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By Ada Cheong, based on interviews in October 2018
Ten thousand dollars sounds like a hyperbolic sum of money. But that’s how much is owed to Alam and Mintu respectively, for a year’s backbreaking work. “Boss say ah, ‘Now (in my) pocket, money have. I no give (you), I (as) punishment no give,’” Mintu relates to me.
Getting employers to pay up is always a problem. Their employer, GKH Tiling Contractor, a sole proprietorship, owes them 12 months worth of salary. Both men waited in vain for this salary, led on by promises of forthcoming wages. Their memories of the boss’ promise of paying them overdue wages by Hari Raya Puasa were most stark: ““Boss say, ‘Later give, before Hari Raya’. After (Hari Raya), say, ‘I buy ticket ah, send (you) back.’ I say, ‘Six years I working, now you talking like this ah. I got baby at home’”.
Threats of repatriation often deter workers from repeatedly demanding their dues. But in Alam and Mintu’s case, they had had enough. They lodged salary claims at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in August 2018.
Despite the employer’s earlier brusqueness, he did not dispute the workers’ claims when called to a meeting at the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM). MOM had calculated Alam’s and Mintu’s due salaries, taking into consideration overtime rates and extra hours. At the very first meeting, held on 10 September 2018, the boss, Goh Kah Heng, signed a settlement agreement with Alam and Mintu — with an MOM officer adding his signature too — in which the boss agreed to pay Alam and Mintu $12,579.10 and $12,194.80 respectively, before the 24th of September 2018.
Such a smooth process is rare, as employers often fight tooth and nail to dispute the settlement amount. TWC2’s help for workers can be invaluable as this can be long and complicated process. Required evidence, such as copies of accurate timecards and legitimate salary slips, are sometimes forged or withheld by employers themselves, and workers need to know how to contest fake evidence.
Even though the boss signed a settlement agreement at the first meeting and paid each man $500, this case was far from over. Relating the meeting, Alam says, “MOM officer all talking, talking nice. Talking case close already ah, Boss sign already. (If) money no take then (MOM officer) say ‘You go back.’”
As the 24th of September deadline passed, no payment materialised. When reporting to MOM to get their Special Passes extended, a routine all workers go through every two weeks, they related the situation to their MOM officer. After some to and fro, the duo were directed to obtain a Write of Seizure and Sale from a Magistrate’s Court. To do so, Alam and Mintu would have to fork out more money, the one thing they don’t have.
To the workers, MOM is seen as washing its hands of the matter.
This lack of assistance from MOM is unfortunately a common complaint of many workers. TWC2 has commented previously on their weakness in enforcement. Employers now know they can sign settlement agreements without any intention of paying up. With MOM’s laid-back attitude, they rarely face consequences for failing to pay.
This applies also to claims made by workers with injury cases, involving medical leave wages and permanent incapacity compensations. Hassan Md Mamodul is one such man. Owed over $2,300 of salary while on medically certified leave, the permanent disability resulting from his injury entitles him to another $5,800 of compensation. His employer, Soram Pte Ltd, was insolvent, but normally that would not matter if Soram had bought work injury insurance for Hassan. This is mandatory under the law. However, Soram did not buy insurance, and now there is no one to pay Hassan.
As at the time of writing, there is no indication whether MOM is going to take the directors of Soram to task.
As these cases show, it is not rare that workers are made to absorb the costs of their employers’ poor business practices or failures to comply with law. When wages are not paid, the loss is ultimately borne by the employees if MOM does not rigorously enforce the law. When insurance is not bought, it is the disabled worker who bears the loss. The risk is that all the wonderful laws and TADM processes may one day be seen as mere charades.
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