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A new survey of nearly three hundred male migrant workers found that 26 to 40 percent of them suffered a pay deduction commonly known as ‘savings money’ — roughly one in three workers. The deduction averaged $50 a month.
An earlier survey (see: One third of male migrant workers aren’t paid what they are due) had 23.5 percent of respondents telling TWC2 that they had ‘savings money’ (sometimes known as ‘deposit money’) deducted from their last pay packet. Another 12 percent were either not paid, partially paid or otherwise incorrectly paid. This earlier survey was conducted among working workers we met at random when we conducted our monthly outreach activities at various locations around Singapore.
We felt that we should do another study to check this rather high percentage suffering from ‘savings money’ deduction. At the same time, we wanted to see whether employers kept their promises that the retained monies would be handed over when the men were repatriated.
In this new survey, we obtain percentages even higher than in the first survey, though roughly in the same ballpark. On a slightly happier note, over 80 percent said that their bosses did indeed return the retained monies.
This is a monthly deduction employers impose on foreign workers, on the pretext that the company is helping the men save. Vague assurances are given that the accumulated sum will be returned to the worker when he completes the job and is repatriated. Typically, the amount deducted is under $100 a month, which nonetheless represents 5 to 15 percent of a worker’s total pay packet, since salaries for work permit holders are low.
Retention of any portion of an employee’s salary is blatantly illegal. The Employment Act clearly stipulates that salaries must be paid by the seventh day of the following month.
TWC2 believes that the main intent behind this deduction is as a disciplining tool. Employees are made to fear that should they stand up for their rights, their employers may quite arbitrarily forfeit the retained sums. We have also seen a few cases of Chinese workers complaining that their employers were deducting the cost of their return airfare from the retained sums – this too is illegal since the law clearly says that Work Permit employees should not be charged for their return airfare.
The survey was conducted on the evening of 1 September 2014 at our Cuff Road Project meal outlet. All 282 men who came for dinner that evening were interviewed. This is a separate group of men from those we interviewed in our aforementioned earlier survey.
The new survey had two parts: The first asked them whether, in their most recent job, they suffered a savings money deduction, and if so, how much.
The second focussed on the job (if any) they held previous to the most recent job. Did they suffer a savings money deduction? If so, how much? And did they get the money returned to them when they completed that job?
It was not possible to ask if the men had the money returned to them with respect to deductions taken from them in the most recent job because that would have been the job where a problem arose midway through the job period and led them to seek help from TWC2. The job ended in an ‘irregular’ way.
The previous job however would have been one that ended in a ‘normal’ way, thus enabling a “Was the money returned?” question.
We are conscious of the potential criticism that a savings money dispute led the men to seek help from TWC2 in the first place, and so surveying the men under our care would give skewed results. However, this risk only arises if a worker came to TWC2 for assistance over a salary issue with his employer.
The majority of men at the Cuff Road Project are there because of a workplace injury. Whether or not an employer has a policy of a savings money deduction is an independent variable from a workplace accident; the latter is a chance occurrence.
However, for the smaller number of men who approached TWC2 over a salary issue in their most recent job, we disqualified them when tabulating results relating to the most recent job.
With respect to the previous jobs (i.e. the jobs prior to those jobs that led them to seek help from TWC2), whether or not their previous employers had a savings money policy is an independent variable from the workers’ presence at the Cuff Road Project (even if their presence today flows from having a salary issue with their most recent job). Their presence today is totally unrelated to the job prior to their most recent job.
Out of 282 men surveyed, 17 had a salary issue with their most recent jobs. These 17 were excluded leaving 265 responses for tabulation.
Of these 265 men, 106 (40 percent) said they suffered a savings money deduction in their most recent job.
We then asked these 106 how much was deducted. The nature of the answers varied somewhat. Most of them gave us a specific figure per month. A few of them of them said the deduction amount changed from one dollar figure to another in the course of their employment; in these instances, we used an average of the two figures for tabulation purposes.
Respondent no. 1 said the deduction was “$100 (per month) for first six months; after that $50 per month”. We used the average ($75) for tabulation purposes.
Respondent no. 235 said the deduction was “$90 per month for two years, then $50 per month for last four years.” We used the average ($70) for tabulation purposes.
Eighteen persons could remember the accumulated amount but couldn’t tell us what the monthly deduction rate was. They are shown as “no clear answer” in the table below.
Of the 79 persons who provided a deduction rate that was $100 per month or less, the range was from $10 to $100 per month. The average deduction suffered by these 79 persons was $52.52 per month.
You will notice that Table 3 above had nine respondents who gave us a deduction rate that was greater than $100 a month. We’re not confident about these nine answers. We find it somewhat unbelievable that the deduction rate could be as high as that – although we could be wrong and that there may indeed be such avaricious employers.
Possible explanations for these high monthly rates of deduction are:
(1) The worker suffered a host of deductions (e.g. housing, food, electricity, transport) and it has never been clear to him how much each deduction was. Many workers do not receive itemised pay slips. Perhaps the figure he gave us in the survey referred to the total monthly deductions he suffered (which included savings money deduction)
(2) The worker did not understand the term ‘savings money’ deduction and gave us a figure relating to an entirely different deduction. Deductions in the hundreds of dollars are more likely than not ‘renewal money’ deductions – for the ‘privilege’ of having his work permit renewed. Needless to say, such a deduction is illegal too.
If we exclude these nine somewhat doubtful cases, we’re still left with 97 men (79 + 18) who gave us very believable answers. These 97 men make up 36.6 percent of the 265 men qualified for the first part of the survey.
Next, we present the results stemming from the jobs the man had prior to their most recent jobs. Of the 282 men eating with us that evening, 142 men said that they had worked at a previous job.
Of these 142 men, 38 (26.8 percent) of them said they suffered a savings money deduction in their previous job.
Of these 38 men, 23 gave us clear answers when we asked how much (dollars) was deducted per month — answers that didn’t exceed $100 a month. The answers ranged from $20 to $100, with an average of $49.57.
One man said the deduction was $150 a month. It’s possibly true, but we’re not entirely sure it wasn’t mixed up with some other deduction. Fourteen men, while saying they suffered a savings money deduction in their previous jobs, couldn’t or didn’t tell us exactly what the rate per month was.
It is bad enough that savings money deduction is illegal. Might it be even worse – with bosses not returning the money as promised? An additional question was asked of the 38 men who said they suffered a savings money deduction in their previous jobs. Slightly over 80 percent said they got all their money back.
Two men said it was only partially refunded. One said the refund was $500 short. The other couldn’t recall how much remained outstanding.
Three men said they did not receive a cent of the savings money that had been dedcuted from their pay packets. The accumulated amounts in question were $180, $200 and $2,000.
Savings money deduction is a relatively widespread problem faced by male migrant workers on work permits. This study validates the finding from the earlier survey conducted about six months back. All the percentages are in the same ballpark.
The numbers seem to cluster around the 30 percent mark. We could therefore say that roughly one in three workers suffers the transgression of law that is euphemistically called ‘savings money’.
 Overtime pay however can be paid a further seven days later.
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