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By Keith Wong
Hossain feels vindicated. He came out of a meeting at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) yesterday with a ‘settlement paper’ signed by his employer in which is stated that he will be paid his salary arrears no later than a week from now. The amount of approximately $5,700 is also more or less correct, he says.
What a relief from just a month earlier when he was “many worries, many stress”.
The supervisor and general foreman joined Tech Electric Services Pte Ltd in late December 2014. It’s his second job in Singapore; he had spent about five to six years in a previous company. “No problem there,” he says. “But this company very different, this company many problem.”
After receiving just two months’ wages (January’s and February’s), pay for the subsequent months failed to arrive. Speaking with the boss yielded no result. After three and a half months, he had enough, and on 12 June 2015 he tendered a letter of resignation. He expected all his monies to be paid up by the time he had served out his two weeks’ notice. Yet nothing happened either. So, on 29 June, he went to MOM to lodge a complaint.
He also made his way to TWC2 to consult with a social worker. After hearing his narrative, we assured him he had taken all the right steps, but also helped him organise his documents.
“Altogether, (there were) three meeting at MOM,” he recalls. Nothing much happened at the first meeting; it was mostly one of him explaining his problem to a case officer there.
At the second meeting, the employer was present. “Boss speaking [Boss said] he only owe me two months salary, not four. He showed MOM two false salary vouchers,” recalled Hossain. “I tell MOM the papers are false.”
Fortunately, Hossain had other records in which his signature appeared, and when the MOM case officer compared those signatures with the ones on the newly-presented salary vouchers, the case officer made it clear she didn’t find the latter credible. “The (MOM case) officer tell boss the signatures are different; she cannot believe him.”
Presenting forged salary vouchers is rather common in such cases. TWC2 mentioned it in a recent letter published in the Straits Times headlined Ensure pay is banked, offer (job) mobility. There are at least two stories on this website detailing two other cases: ‘The sweets were delicious’ and The scenic route to solving salary disputes.
However, what is striking is that the MOM case officers in the earlier cases largely pushed the problem to the police. They insisted that the workers produce proof from police investigations that forgery had been committed. This is a very time-consuming and costly exercise, with the result that the workers involved each had to stay on in Singapore for over a year. Sometimes the police have so little evidence to go on that the forensics just cannot come to a conclusion, and the worker is left high and dry.
It is precisely this history of cases that led TWC2 to argue for a better way to ensure that workers are paid their rightful salaries: MOM should make it mandatory for employers to issue detailed itemised payslips every month, and pay salaries through bank channels. Paying though bank generates an evidential record which paying in cash does not. (MOM has announced that payslips will be mandatory from 2016 but still resists the idea of requiring employers to pay through bank.)
Amazingly, at Hossain’s third meeting, the employer tried falsifying records again. This time, the boss presented a computation of hours worked that showed rather little was owed to Hossain. “This computer sheet he showed had very little OT,” Hossain tells me. ‘OT’ is short-hand for overtime hours. “Also, it show that some days, I not work at all.”
Here is where Hossain’s intelligence and experience in Singapore counted for something. He had kept a detailed record of the dates and hours worked, using time cards and a diary of his own. Here’s one of them:
“MOM officer say the boss writing not correct,” is how Hossain puts it to us. “She say she take my time cards.”
Using the hours worked as recorded in his time cards and diary, she calculated that Hossain was owed about $5,700, and the boss finally agreed to this figure.
Hossain hopes to be home by August, but that is only if the employer pays up. If not, it’ll be another wait.
A reader emailed us to ask: Shouldn’t the employer be prosecuted for attempted forgery?
In theory, yes. However, successful prosecution requires a higher level of proof, which means a time-consuming forensic investigation. It’s good that the MOM case officer used her judgement in this case to achieve a quick resolution — certainly better than in other cases where the case officer merely relegated the problem to the police to figure it out — and the employer conceded his ‘mistake’. But such an outcome isn’t always possible. Perhaps, in other cases, the worker may not have other examples of his signature for comparison, or he may not have kept his own log of hours worked. Or the employer, unlike this one, may remain stubborn and insist on his concocted records.
This is why TWC2 feels it is important for MOM to require payment through bank. It will make life so much easier for MOM itself to have ready evidence whether salary had been paid or not. It is not known why MOM resists the idea, but we can hazard a guess: The ‘not invented here’ syndrome is a well-known phenomenon. Might it be in operation here?
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