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By Liang Lei
“I tired already”, was Sumon’s reply to why he chose not to continue pursuing his case, despite a settlement that will only entitle him to S$11,000. That’s half of the amount he believes is owed to him by his employer.
Sumon has not seen his family for six years since his move to Singapore for work.
He arrived here in 2011, and has been working in construction under the same boss ever since. In 2015, Sumon was transferred to a subsidiary company and was appointed a supervisor. As part of this contract, Sumon would be paid a monthly salary of S$1,200, before over-time (OT) pay.
In the first year of being a supervisor, Sumon noticed that despite working OT frequently (he estimates up to 100 hours a month), he was not receiving any extra pay for it. Neither did he receive any compensation for unclaimed leave. He decided not to raise these issues with his employer, as he trusted his long-time boss and did not want to sour their relationship.
However, from June 2016 onwards, Sumon’s monthly salary stopped coming altogether. When queried by Sumon, his employer started with excuses, but finally, as Sumon puts it, “showed me monkey face”. This occurred monthly till Sumon finally left the job on 18 December 2016. He filed a case with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) the next day. In total, Sumon estimated that his employer owed him S$22,000.
Meetings were held in January and February 2017 between Sumon and his former employer, mediated by MOM representatives. Initially, the employer claimed that Sumon’s salary, including his OT pay, was fully paid for. When the MOM representative asked to review the payment receipts, the employer claimed that they were lost. This struck Sumon as queer – “But boss got computer, how to lost?”.
Later, Sumon heard from his fellow Bangladeshi workers that his employer had requested them to testify that Sumon had been appropriately compensated during his period of employment.
Unfortunately, Sumon’s claim had a weakness, documentation-wise. Being the supervisor in the subsidiary company he worked for, he did not have a direct superior at site to sign his own timesheets. “I had to self-sign”, Sumon explains, while describing his arguments over the number of OT hours he worked for. Sumon estimated a total of overtime 1,000 hours, but his employer presented a much lower figure of 650 hours. The difficulty was that substantive evidence was lacking for a firm resolution of this issue.
A weary five months into the case, a deal was finally struck between Sumon and his former employer. On 24 May 2017, in the presence of MOM officials, Sumon and his former employer settled on a compensation amount that would see this case closed. In this negotiating session, Sumon initially asked for a sum of $15,000, which the employer rejected, countering with $7,000 instead. After further negotiation, a figure of $11,000 was finally offered by the employer, half of Sumon’s original estimate.
The MOM official in the room advised him that that he could either accept the $11,000 and close the matter, or continue pursuing for a higher sum of compensation through the Employment Claims Tribunal. The latter, however, may well take another five months, and should the decision in the end be against him, he will not receive a single cent.
The prospect of waiting for another five months for his case was no minor consideration in Sumon’s decision to accept the $11,000 offer. When I ask what he has been doing for the past five months, “sleep…and eat” is the best answer Sumon can give. Especially as his mother is in ill health, he very much wants to go home.
In a post-interview discussion with Alex Au, a senior member of TWC2, we reflected on the long duration of Sumon’s case. Alex noted that the caseload at MOM is enormous, but rather than this being a justifiable reason why men like Sumon have to wait five months to get their backpay, the caseload can also be seen as an indictment of the ministry’s practices and policies: What is wrong with the regulatory or enforcement framework that results in so many disputes? TWC2 has argued that a smart bureaucracy would ponder why this is so. What can be done to prevent disputes from cropping up in the first place? These are the angles that cry out for examination and solutions.
One possible solution to reduce the number of complaints would be to create a system that has stringent and automatic checks at closely-spaced intervals against non-payment of salaries. Alex cited the Wage Protection System in the United Arab Emirates, where employers of foreign labour are required by law to pay salaries through financial institutions with monthly reporting to the government. In effect, there is third-party certification every month that workers have received their salaries. More info at this link.
With more stringent checking, the total number of complaints will decline, and this will free up case officers to better attend to those cases that do arise. After all, shouldn’t an expedited case resolution process be part of a fair treatment of our foreign labor?
Sumon collected his $11,000 cheque on 26 May 2017, and flew home two days later. TWC2 contacted him in Bangladesh and he confirmed that all is well. He intends to eventually return to Singapore for work again, but is concerned about the sharp rise in agent fees. Where in 2011, it cost him $7,000 to get a job, he fears it will cost him $12,000 to find a new job now.
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