By October 2020, the majority of dormitory-based migrant workers were back at work, but nearly 20% had still not resumed work, we found from our quick poll of 179 work permit holders. We were glad to find that they were receiving their salaries too.
Virtually all the respondents said they had bank accounts. About 80% had had them before the Covid-19 lockdown, while most of the rest had accounts opened for them during the lockdown. However, two men in the sample (about 1%) still did not have bank accounts, despite a clear instruction from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to employers in April 2020 to open bank accounts for migrant workers in dorms.
What was even more interesting was that despite nearly all workers having bank accounts, one in eight reported that they were being paid in cash. But at least they were being paid, after several long months when they were in quarantine, and during which many bosses took the view that they didn’t need to pay salaries (a view unsupported by law).
Below is first a discussion of the background and the design of the study, before we come to the results.
As construction sites reopened from around August 2020 onwards, more and more migrant workers went back to work. For the great majority of them, they had gone without proper pay for four to five months. Although TWC2’s hotline was buzzing with complaints from workers about not having received their salaries in the preceding months, very few were keen on filing formal complaints — even though they had a right to.
They could clearly see that once they filed a complaint, irate employers would cancel their work permits and they would lose their jobs. Under the unfair rules that Singapore has, they would basically not be allowed to seek another one without first being repatriated, following which, to get another chance to work here, they would likely have to pay thousands of dollars in recruiters’ fees all over again.
For many of them, the least bad option was for construction sites to start up again and they could go back to work. By September, this was broadly happening.
However, resuming work was not the real point. Getting paid was, and this was what we wanted to find out.
In mid-October, TWC2 decided to conduct a straw poll to assess the situation on the ground. What proportion was going back to work? Were they getting paid?
At the same time, we were curious about the effectiveness of the Ministry of Manpower’s directive, issued in April 2020, that henceforth, all dormitory-resident migrant workers must be paid through electronic channels (i.e. through bank accounts). See our earlier article (12 April 2020) Electronic payment of salary: ten years’ inaction catches up on Singapore. Since, as indicated by MOM itself at the time, some 30% of migrant workers had not had bank accounts opened for them as part of the work pass application process, what followed was a mad rush by employers to open accounts for their remaining employees. Somehow this was to be achieved while employees were mostly under quarantine and couldn’t personally visit a bank.
We were curious whether, by October 2020, the objective had been met and all dormitory-resident migrant workers had bank accounts. It is important that they should be paid electronically, as bank records make useful evidence when salary disputes arise. TWC2 had been urging for ten years that this mode of salary payment be made mandatory.
A lightning poll
In designing this poll, we were acutely conscious of two major constraints:
- It had to be done speedily to get a snapshot of the situation in October, soon after construction work resumed.
- We had to reach dormitory residents — no easy task when dorms were off-limits to visitors and the workers couldn’t leave the dorms either (except to go to work).
Bound by constraint #2 above, we decided to rely on our TWC2 ambassadors to conduct the survey rather than our own volunteers. Most of our ambassadors, who were migrant workers themselves, were resident in the dorms, thus making it possible to access other workers (interviewees). But since this would be the first time we would use our ambassadors to do a survey, it meant that we had to keep the questions few and extremely simple.
The study was conducted on 13 and 14 October. We chose these dates for a reason: It had to be about two weeks after the end of September, to give employers a bit of time to make salary payments. Under the Employment Act, salaries should be paid by the seventh day after the end of the month. If, by 13 and 14 October, an employer had not yet paid salaries, the company would be clearly in breach.
On the other hand, it couldn’t be too far into October, otherwise interviewees might not remember details when answering questions about September.
This study is just based on a convenience sample. We make no claim about its representativeness. But we made an effort to poll workers from many different employers (see section below) and overall, it does give us a sense of what’s happening in real time in the lives of migrant workers here.
TWC2 ambassadors used an online form for keying in answers from respondents. The questions were in both English and Bengali. One can assume that all or nearly all the respondents were Bangladeshi or Indian migrant workers.
As can be seen from the adjacent table, we spoke to 194 dorm residents, of whom 179 had valid work permits.
Results: Return to work
Not all workers had yet returned to work. Of the 179 work permit holders, only 142 men (79.3%) had at least one day of work in September. Construction sites were reopening, but there were still hold-ups at some sites.
The percentages are shown graphically in a pie chart below.
Results: Bank accounts
175 out of 179 work permit holders (97.7%) said they had bank accounts. Of those, most have had bank accounts since prior to the Covid-19 lockdown. 31 men (17.3%) benefitted from MOM’s instruction to employers to open bank accounts for foreign workers, and their accounts were opened for them during or after the lockdown.
Despite this instruction, two men reported that they still did not have bank accounts. Compliance with MOM’s instruction does not appear to be universal.
Since we have heard in the past of employers holding on to employees’ ATM cards and PIN numbers, we added a question about this. Despite our sample being not particularly large, we still managed to find one worker who told us that he was not in possession of his ATM card. This is unacceptable and it highlights the need not only to require employers to open bank accounts for foreign workers, but also to ensure that workers retain possession of their ATM cards and PINs.
Results: How was September salary paid?
This question also allowed a “Not paid” option, but we were glad to see that out of 142 work permit holders who had work in September, none of them said they were not paid for that month.
What was a bit surprising was that even when having bank accounts was nearly universal, 18 men (12.7%) still reported that their September wages were paid in cash. Two other men reported that their September wages were paid partly in cash and partly through the bank. This suggests that some employers might be trying to avoid having the transaction record that comes with bank accounts. Might they be underpaying their workers and not wanting evidence of that? This is one area that may be worth looking into in a follow-up study.
It should be borne in mind that we did not ask whether the amounts paid for September were correct. It is entirely possible that while workers received salary, it could have been an underpayment. For example, the basic salary might be wrong or the overtime rate erroneous. We chose not to include such a question in our survey because from experience we know that this issue is quite complex and including it complicates a survey considerably, especially if we were using TWC2 ambassadors to conduct it.
Results: Where is the nearest ATM?
It is no use being paid electronically into one’s bank account unless one is also able to withdraw cash from ATMs. Men need to pay for small things like coffee, fruits or haircuts, or repay loans they had taken from friends during the lockdown. Yet, with severe controls over dorm movements still in place, we wondered if they were facing difficulty in getting to an ATM.
Some of the larger dorms have ATM machines on the ground floor, but it would be rare for a medium-sized or smaller dorm to have this facility. The first of two questions asked where their nearest ATM was.
This was followed by a question asking how free they were to go to an ATM. The pie-chart below shows the percentages for the full set of 179 work permit holders.
However , when we cross-tabulate the responses to both questions regarding ATMs, we can see a pattern: Those who had an in-dorm ATM were the most free to go to the machine. Those for whom the nearest ATM was beyond walking distance had the greatest difficulty; they had to get permission to go out, or it had been made clear by their employers that they would not be allowed to leave the dorm.
A spread of employers
We didn’t want our ambassadors to be polling too many workers from the same companies as doing so would skew the results badly. Yet, we didn’t want to ask interviewees to name their employers, as some might become reluctant to participate or give honest answers for fear of retribution.
To square the circle, we had one preliminary question wherein the ambassadors merely asked each respondent for the first four letters of the employer’s name. 142 respondents agreed to give us the first four letters, and we found among them 55 unique combinations of four letters. This indicates that there were at least 55 unique employers in our sample, averaging about 3.25 respondents per employer. We say “at least 55” because it is possible that two different employers might have had the same first four letters, and we wouldn’t be able to see that these letters referred to two or more different employers.
Furthermore, there were 37 other respondents who didn’t give us the first four letters of their employers’ names. How many additional employers these 37 respondents represented is unknown.
We then looked carefully at the responses employer by employer to check the consistency of answers among the different workers working for the same employer. The consistency was very high with respect to answers from the men about bank accounts and salary payments. Men from the same employer were giving very similar answers, thus boosting our confidence that the answers were genuine.
Where consistency was less was when it came to the ATM questions. We believe that the respondents probably had different notions of “near” and “too far to walk” resulting in some variability in their answers here. Moreover, unless the ATM machine was inside the dorm itself, men tended to give different answers about permission. Even if working with the same employer, some men said they had to ask for permission while others said “so far, not allowed” — which really aren’t mutually exclusive answers. They might have tried asking for permission and been denied. Taken together, the answers, even when somewhat variable, paint a picture of obstructiveness by employers.