Continued from part 2.
Part 1 narrated what happened when Monir Bhuiyan, Titu, Mahi Uddin and Shahjahan came to Singapore for their jobs at JS Metal Pte Ltd. They had each been offered $550 a month as basic salary. This was documented in the In-Principle Approval letters (IPA) issued by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) before they set off for Singapore. MOM would have obtained this salary rate from the work permit applications submitted by the employer. However, the workers were told within days of their arrival in Singapore that this rate would not apply; instead they had to sign new contracts with a lower salary of $18 a day, equivalent to $429 a month.
Their overtime pay was also affected, since it is linked to basic salary. Overtime work is paid at rate and a half.
Part 2 narrated their frustration when an MOM case officer did not accept their claim that those contracts were imposed on them. They had no viable way to refuse to sign, since going home immediately meant they would lose the thousands of dollars they had paid in agents’ fees.
This section will argue that MOM was in error not to have quickly ruled the contracts to be invalid. Failure to make this determination, yet putting the men into mediation, prejudiced their salary claims. It does not require any lengthy investigation to make this finding. A simple examination of dates would suffice, as explained further down. However, it may be helpful to first discuss what TWC2 understands MOM’s position to be on the matter of substituted contracts.
Freedom to reduce salaries
In previous dialogue with the ministry, we understand that it is MOM’s position that employers should have the freedom to negotiate lower salaries with their employees in the event of a business downturn and there is a pressing need to reduce costs. TWC2 does not consider this objectionable as a general principle.
However, in circumstances where workers are not represented by independent unions, where companies have not disclosed the true state of their finances and business prospects, then one should be vigilant when companies deploy such an argument. This vigilance should be heightened into grave skepticism when the employees are migrant workers whose salaries are already very low and who are institutionally disenfranchised, e.g. by regulations that tie them to their existing employers and bar them from seeking alternative employment. If they have no viable alternative, what does ‘negotiation’ mean?
Not applicable in J S Metal’s case
In point of fact, JS Metal, to our knowledge, has not deployed this argument. They did not even explain to the workers why contract substitution was demanded of them within a week of their arrival. Nor, to our knowledge, did MOM even ask JS Metal to explain themselves when the men lodged formal complaints.
It would be very troubling if MOM officials, starting from the above general principle, broadened it to a view that employers have carte blanche to reduce workers’ salaries unilaterally, regardless of business conditions. Unfortunately in this case, MOM’s failure to make even the barest enquiry into the substituted contracts, does point to the ministry adopting this broad view.
(Perhaps MOM is making enquiries now, but our point is that they should have looked closely first before expecting Bhuiyan and the three others to compromise.)
Moreover, a deep reluctance into enquiring why an employer reduced salaries, in this case, turned into a remarkable failure to notice a pattern of behaviour (on JS Metal’s part) that is extremely suspicious. This pattern alone should be enough to make the presumption that its actions had been duplicitous. According to the United Nations’ Palermo Protocol, any “consent” by workers when deception had occurred must necessarily be irrelevant.
Didn’t join at the same time
The key to seeing the pattern is to note that the four men didn’t join the company at the same time. At right is a timeline, starting from December 2012 to June 2013. It shows five men. The extra man is Islam Shariful who also joined the company in 2013,
(Bhuiyan, Titu, Mahi Uddin and Shahjahan were not the only employees of JS Metal to speak with TWC2. There were at least five others — including Islam Shariful — but since their cases were not bundled with Bhuiyan’s we have left them out of this story.)
From the time line, one will notice how Islam Shariful was told that his salary should be $18 a day ($429/month) in early January 2013. Yet, when Mahi Uddin and Shahjahan were recruited in March 2013, once again they were first told the salary would be $550. Surely, if a company had decided as a matter of policy to reduce salaries across the board for business viability reasons, it shouldn’t be going around advertising the old salary.
In May 2013 it happened again. By then JS Metal had reduced the salaries of Islam Shariful, Mahi Uddin, Shahjahan and Bhuiyan. Yet, when Titu was recruited, once again the company told him $550. The company obviously also informed MOM it was offering $550, thus causing MOM to issue an IPA letter to Titu stating the same. It is impossible to believe there was any sincerity in the company’s behaviour.
It is for this reason that TWC2 felt that JS Metal’s behaviour raised red flags on the trafficking front. One of the United Nations indicators mentioned in Part 1 is that of deception. Another is the “abuse of …. a position of vulnerability” of the targetted victim. We believe both occurred in this instance.
We believe that by not framing this case as one of likely trafficking, the men were subsequently put through an MOM resolution process that was not quite fair to them.