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This is a four-part story about four workers whose employer’s behaviour appears to have crossed a few red lines relating to trafficking in persons.
Five months after Monir Bhuiyan and three others lodged their salary complaints against their employer J S Metal Pte Ltd, the company was still in business, presumably with good cashflow and should have no difficulty paying up. “My friends still working there, they still get salary,” says Bhuiyan. “How can company say no money to pay me?”
However, the company’s financial situation may be immaterial because the men had earlier signed a “full and final” settlement in which they agreed to settle for $1,000 each — this will be discussed in detail in Part 2. As aggrieved as the men are about their employer’s behaviour, they are equally aggrieved at how they felt rushed by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) case officers into settling prematurely. “They never tell us everything [about] what we can do. They just say we must settle,” recalls Bhuiyan. “They say, if we not take the $1,000, we still must go home, and then we have nothing.”
This story is in four parts, each of them shining an unflattering light on Singapore. It’s a story that weaves through many aspects of the migrant labour situation in Singapore: deceptive recruitment and blatant underpayment of salaries; the mediation process and the trafficking investigation process working at cross-purposes; and the ineffectiveness of remedies (temporary job scheme, change of employer) often touted by MOM.
Part 1 here is about the very suspicious-looking events at the start of their jobs.
The four men were not recruited at the same time. The earliest was Mahi Uddin, who was recruited in March 2013, while Titu was recruited more than two months later. All of them were promised basic monthly salaries of $550 a month. This promise was documented in the in-principle approval letters (IPA) that MOM sent to each man prior to his arrival in Singapore, and MOM would have obtained this figure from the Work Permit application that the employer submitted.
Click icon at left to see Bhuiyan’s in-principle approval. You will notice that the basic salary is clearly stated, as well as the fact that housing will be provided, with no housing deduction. The others’ IPA letters are the same.
In each man’s case, within a week of arrival he was told by the employer that the promised salary was no longer applicable. In Titu’s case, “Not even one week. First day I come Singapore, first day, boss say must sign new paper,” he tells TWC2.
Each man was given a new contract to sign. “Boss say if I not sign, I will (be) sent back,” says Bhuiyan. “How can we go back? We pay agent money, not yet even [earn] back one cent.”
The new contracts have inferior terms. Here are three pages from Monir Bhuiyan’s contract with our comments alongside. The first page shows a substantial reduction in salary, and when the basic salary is reduced, the overtime rate is also reduced, since one is a function of the other.
The second page reveals intent to make deductions from the salary for accommodation, when the IPA clearly said there would be no deduction. Also, it reveals intent to avoid paying for medical care and sick leave.
The third page tries to make the worker pay for his own air ticket home, when the law clearly makes this the employer’s responsibility.
As if the above were not enough, the employer made two more (unwritten) deductions from the men’s salaries. $130 was sliced off their (reduced) pay packet for “savings” money each month. This is a common practice among employers, even though it is clearly illegal, as can be seen from results of two surveys recently conducted by TWC2 (see this article and this article).
Another $200 was taken off each man’s salary for a period of five months. Why only five months? The round number (total: $1,000) gives a strong indication that it was ‘renewal money’. TWC2 has also seen in many other workers’ complaints, deductions of a few months, which workers describe as ‘renewal money’ deductions. ‘Renewal money’ (also illegal) is a charge for the ‘privilege’ of having their work permits renewed at the end of the year. To add salt to injury, the men never got their work permits renewed; they lodged salary complaints before the first year was up and lost their jobs immediately.
It is impossible to avoid the sense that the employer was taking advantage of the relative powerlessness of new workers when they’ve freshly gotten off the plane and not yet earned their first month’s wages. Not only was the employer trying to reduce salaries, he was trying to load onto employees costs that by law the employer is expected to bear, e.g. medical, holiday overtime and airfare. Perhaps the calculation was that workers were ignorant of the law and would accept the contract terms as the last word on the matter.
The United Nations’ Palermo Protocol defines human trafficking this way:
(a) “Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs;
(b) The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) have been used;
(Emphases added by TWC2)
TWC2 is of a view that this case checks quite a few boxes. At the recruitment stage, deception was used. A salary of $550 was promised, but as soon as the men came to Singapore from Bangladesh, they were told it was not going to be honoured. An abuse of the position of vulnerability can be seen in the way new contracts were quickly presented to replace dishonoured promises right at the moment when the men were most financially exposed. Exploitation can be seen from the many ways the employer tried to pay his men less than was owed to them, e.g. at lower salary or to work on rest days and holidays at less than legally-specified rates, to get his men to take on costs that should not have been theirs to bear, and in the manner by which arbitrary deductions of $130 and $200 were applied monthly. A strong argument can be made that the employer obtained labour from these men at less than fair wages — this is exploitation.
In total, the men calculated that they were owed from about $5,000 (in Shahjahan’s case) to slightly over $7,000 (in Mahi Uddin’s case).
They came to TWC2 in April 2014. We flagged the case to MOM, saying it had the fingerprints of human trafficking. And thus began five months of quite underwhelming case handling, which will be described in subsequent parts of this story.
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