By Ranjana Raghunathan
At TWC2’s Cuff Road Project, a group of five workers, three Indian and two Bangladeshi, catch my attention. They seem to know each other, and have come to enroll themselves in the free meal program together. Upon questioning a little, I learn that they, along with four other workers, faced issues with the same employer, and were forced to quit at the same time. I sit down to talk to all of them.
Singaram Veerakumar, 40, was the supervisor of the Indian workers, including Arasappan Jayaprakash, 29, and Savarimuthu Dhanaselvam, 38, who accept my invitation to sit and talk with me. They faced “torture” [word used by the workers] from their boss. Veerakumar tells me, “She [boss] used to yell a lot, shout at us, kick things around and made us do a lot of overtime. She demanded more work per day, than possible!” They requested to speak to another partner in the company, who they believe was their boss’ husband. But their requests were met with more hostility.
I learn that in the past two months, six workers were sent away when they questioned her ways.
The final straw: under-declared overtime
Veerakumar found out that the workers’ overtime had been under-declared, and their salaries were lower as a result. He asked the boss about the miscalculations, and he reports her having said, “Who is the boss here? You or me?”
Another supervisor, who was from Bangladesh and in charge of the workers from Bangladesh was sent back because he had confronted the boss about the hours of work and miscalculations in salaries owed to the workers. Feeling helpless and afraid of being summarily sent home too, the workers approached the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for assistance on 15 December.
MOM initially recorded their case to be one of many similar salary disputes. The following day, upon learning that the workers had filed a complaint against the company, the boss and her husband approached the workers with prepared letters demanding the men sign them. The letters — if they had signed — would inform MOM that they were withdrawing their complaints. Click on the thumbnail at right to see the drafted letter, which they refused to append their signatures to.
A second prepared letter the men were asked to sign was a notification from management that they had to return to work. It contained a final statement: “the management reserved [sic] the right to terminate your employment if you failed to comply as above request [sic].”
The men refused to sign in acceptance of this letter. Click the thumbnail below to enlarge it.
Even more worried now, the workers approached MOM again. They wanted to find out how long the case might take, but also took the opportunity to inform the ministry officials about the implied threats they had been receiving when asked to sign the letters.
Jayaprakash tells me, “This time at MOM, we requested for a Tamil speaking officer and with her help were able to explain that we were being threatened. The first time, we could not communicate to the officer clearly in English.”
They also informed MOM that in addition to paying the agent fees in their home countries (which they recognise are outside Singapore’s jurisdiction), they had also paid a lot of money to the employer in Singapore to get hired. This is illegal under Singapore law. The men sitting with me detail how all of them except Veerakumar had paid varying amounts to the employer. Veerakumar was the exception because he was already working here, and he was the one approached by the company management to help facilitate recruitment of workers from his village in India. Therefore he did not pay any amount to the employer.
Learning this, MOM took action, issuing an order to the employer to return their passports within an hour. All workers were issued Special passes, and were placed on the ministry’s Temporary Job Scheme. This allows them to seek new employment for a six-month period while their case is under investigation.
There were four other workers who had quit along with them. Of these, two had been sent back to Bangladesh and two others had transferred to other jobs in Singapore. I am told that they could not prove their case as they had earlier been made by the boss to sign papers that they were merely repaying loans that the employer had advanced them. Not having met these men, TWC2 can’t say if this is true, but it certainly sounds familiar. Many employers when taking payment from their employees, describe those (illegal) payments as “repayment of loans”.
These five men sitting with me have a stronger case: they have witnesses to the illegal payments demanded by the employer. We won’t jeopardise their cases by revealing what the witnesses can testify to.
Big sums of money
Miah Yeasin, 26, tells me, “I was working here and transferred from the other company to this one, so I only had to pay S$1,000.” He has also worked the longest with the company, a total of ten months, while the others joined more recently.
Arasappan Jayaprakash and Savarimuthu Dhanaselvam had to pay more than five times what Miah Yeasin paid. They forked out $5,500 each to the employer to secure their jobs.
Rahman Mizanur, 28, for whom this was his first job in Singapore, is facing a huge financial loss. He explained, “I took loan to get the ‘skills certificate’ from the training company in Bangladesh. In addition to that I have paid the agent fees. It is a big amount and I have worked only 1.5 months. I cannot afford to be unemployed.” Typically a first-time worker like Rahman would have sunk as much as $10,000 to get a job here. On top of that, he had to pay $3,000 more to this employer.
Everyone shared Rahman’s concerns about the huge risks they had taken for a dream job in Singapore, and how defeated they felt by the employer’s illegal and unethical behaviour. Everyone except Miah Yeasin was married with children. To survive, their families back home depended on their earnings and remittances from Singapore.
The silver lining in this situation seems to be the fact that MOM facilitated their seeking other jobs, and they have several interviews lined up. I wish them the best and hope that they can be back on their feet, working. As they leave, they ask me, “Madam, do you know how long MOM might take for the investigation of the case? When can we expect to hear back from them?” I simply nod, saying “I am sorry, but I really do not know. Perhaps you can be in frequent contact to find out?”