The Online Citizen reported, February 6, 2012, that about 200 mostly Bangladeshi workers downed tools at their worksite in Tampines over unpaid salaries. The key details reported were:

At 8 am, instead of starting work, the workers went on strike because they have not been paid since October 2011.  TOC understands that several pleas to the main and sub contractors to settle the unpaid salaries went unheard.

The workers complained that there were deductions of $150 per month for food and $20 for utilities.  Further to these, $1500 was also deducted from workers who requested that their work permits be renewed.

The workers on strike complained that they were paid only $18 per day and had to work till 1 am, with no overtime pay.

Photo from The Online Citizen

The Online Citizen also carried a statement from the Ministry of Manpower which included these paragraphs:

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) was alerted by the Police this morning of an incident involving around 200 work permit holders employed by Sunway Concrete Products (S) Pte Ltd and Techcom Construction & Trading Pte Ltd over unpaid salaries since November 2011.

MOM’s officers responded to the incident immediately and went down to the worksite at Tampines Industrial Street 62.

MOM’s interim investigations revealed that the employers had not paid their workers since November 2011. MOM understands that by 8pm today (6 February 2012), the employers would have paid out the November 2011 salaries to all the affected workers, with MOM officers present on-site.

The employers have also assured MOM that the affected workers will receive their outstanding December 2011 salaries by this Friday (10 February). MOM will continue investigations here and follow up with the workers to ensure that they receive their December 2011 and January 2012 salaries promptly. MOM officers will also interview workers on other employment-related issues.

This incident was also covered by the Straits Times. The details in the Straits Times’ story were consistent with the Online Citizen’s. There was however a mention that a similar incident of non-payment of salaries had happened before.

Most of the workers The Straits Times spoke to said this was the first time they had not been paid, and they had not been told why. However, some pointed to a similar incident about five years ago.

— Straits Times, Feb 7, 2012: Wage dispute resolved after 200 workers stage protest, By Jessica Lim & Elizabeth Soh

A follow-up story the next day chose to highlight the fall in the number of salary claims over the last three years, based on numbers provided by the Ministry of Manpower.

There were 3,000 such claims last year, down from 3,900 in 2010 and about 4,450 in 2009 – a fall the MOM attributes to a step-up in its outreach programmes and tighter legislation.

Work permit holders who earn less than $2,000 a month, such as construction workers, typically file the majority of such claims. The rest are Employment Pass and S Pass holders.

— Straits Times, Feb 8, 2012: Fewer foreign workers filing claims: MOM, by By Jessica Lim & Amanda Tan

It also reported that HOME’s and TWC2’s observation did not support MOM’s claims of a declining trend:

At the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, the number of cases received over unpaid wages stood at 400 last year, up from 300 in 2010.

Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) has had 30 to 45 foreign workers approaching it monthly on salary-related disputes for at least the past two years.

— ibid.

Two TWC2 exco members were quoted by the newspaper for this report. Debbie Fordyce said such disputes are more common among workers who work for smaller construction companies, while Noorashikin Abdul Rahman pointed out that “Employers think they can get away with it because they think the workers have no avenues to turn to.”

The same story on Feb 8 quoted member of parliament (PAP) Yeo Guat Kwang saying that it was ‘quite worrying’ that foreign workers were taking matters into their own hands and risk going against the law — which sounded as if he was putting the spotlight on the workers for instigating unrest.