By Benjamin Wong

TWC2 treasurer Alex Au went down the line of men queuing up to get their meal coupons at the charity’s soup kitchen. “Salary case or injury case?” he asked each man in turn. At random, he pulled out two men with salary cases, and asked them to sit with me to recount their stories.

Some salary non-payment cases lead to unique hardships for the workers involved. In Might paying salary on time have saved a life? was a story of Mohsin Howlander who lost his wife to tuberculosis when, short of money, he couldn’t send money home to pay for treatment. But TWC2 sees hundreds of salary cases a year, and most of their stories are not told.

These hundreds themselves are perhaps a fraction of the cases that occur in Singapore. “Many workers are repatriated by employers before they get a chance to lodge a complaint at the Ministry of Manpower or come to us for advice, so they don’t even show up in the statistics,” says Alex. “How do we know this? Typically a worker who does complain and speak to us, also tells us of several more colleagues who were likewise unpaid, but were sent home with little warning.”

This evening, he pulled out two workers at random. “Their stories may be straightforward and, you might say, their experience almost commonplace,” says Alex. “They would not normally be the kinds of stories we write about because there’s not a lot that is attention-grabbing about them.

“But that’s just it, isn’t it? How have things come to this stage where failure to pay salaries on time has become almost routine and thus not newsworthy?”

According to Alex, the fact that non-payment has been debased to ordinariness is an indictment of our system. “Our laws in this regard are quite clear. So the questions are: Is enforcement too lax? Do employers feel a certain impunity? And what is MOM doing about it?”

Sadekur Rahman first arrived in Singapore in September 2011, and came under employment of Mega Tech Marine Pte Ltd  (the picture at left is taken from his Special Pass, showing the employer-employee relationship). However, things did not turn out as Sadekur had expected. For the rest of September, Sadekur was not given any work. In October and November, Sadekur was given only sporadic work opportunities, “October, November, only 10 day, 15 day”, he says.

A full month of employment only came in December. But despite a full month of work, Sadekur was not paid his salary. Instead, his employer would give him minimal amounts of ‘makan’ money, which were intended as advances of his actual pay. “December no give salary. January give $100, February no give, March give $100,” Sadekur recounts.

Frustrated, Sadekur tried contacting his employer’s office to enquire about work and his pay. He would only get the reply that “boss no coming”.

Sadekur laments how he has not been able to earn back enough money, because individuals like him pay a significant amount of money to a recruiting agent in his home country for a job in Singapore. To raise the upfront payment, many get into debt even before they start working. “Come Singapore, total cost, Singapore dollar $6,500,” which in Bangladesh Taka is “four lakh… my family very problem”.

Then, in April, Sadekur was told that his work permit had been cancelled. Helpless, Sadekur visited the Ministry of Manpower. Sadekur was not alone in his plight, and he says that 13 others from the same company also face similar work and salary issues.

Saravanakumar’s experience, although similar to Sadekur’s, is slightly different. Saravanakumar (at right in top picture, speaking to the writer) came to Singapore earlier this year, in March 2012, on an S-Pass, unlike Sadekur who was on a Work Permit.

Previously, he had worked as a car piping engineer in Malaysia, but in Singapore Saravanakumar worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, washing cars. Saravanakumar was willing to put in the hours for the S$2,200 salary — which was the monthly pay declared to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) by his employer’s agent for his S-Pass. But when pay day came, his employer wanted to give him only $1,200. The employer argued that the agent had informed him before he left India that he would only be paid $40 a day. However, Saravanakumar claims that he was not informed that he would be working for this amount, and instead expected to be paid the formally-stated amount of $2,200. Unhappy with his situation, he refused to take the offered amount of $1,200, and decided to bring his grievance to the MOM in May.

It is late July now, he has still not heard from his MOM officer how and when his case would be resolved. He is in a state of limbo, despite having to go weekly to MOM to extend his special pass. Like Sadekur, Saravanakumar also laments his debt. “I pay agent $5,500 come Singapore, now I don’t know, I don’t know”.