Vikram (not his real name) came to Transient Workers Count Too regarding an injury for which his boss was reluctant to provide proper medical care. But that’s not what this story is about.
Just to make sure that at least other aspects of his working life were in order, we asked about the regularity of his wages, and whether they had been fairly calculated. He gave us a complicated answer, which took us a while to understand, except for one bit: “Last two year back, one month, my salary two hundred dollar, less.” Translated, he meant to say: there was one month two years ago when my salary was less than two hundred dollars.
How on earth can anyone survive earning so little? you ask. How on earth does an employer get away with paying this amount for someone who works an average of 10 – 11 hours a day? But that’s not what this story is about either.
Incredulous, you ask: You mean, there’s something worse?
Vikram showed us two pay slips, the first from a month in the third quarter of 2010, and the second from a month in the third quarter of 2011. We can’t reproduce them here because they contain too many personal details such as his bank account number. But in the image below, you’ll see fragments of the pay slips in the background. The numbers are shown but some details (in blue) are best not revealed in full, again to protect his identity.
The first thing you may notice is that his total working hours were 323 in the particular month of 2010 and 349 in the particular month of 2011.
This violates the law. The Employment Act stipulates that the working week shall consist of up to 44 hours of normal time. Furthermore, Section 38(5) says:
“An employee shall not be permitted to work overtime for more than 72 hours a month.”
Each month averages 4.35 weeks, which thus means 191.4 normal hours. Add in the maximum of 72 overtime hours, and the grand total is 263.4 hours. But Vikram worked over 300 hours in both the months shown.
The law is there for a reason. Workers who are fatigued are liable to make mistakes, or get drowsy on the job. Industrial accidents become more likely.
It is also apparent that the company uses a standard hourly rate without distinguishing whether they are normal, overtime or Sunday hours. Once again, this appears to flout the law.
However, the number that really jumped at us was 500, in the deductions column. It appeared in both months’ calculations.
“Every year, we compel to cut $500,” explained Vikram, “for renewal work permit.”
On the payslip, however, it is stated as a loan made to the employee, recovered through that month’s wages. “But actually, I not borrow the money,” Vikram protested. “Boss cut for renewal. All workers same.”
However, in case the authorities swoop in to audit, the men were also made to sign pieces of paper acknowledging that they had indeed borrowed the $500 each month, reported Vikram. “The paper false, but what can I do?” he asked rhetorically. “If I not sign, work permit not renewal, my job finish, my boss send me back to my country.
But how much does it cost the employer to renew a work permit? A page from the Manpower Ministry’s website (link) says clearly:
Payment of fees
The following fees must be paid to complete the renewal request. You can do so using GIRO (for existing GIRO user), eNETS Credit or Debit.
Fees: Work Permit – $20 per renewal
In any case, it is illegal for employers to even recover that $20 from employees, as stated in Section 26(a) of Part II of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Regulations, while Section 25(a) forbids receiving any consideration from the employee for renewing the work permit.
Restrictions on employer receiving or recovering moneys from foreign employee
25. Prohibited payments: An employer shall not deduct from any salary payable to a foreign employee, or demand or receive (directly or indirectly) from the foreign employee, any sum or other benefit —
(a) as consideration or as a condition for employing the foreign employee;
(b) as consideration or as a condition for continuing to employ the foreign employee; or
(c) as a financial guarantee related, in any way, to the employment of the foreign employee.
26. Payments to be borne by employer not recoverable from foreign employee: An employer shall not deduct from any salary payable to a foreign employee, or recover (directly or indirectly) from the foreign employee, in whole or in part, any of the following sums paid or payable, or any other benefit given or to be given, by the employer:
(a) fees associated with the application, issuance, renewal or reinstatement of a Work Permit;
(b) costs associated with furnishing a security deposit required by the Controller;
. . . and so on . . .
Ask the ministry, however, and, going by TWC2’s experience, the likely answer is that there is nothing they can do in a case like Vikram’s. Officials would probably point to the signed acknowledgement of a loan and say it would be impossible to prove any prosecution’s case.
Either the ministry is too defeatist, or simply not interested in doing its job.
It should be a simple matter to do a comprehensive audit of all employee records. If what Vikram says is correct — and TWC2 believes it is because we’ve heard similar stories repeatedly over the years — officials will find nearly every employee taking out “loans” of $500 around the time the workers’ work passes are up for renewal. The pattern alone should be damning and should set up a presumption of guilt.
And if even that is too difficult to do, then just extract a few employee records and prosecute the employer for under-payment of overtime work and for flouting the maximum number of working hours. These violations are plain to see from the pay slips themselves. Then ban the company from hiring any more foreign workers.
Judging from the length of time such practices have flourished in Singapore — TWC2’s observation is that the majority of workers who have come to us over the years reported similar practices by their employers — the government’s willingness to act is the key issue.
Meanwhile, employers wishing to mint money from their employees’ work permits must find this city-state to be paradise.