‘The sweets were delicious’

Posted by on October 19, 2013 in Articles, Stories

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Once in a while, Transient Workers Count Too succeeds in helping a worker get everything that is due to him. Not only is the worker happy, so are we. Deliriously.

But there was a month in which everything looked very bleak for Hazrat (not his real name). His employer had submitted salary vouchers with forged signatures, but his case officer at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) insisted on ruling the matter as “inconclusive”. The officer pressed Hazrat to accept a ruling that would compel the employer to give Hazrat just $330, or a mere six percent of what Hazrat said he was owed.

Said Hazrat to TWC2: “My case officer, Mr Tan Pin, he say ‘Your forgery one, MOM don’t know’.” Translated from broken Bangla English — TWC2 volunteers get very good at understanding this new language after a while — Hazrat meant that his case officer told him that MOM would not recognise his claim that the salary voucher was forged.

“Also, he say, ‘Deduction money one, MOM don’t know’,” Hazrat added. Hazrat had claimed that his employer made illegal deductions from his salary each month he worked. These claims too would not be recognised as valid for compensation.

According to the worker, his case officer insisted that Hazrat sign on the dotted line in acceptance of the ruling that would net him about $330, or else the case would be closed and Hazrat would get nothing. “He say, ‘If you don’t take, you don’t give signature, I close your case’,” recalled Hazrat frustratedly. “How can case officer like that?”

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To save money, employer wanted to take one worker’s medical expenses out of another’s  salary

How did Hazrat’s problem begin?

He came to Singapore to work for a vegetable farm in March 2011, on a two-year work permit. The monthly salary declared in his In-Principle Approval letter was $900. This is the figure that the employer would have declared to MOM when applying for a work permit. Potential employees receive a copy of the letter so that they are aware how much the job would pay.

From the very first month, Hazrat said, his basic pay was only $850. Fifty dollars were deducted each month. “Boss say going home time, give back $50,” recalled Hazrat. This, albeit common, practice is illegal. Employers are not supposed to hold back any portion of a salary. The deducted quantum was increased in later months.

He was also penalised for a broken knife and other goods, for a total of $400 taken out of his salary.

Then, on 30 March 2012, a co-worker Bashir (not his real name) collapsed while at work and had to be hospitalised for six days. On discharge, Bashir was sent back to Bangladesh but since he was not well enough to deal with travel procedures and transfers on his own, Hazrat was tasked to accompany Bashir back home.  Hazrat left Singapore on 5 April 2012, returning the next day, 6 April, and resuming work.

Perhaps because Hazrat left Singapore before the pay day for the month of March, he did not collect his pay.

On 4 May 2012, Hazrat was shocked to discover that the employer was not going to pay him for March and April. According to the worker, the company manager told him that they were taking his and Bashir’s salaries to cover the latter’s medical expenses. These expenses amounted to $4,086.69; Hazrat happened to have a copy of the hospital’s invoice.

Hazrat then lodged a complaint at MOM for his owed salaries and all the previous illegal deductions. By his calculation, he was owed around $5,500.

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Employer produces salary payment vouchers

Queried by MOM, the employer then produced three salary vouchers to ‘prove’ that Hazrat had been paid correctly. Hazrat protested that the signatures on those pieces of paper were not his. He then made a police report of forgery.

A year later, his case officer told him that police investigations were “inconclusive”.  Since Hazrat’s claims could not be proven, MOM would not rule in his favour. At most, said his MOM case officer, the company only owed him $330, being his salary for the first few days of May 2012 he had worked. Hazrat was then given two choices: accept $330, or refuse that amount and sign an agreement that this case is closed. Both were outrageously inequitable to the worker.

Debbie Fordyce, TWC2 executive committee member and co-ordinator of our Cuff Road Project, stepped in. She reached the police officer dealing with Hazrat’s forgery complaint to find out more. The officer told her that investigations had been completed and the result communicated to MOM.

But what was the result?

The officer said it was “confidential” — which is quite an illogical position. Hazrat himself was the complainant and Debbie was acting for him with his permission. How can the result be “confidential” and denied to the complainant when it is shared with a third party (MOM)?

Eventually, the police officer relented and told Debbie verbally that the investigation had in fact found that the signatures were not Hazrat’s. The police had called in several people from the employer company for questioning and tested their handwriting. In the end they were not able to say for certain who forged the signatures, and for this reason, stated their findings as “inconclusive”. All they were sure of was that they were not Hazrat’s handwriting.

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‘Driving me crazy’

This revelation only made Debbie more frustrated. “This case is driving me crazy,” she wrote to your writer. “I can’t figure out how MOM can be so willfully obstructive.” Unfortunately, at this critical juncture, she had to fly to the United States for a pre-arranged visit, and the writer took oversight of the case for TWC2.

While exploring the possibility of asking the worker to sue the ministry under administrative law for capricious, illogical and unjust decision-making, one last effort was made to flag the matter higher up within MOM. Your writer then wrote to this senior official on 31 July 2013:

Could you please take a look deeply into how this case has been handled. It seems to us that some very poor decisions have been made by the case officer whose name, the worker [Hazrat] tells us, is ‘Mr Tan Peng’.

The police have ascertained that the signatures on the disputed documents submitted by the employer are NOT [Hazrat’s], though they cannot establish whose signature it was. To call the result ‘inconclusive’, and then to dismiss [Hazrat’s] claim, is to mischaracterise the situation. It is sufficiently conclusive that [Hazrat] did not receive the money.

The worker reports to us, with extreme (and fully understandable) frustration that Mr Tan Peng wants him to prove whose signature it was. This is asking for the impossible.

A reasonable assessment of the situation would be to say it is highly suspicious when an employer presents documents to MOM purporting to contain the signature of the worker when it has been found that the signature is not his. An adverse inference should be drawn against the employer for doing so, and the burden of proof shifted onto the employer. In fact, MOM could have cause to prosecute the employer for making a false statement.

It is very troubling that the case officer is making decisions contrary to natural justice.

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Good news

Six weeks later, Hazrat brought us good news: MOM was changing its mind and deciding in his favour. However, he had been asked to correct a few errors and make a few changes to his claim calculations, which Debbie was glad to help with. A short while later, Hazrat reported that he received the adjusted claim amount of $5,072 — a far cry from the $330 his case officer had said was all he would get.

At this point, TWC2 does not know whether the ministry is intending to prosecute the employer.

Hazrat was also permitted by MOM to seek a new job within Singapore; he is now working for another company.

Out of the blue, he received a copy of the forensic report from the Health Sciences Authority — the one that was denied to him earlier.

The report said that the forensic scientist was provided the following samples:

1. The police report dated 11 May 2012, containing Hazrat’s signature;

2. Five sheets of paper bearing Hazrat’s repeated specimen signatures;

3. Salary vouchers for March 2012 and April 2012, purportedly bearing Hazrat’s signatures.

The report said, “On examination, I noted the differences in stroke quality, slant and the formation of alphabet letters between the two questioned signatures . . . and the specimen signatures . . . In my opinion there is no evidence to indicate that the writer of the specimen signatures . . . wrote the two questioned signatures respectively.”

Albeit carefully phrased, the conclusion is as clear as day. Amazingly, the letter reporting on the forensic investigation was dated 26 September 2012, meaning that the investigation had been completed a full year earlier than the crisis months. Why was Hazrat made to wait all this while to resolve his case?

Still, better late than never.

Grateful for Debbie’s help, Hazrat said to her that he’d like to buy her a gift. There’s no need, said Debbie, but Hazrat insisted. “OK, just something small,” she relented. He bought her a box of traditional Bengali sweets. “They were delicious,” Debbie said with a huge smile.

 

 

TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our
means.

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