By Sean Yee
In Parliament on 6 February 2017, Manpower minister Lim Swee Say said,
“MOM received about 9,000 salary-related claims involving some 4,500 employers in 2016. So, 9,000 claims; 4,500 employers. Through mediation by MOM and adjudication by the Labour Court, we have been able to resolve more than 95% of these claims.”
This is hardly the first time that MOM has used the word “resolve” to describe how these cases end. The word has a nice positive ring to it, making it sound as though satisfactory solutions were found in these cases and all arrears paid up.
Based on cases TWC2 has dealt with, such would not be an accurate characterisation of the majority of them. This story about Minarul, Bayazid and Soroardi — three workers from Deal Interior Pte Ltd — illustrates a fairly typical experience.
There are two phases to handling a salary claim: the mediation phase and the adjudication phase. The latter is also called the Labour Court or Employment Claims Tribunal phase.
Minarul and friends’ mediation phase has come to an unsuccessful end. They are now headed to the Labour Court.
But a close examination of what has happened so far in the mediation phase will show, if it had been settled there, what “resolved” would look like.
All three men came to work for Deal Interior at the same time, in November 2015, after having paid job agents in Bangladesh over S$8,000 each to secure their jobs. From the very beginning, the employer did not pay their agreed salaries, but merely handed them $50 here and there so that they could pay for food and transport. The money was given out in cash with no proper documentation.
Each time the workers asked their boss for their salaries, the boss would say the money would be forthcoming, as soon as this or that project was completed.
By November 2016, the men’s work permits were reaching their expiry dates. They raised this question with their boss and were assured that he would renew them.
A little later, and not wanting to continue working past the expiry dates, Minarul, Bayazid and Soroardi got some help to go online to check the renewal status. Instead, they discovered that their work permits had been cancelled. Off they went to the Ministry of Manpower to lodge formal complaints. That was the first week of December 2016.
The MOM case officer arranged for a mediation meeting with their employer. All three men having worked for the same number of months, they had similar claim amounts: about $7,000 each in unpaid salary and about $1,000 each in unpaid transport reimbursement. Unlike other construction workers, they had to take public transport to their workplace from the room they shared in Little India. There was no company transport.
During mediation, the boss told the men that the most he would pay them was $4,000 each for owed salaries and the $1,000 for transport: total $5,000.
The men refused to accept this offer. They felt they had a right to the full amount when what was offered was only about 60% of what they had worked for.
MOM arranged another meeting in March 2017. The boss didn’t even show up. The MOM case officer then advised the workers to take their case to the Labour Court.
But what if the men had accepted that offered settlement? In TWC2’s experience, MOM would have counted it as a successfully “resolved” case, sticking another feather in its cap. But by any equitable measure, would anything less than full payment be fair to the men?
Thus, when the minister says “more than 95% of these claims” were resolved, what does that mean?