We didn’t at first plan to write up their story because it was a story we’ve heard countless times before — not that their plight was any less distressful for them. The men from Harri Construction complained of unpaid salaries, losing their jobs, and terrible conditions at their quarters. But two months later, the Straits Times ran some photos of dismal accommodation for other employees of the same company, which gives the impression that the authorities had not looked more widely at this company’s behaviour despite having received initial complaints.
John Gee, head of research, was at Bangla Square (the colloquial name for Lembu Road Open Space) on the evening of 29 September 2014 conducting surveys when he was approached by a few men hoping to speak to someone about their problem. From John’s notes of the brief conversation:
The men work for a manpower supply company called Harri Construction Maintenance Pte Ltd. They did not have steady employment: a fortnight here, a few days there…
They were staying at 16, Opal Crescent (“above a catering place”), near the Ministry of Manpower building apparently, when MOM inspectors visited the place and found the conditions bad, so they instructed the firm to house them elsewhere (didn’t catch where). The MOM people took details of their ICs/work permits then, so there’s one official testimony to how the company treated them.
The company last paid them in June. They worked through the next couple of months. They now know that their employer failed to pay the levy for them and, as of September, they understand that MOM has revoked their work permits. Yet their boss put them to work in September, though he must have known about the cancellation.
They are afraid they’ll be thrown out of the country without being paid.
One other thing: A month ago, a man had a worksite accident. The company did not take him to hospital. He paid for some treatment himself. He had no medical leave certificate. Then they said that he could do some light work, got him into the back of a truck and took him to the airport, telling him to go home. He tore his ticket up in front of them, and evidently made enough of a scene for the police to be called. They noted his personal details. I did not catch what happened then, but this means that the police should also have a recent report on something this company did.
Even from this short account, it is obvious that this employer has chalked up several infringements. Manpower supply companies like Harri tend to feature in these complaints. Their business model hinges on having a ready supply of workers which they hope to loan out to other companies with projects in hand, but this means that their manpower needs fluctuate greatly. Sometimes they have far more workers than they can find placements for.
Manpower supply companies are also prone to severe cost-cutting behaviour since the chief selling point they have is to be able to supply labour more cheaply than construction companies might have to pay to retain their own staff.
Five cost-cutting methods can be glimpsed from John’s account above:
- not paying the monthly levy to the government,
- not paying salaries,
- cramming as many workers as possible into a room,
- making workers work even when their Work Permits have been revoked, and
- avoiding costs of medical treatment by sending injured workers home prematurely.
A sixth cost-cutting tactic is less obvious: under-calculation of salaries (even when they are paid). According to law, employees must be paid their basic salaries whether or not the employer assigns them work. The basic salary for each worker is stated in his In-Principle Approval letter issued by MOM before he comes to Singapore. However, employers do their best not to inform workers of this rule, and actively tell them instead that they are only paid for the days they have work.
On John’s advice, nine men came to the TWC2 office the following day to consult with our social workers. We helped them appeal to MOM to expedite resolution of their claims for backpay — they had lodged claims earlier — and for the right to seek new jobs without being repatriated.
Two months later, on 20 November 2014, Harri Construction was in the news. This time, it was over the terrible housing conditions provided to other employees. Apparently about 50 workers (some form Harri Construction, others from subcontractors and related companies) were squeezed into two two-bedroom apartments in the Selegie area. Embedded in this story are three photos published in the Straits Times.
Rotting food, soiled clothes and bags were strewn on the grimy floors of the units located in Selegie Centre near Little India.
The men slept shoulder to shoulder on the floor or on wooden boards along the corridors outside the apartments. The walls were stained brown and cabinets were broken, while a damp stench permeated the hallways.
An MOM spokesman said: “Our initial assessment is that the units are overcrowded and we are investigating several employers for failing to ensure that their foreign employees have acceptable accommodation.”
The spokesman added that the ministry is also looking into the claims of some workers who said they were owed salaries.
— Straits Times, 20 Nov 2014, 50 workers crammed into two condo units
According to Urban Redevelopment Authority guidelines, rented residential properties, regardless of size, are not allowed to house more than eight persons.
The company rejected the workers’ allegations. In a response that attempted to ascribe moral failings to them,
Harri Construction & Maintenance manager Nallusamy Narayanan dismissed the workers’ claims when contacted by The Straits Times.
Mr Nallusamy said the workers are unhappy because they want three days off a week but he offered them only a weekly rest day.
He added: “I want them to stay in proper dormitories. But they want to stay in Selegie because it is near Little India. They like Geylang, because you know, there are girls there and they can drink.”
Mr Nallusamy, a Singapore permanent resident and Indian national, said he moved 14 workers temporarily to the apartments in Selegie Centre this week. He insisted there are usually only 15 workers in each apartment.
“They were living in a shophouse in Tanjong Katong but they drank and caused trouble for residents. So I moved them to Selegie for a few days only,” he said.
But here are some questions that may be pertinent.
1. The ministry had known about this company providing poor accommodation. The very first worker John met, in September, told him that MOM had raided the place where they used to stay. Why did MOM not follow up and check all other locations where the company was housing its workers? Would it not stand to reason that if it was capable of housing some workers badly, it was more than likely that all its workers, in all other locations, were poorly housed too?
2. The ministry had known about this company not paying salaries. The first group of workers had lodged salary complaints. TWC2 social workers followed up with emails to MOM. Yet it appeared that MOM did not immediately check with all other workers of Harri Construction if they had a similar salary issue, for it was still news as late as November that some workers were owed salaries.
A purely reactive approach to investigation and enforcement will do little to improve the situation for migrant workers in Singapore.
It may be that after the men were ordered out of 16 Opal Crescent by MOM, Harri crammed them in even more tightly in the remaining apartments it rented. This is hardly surprising for a company with likely cash-flow problems (since it wasn’t paying levies or salaries). When money is short, it could hardly afford better accommodation. All the more reason that after ordering workers out of one place, MOM should be checking where they were sent to.
It may also be that after MOM revoked work permits for failure to pay levies, Harri reassigned men to “subcontractors” and related companies, or perhaps it’s always been a practice to have workers under different companies to avoid a domino effect when MOM starts checking. Again, this kind of defensive strategy is not new. The authorities need to be actively pursuing checks in full knowledge of such counter-strategies.
Undeniably, checks and inspections are labour-intensive. TWC2 is aware that MOM’s human resources are stretched. A smarter solution must therefore lie in a complete redesign of the migrant worker system to minimise the need for compliance inspections. A system where workers are better empowered to speak up and walk off unsatisfactory jobs would contain more self-checking capability. MOM seems very slow in realising this.