Big hole in ground dug with big hole in worker’s pay

Posted by on October 24, 2014 in Articles, Stories

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Yeusof (not his real name) knew there was something wrong with his monthly pay slip from Hyundai Engineering & Construction when he showed up for breakfast at TWC2’s Cuff Road Project one morning in September 2014.  He was quite sure his employer had underpaid him, showing us his documents so that we might verify his hunch.

However, through during the eighteen months he worked with this company, he hadn’t complained about the calculation applied on his payslip for fear of losing the job. Now awaiting compensation for his workplace injury he decided to bring this up with TWC2.

Looking into his employer’s calculation of his salary and comparing it to the formula laid out in the Fourth Schedule of the Employment Act, we were shocked to see how badly underpaid Yeusof had been.

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His In-principle Approval from MOM showing his promised salary

His In-principle Approval from MOM showing his promised salary

$700 per month is not $1.50 per hour

When he came to Singapore January 2012, he had in hand an In-Principle Approval letter (IPA) issued by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) which stated his basic monthly salary to be $700 (click image at right to see his IPA). According to the statutory formula, this works out to $3.67 per hour, for 44 hours a week.

His payslip for April-May 2013

His payslip for April-May 2012

But Hyundai applied a rate of $1.50 per hour, a figure that is quite apparent on his payslip (“Monthly wage card”) for April/May 2012. (Click image at left).

If we reworked the figures using the number of worked hours declared in that payslip, but now using the correct rate of $3.67 per hour, we find that Yeusof was short-paid by over $1,400 in that month alone. Over the eighteen months he worked with Hyundai, he had been been short-paid by about $25,000.

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Worked nearly four times the legal maximum of overtime

Yet, if we looked at the bottom line of the payslip, Yeusof’s total earnings for the month  — $1,106.88 — wasn’t far off what a construction worker might earn. But this decent salary was only possible through excessive overtime.

He worked 277 hours of overtime when the Employment Act stipulates that no employer shall make a worker put in more than 72 hours of overtime in a month. He also worked Sundays. He did not get a day off during that month.

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Illegal deduction

Close to the lower edge of his pay slip, there is a deduction of $50. Yeusof explained that the company deducts this amount every month and retains it until the worker leaves the company.  When the employee is repatriated, the employer is supposed to return the total amount, which can be thousands of dollars, but workers are not always reimbursed, Yeusof said. The company uses this withheld salary to ensure workers’ cooperation until they leave.

Retaining any portion of a worker’s salary is also prohibited by the Employment Act.

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Excluded by MOM policy from claiming arrears

Yeusof was injured in July 2013. His compensation amount has only recently been released, over a year after the injury. Since salary claims must be made within a year, he is no longer able to lodge a claim for miscalculated basic pay, overtime or deductions.

Most workers are unaware that salary claims can only be made for amounts withheld or unpaid within one year, and MOM’s injury department does not have a habit of enquiring with workers they see whether their salaries are also in order. Yeusof wasn’t informed of this one-year claim-by date even though he had regular contact with MOM for his special pass extensions. Nor did the law firm that was previously representing him advise him of this time bar.

It is a perverse system. The one-year claim-by limit gives employers dubious ‘protection’ against salary under-calculation and unlawful deductions.

There also appears to be a lack of enforcement over the 72 hours maximum for overtime. Employers find that extracting excessive overtime hours is more economical than hiring more workers since the latter course of action incurs additional costs such as for housing and the foreign worker levy.

But there is a reason why the law stipulates a maximum number of overtime hours: fatigued workers deliver poorer quality work and are more likely to be in an accident. And sure enough, Yeusof was almost killed in one — this is recounted in the story MOM orders company to pay MC wages, a month on, worker still waiting.

As mentioned in the earlier article, Yeusof was working deep underground to help construct the Jurong Rock Caverns. Other men who’ve worked on this project have told TWC2 of the harsh working conditions. They work for long hours underground in low oxygen conditions that alarm even those who visit the area for a short time.[1]

However, the Jurong Rock Caverns is a headline project that Singapore is very proud of. It was inaugurated by none other than the Prime Minister. It is a shame that the project also includes that fact that workers’ safety was compromised through overwork and due wages disgracefully excised, both in blatant disregard of the law.

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A representative from Hyundai visited the TWC2 office on 30 October 2014 to discuss the information presented in the article. According to Hyundai, the $700 figure on the In-Principle Approval (IPA) was a human typing mistake. The correct basic monthly salary should have been listed as $286 instead. Hyundai arrives at this figure by multiplying the hourly figure of $1.50 by 191 (44 hrs/week x 52 weeks ÷ 12 months). Hyundai said that several other workers had visited MOM to claim that according to the salary listed on the IPA, they ought to be receiving a higher monthly salary. Hyundai has since rectified the problem and now submits the lower amount to MOM when recruiting workers, and has their workers sign a contract agreeing to this hourly rate before arriving in Singapore.

Hyundai also said that previously they would hold back $50/month/worker in case income tax is required but no longer do this. The man in this story has received the entire amount that was withheld from his salary and signed a receipt acknowledging the amount.

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[1] Glenn van Zutphen, writing in an article for in CNN Travel on 25 May, 2011:

The most overpowering sensation in the tunnel is the smell of ammonia. One of our minders corrects me, “Ammonium nitrate, to be exact.”

“They were blasting a new tunnel last night and the smell from the explosives is still down here,” he explains, assuring me that the levels have been tested and are safe for us to breath.

I’m leery and try to breath as little as possible for a while. That turns out not to be a practical strategy and, after a few minutes, I give in and breathe deeply. I think about the two shifts of 100 workers each who spend 12 hours a day down here — what a bizarre life that must be.

Toward the end of the tour, another guide announces, with a slightly alarmed look, that their monitors indicate low-oxygen content levels in the tunnel and that we should immediately start heading back.

This turns out to be a very effective way to get our group of journalists to return to the surface.

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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