For a long, long time, TWC2 has been calling for electronic payment of salaries to be made mandatory. Giving employers the option to pay in cash allows all sorts of abuses to happen and seriously disadvantages workers when salary is not paid or only partially paid. Workers are left with no evidence as to how much (if any) was actually received. The lack of evidence jeopardises their right to restitution.
The problem is not just the Ministry of Manpower’s unwillingness to legislate over this matter. Banks are also resisting. TWC2’s sense is that banks see no profit in serving low-wage workers whose meagre salaries will not translate into large balances in their bank accounts. Yet, in an economy that is moving steadily to electronic payment for all sorts of daily transactions, to have a large section of our population shut out of banking services is hard to understand. It leads to inefficiencies, as our story below will reveal.
And not just electronic transactions. Foreign workers without a bank account can’t even receive an old-fashioned cheque payment — at least, not without having to jump through hoops.
This story is about those hoops. This story is about a worker who received two cheques two days before he was supposed to fly home. How was he going to cash these cheques without a bank account?
Raju, an excavator operator, had worked about six years with his employer. In December 2017, he suffered an accident and hurt his right hand and both knees. Despite medical treatment, he was left with a permanent disability. Under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA), he was entitled to compensation for that. He was also entitled to medical leave wages for the days that he was on certified medical leave.
Raju’s case finally concluded in November 2018. The boss made out an OCBC Bank cheque for the medical leave wages, though strictly speaking, these wages should not have accumulated for so long and should have been paid much earlier on a monthly basis while he was on medical leave. The insurer behind the employer’s WICA insurance policy made out a separate cheque — Citibank — for the disability compensation.
In the forenoon of Wednesday, 14 November, Raju and the employer met at the Ministry of Manpower, at which the two cheques were handed over. By then too, the employer had finalised an airticket with a departure date of 16 November, only two days away.
TWC2 volunteer Pat Meyer was with Raju. Thus began the mad rush to encash the cheques before 2pm that same day.
Hoping to use the simplest route available, Pat asked a few staff members at the Ministry of Manpower building which bank she should go to. She was told by everyone she asked, “Oh, any bank can.”
The boss offered to give Raju and Pat a ride to a branch of OCBC Bank in the Upper Thomson area; this was gladly accepted. Since the insurance cheque was from a different bank, the most efficient way would be to open a bank account for Raju so that both cheques could be deposited.
Instead, once inside the bank, Pat was told that though the bank could cash the cheque for medical leave wages — it was an uncrossed OCBC cheque in Raju’s name — OCBC might not be able to open a bank account for Raju for the purpose of cashing the insurance compensation cheque from Citibank. The bank staff checked with the manager several times on the procedure and offered to let Raju know if it would be possible later that day.
Pat felt it would take too long to argue this out; it might be simpler to try another bank: POSBank. Banks in Singapore have a deposit cut-off of either 2pm or 3pm for cheques, and the crossed Citibank cheque had to be dealt with first since it would take at least 24 hours to clear.
There are plenty of POSBank branches in Singapore, but foreign workers can only open an account at just one location: in Kaki Bukit, some 10 – 12km from where they were. So Pat hailed a Grab car and sped over. And promptly hit a queue of maybe 200 men lining up to open accounts. This is going to take us way past 3pm, Pat told herself.
She spoke to the security guard, who spoke to the manager, who came out to speak to Pat.
Having understood the unique circumstances, the manager expedited the process for Raju and an account was opened for him. Good, now let’s deposit the Citibank cheque into the new account.
It turned out that the POSBank Kaki Bukit branch was only for opening accounts. It didn’t provide other banking services. For that, one needed to go to a regular POSBank branch. Amazing.
So off Pat and Raju went to the POSBank branch in Paya Lebar, and explained the situation all over again to the staff there to get ahead of the 2pm deadline. They could have just dropped the crossed cheque into the cheque-deposit box, but with time running very short, they felt it wiser to talk with a real person to make sure everything was perfect so that the Citibank cheque would indeed clear by the next day. The staff member explained that Raju should be able to see on an ATM the pending transaction by 8pm that evening and funds would be available after 2pm the next day. With that assurance, the Citibank cheque was deposited into the new POSBank account.
Then, having noticed an OCBC branch nearby, they went over to encash the OCBC cheque. The teller asked Raju for his residential address. Raju did not know the full address. It’s a dormitory, for heaven’s sake. Which foreign worker would know the street number and zipcode of his dormitory? Pat offered TWC2’s address for the record, but this was rejected. A few calls and Google searches had to be made to establish the dormitory address before, phew!, it was obtained.
Next, the teller looked at the boss’ signature on the cheque. “No, it doesn’t match!”
At this point, the branch manager had to be sent for. He then phoned the employer, spoke about the matter and waited for the boss to send an email, probably to confirm that the cheque was legitimate. Only then, after a long, frantic day, did Raju get his medical leave wages, in cash.
The Citibank cheque cleared the next day. Raju withdrew the amount and closed the newly-minted POSBank account. And flew home on 16 November.
Raju is an intelligent guy. His English is quite good, but could he have navigated all this by himself? Would bank managers come out to speak to him and try to understand the problem should he need someone in authority to overcome hurdles? Somehow, one seriously doubts that.
If Raju had had a bank account from the very beginning — for his salary to be credited into — none of the above would have been necessary.
Raju had to go to the Ministry of Manpower again the next day (15 November) when he noticed that the airticket bought by the employer had no baggage allowance. The MOM officer spoke to the employer and insisted that the ticket be amended to show 20kg.
For foreign workers, every little thing that others take for granted needs to be fought for.