Qingshan (right) thought they had a simple problem when they came to Transient Workers Count Too. However, when we looked into their case, it became obvious that there were complications. In fact, the men may be luckier than they realised. Things could have turned out much worse for them because they could not read and understand a very important piece of paper: the In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit (also known as ‘IPA’).
The three men had worked for Ssangyong Engineering and Construction Co. Ltd, starting early March 2012. Their one-year Work Permit was about to end when they came to TWC2 in March 2013.
Zhang did most of the talking, explaining that a company official had told them that if they wanted to continue working here, they would be transferred to another employer known as Shanghai Huangpu, under a fresh Work Permit. If they decide against the transfer, they have to pay $1,000 as “early termination penalty”.
The three men felt it unjust to have to pay this since they were anyway at the end of the one-year Work Permit. How can this be considered early termination? they asked. TWC2 agreed that it seemed improper and promised to help the men take the matter up with the Ministry of Manpower.
Refund of “yajin” money
The men also wanted a refund of $1,000 each, which they said had been deducted from their salaries during their first five months with Ssangyong. $200 was deducted each month between April and August 2012, they claimed. They were told that this amount would be returned to them when they successfully completed two years of work (even though the Work Permit was for only one year!). The men referred to this as “yajin” money.
However, all this while, the men had been paid their monthly salaries in cash. They were given the money and asked to sign a payment voucher. They were not given any itemised payslip showing how their salaries (including overtime) had been calculated and what were the deductions made. It therefore made it extremely difficult to prove that $1,000 had been deducted between April and August, as they claimed.
Although it was going to be difficult without supporting documents, TWC2 mentioned this $1,000 deduction to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). The MOM case officer contacted Ssangyong and learned from the company that in fact $2,000 had been deducted over ten months (the salaries for the eleventh and twelfth month had not yet been paid). However, the company said that this deduction ($200 per month) was for accommodation and was not refundable.
At this point, the question of the In-Principle Approval arose. Did the IPA state that $200 per month would be deducted for accommodation? Yes, it did, so this deduction (which the company confirmed) is not wrong; the company had said so from the very beginning. This being the case, the men cannot claim any refund.
But was this $2,000 deduction separate from the $1,000 “yajin” deduction? And how is it that the men didn’t know about the $2,000 deduction for accommodation?
On this issue, the men said that they were told by their employment agent in China that “accommodation will be provided”. They thought it would be free.
It is possible that the “yaqin” money ($1,000) deducted over five months April to August was separate from the accommodation deduction, which is to say that the company deducted a total of $3,000. However, there is no evidence for this. The lack of itemised payslips is the chief impediment. As for the monthly $200 deduction for accommodation, the men never even realised there was this deduction, especially as they never understood how their salary was computed each month.
Big deductions from IPA salary
Looking at their IPA, TWC2 was shocked to see that their basic pay was only $600 a month, and after deductions, only $265. This is ridiculously low.
Yet, the men were not complaining about poor pay. It was very strange. So we asked them how much they were earning on average each month.
“About $1,400,” they said.
It was roughly what they had been expecting when they left China. They showed us a contract signed between them and their Chinese employment agent that indicated a monthly salary of $1,400 to $1,800 a month, but such a contract signed outside Singapore would not be enforceable here.
Based on the IPA alone, it would take an impossible number of overtime hours to make up $1,400 (see box at right). So, was Ssangyong even basing the men’s salaries on the IPA? What were the calculations involved? Once again, without itemised payslips, it is impossible to know.
“Did you not scrutinise the IPA before coming here to work?” TWC2 asked the men. “Did you not realise that the basic salary was only $600 and that it had all these deductions?”
The men said they were only given their IPA just as they were boarding the aircraft, and even then, just the English version. They didn’t even realise that a Chinese version would have been sent to their employment agent, intended for them. The copy they received being only in English, they didn’t understand what the IPA said.
In TWC2’s view, the men were probably very lucky to have escaped an even worse situation. Without access to detailed information about how their salaries were calculated, and with an IPA so loaded against them, the men could have been earning very low pay with no basis for complaining.
Issues raised by this case
Several issues are raised by these three men’s experience:
1. Many Chinese workers think that the Chinese-language contract they sign in China is the governing document. It is not. Firstly, since it is a contract signed in China, it cannot be enforced in Singapore. MOM will not recognise it. Secondly, the employer is not a party to the contract – only the employment agent is – and so it may prove complicated (though legally possible) trying to hold the employer responsible.
2. Many Chinese workers do not realise that the IPA is much more important. What is stated in the IPA is what MOM will refer to when settling disputes.
3. Many workers do not realise either that MOM sends two versions of the IPA to the employment agent in the home country before they come to Singapore. One is in English, the other is in the worker’s native language. However, TWC2 has heard of many cases where employment agents keep the native language version and only pass the English version to the worker. As described above, in this case the English-language IPA was only passed to the men as they were boarding the plane. This practice strongly suggests an attempt to prevent the worker from knowing what were the terms of employment as stated in the IPA.
This problem is easily solved if MOM issues a bilingual IPA instead — two languages side by side on the same page. Then there will be no way for the worker to be denied knowledge of the terms of employment.
4. Another problem that MOM needs to address, but has not done so so far, is that of itemised pay slips. TWC2 has long argued that it should be mandatory to issue such detailed documents to every worker on payday. Without them, workers simply do not know whether they have been correctly paid.
5. Workers should also not be paid in cash. In order to have a proper record of the total amount paid, salaries should be paid through a bank. Bank records will at least show the total paid even if the detailed calculations still require itemised payslips. In this connection, workers rarely realise that they have a right to ask for payment through bank.
Clause 5 of Part IV of the Work Permit Regulations states that “If the foreign employee so requests, the foreign employee’s salary shall be paid via direct transfer into the foreign employee’s bank account in a bank established in Singapore.” But to fully realise this rule, MOM must be watchful that employers do not penalise workers for having the temerity to so request.
By the middle of March 2013, the three workers had received their outstanding salaries for the last two months of work. A further $200 per month was deducted for accommodation. However, they did not have to suffer any early termination deduction, as a result of TWC2’s intervention. They flew home on 15 March 2013.