Twenty Indian workers, employees of Sime Chong Construction, refused to report for work on Tuesday 18 December 2012 over two months of salary arrears, reported various media on 18 and 19 December 2012. Four other workers, from China, had earlier lodged complaints at the Ministry of Manpower on 7 November 2012 over the same issue and apparently been terminated by the company as they were put on special passes.

The story was broken on Yahoo, which reported that:

The Chinese workers have been working in Singapore for some four to five years, and this is the first time that they have taken things into their own hands.

Four of the 20-odd workers have decided to speak up. Each of them is owed a range of between S$2,400 to S$5,600 in salaries.

The men say they have been told by their employer that the company has no money and thus could not pay them. “But the construction project is still carrying on,” one of the men says, pointing to the ongoing construction of some HDB flats in Yishun where they are located, and which the company is involved in.

They say they have also approached the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for help but to no avail so far.

“The Manpower Ministry says if the company doesn’t want to pay us, there is nothing it can do,” one of the workers says. The rest nodded their heads in agreement.

— Yahoo Singapore,

With the Chinese workers’  special passes expiring on 26 December 2012, the men were “unsure of their options”.

They repeated that the MOM had told them even it would not be able to do anything. What they face would be repatriation, without having their owed salaries recovered, as has happened to other workers in the past.

The ministry’s attitude, the men say, was also one of apparent disinterest.

— ibid

The Ministry of Manpower issued a statement on 18 December confirming that

MOM’s labour relations officers have been on site at the Yishun worksite today (18 Dec 2012). Our preliminary investigations show that some 20 Indian workers did not turn up for work today, as they had not received their November salaries which would have been due by 7th Dec. These workers did not previously approach MOM on their salary issues. The company, assisted by the main sub-contractor Asiabuild, is currently working to pay the outstanding salaries to the affected workers within the next 24 hours.

In an update at 23:30h the same day, the ministry said it found that:

28 workers who were not paid their November salary. 25 of them have since been paid on 18 Dec as at 11.30pm. The remaining 3 were absent, and will be paid when they report to work on 19 Dec. These workers exclude the PRC workers who are on Special Pass and had earlier lodged their claims with MOM.

The Indian workers were reported to have returned to work the following day.

The Straits Times reported the next day that:

MOM said last night that since their complaints, its “labour relations officers have been working to resolve the workers’ salary arrears”.

It added: “At the same time, we have been investigating the company for Employment Act infringements.”

Under the Act, those convicted of not paying their workers can be jailed for up to six months and/or fined up to $5,000.

For serious breaches of the Act, the employer could, among other things, be barred from hiring foreign workers and could face prosecution.

Mr Ng said the four former workers, who are being housed at the Kranji dormitory of MWC, had each been given an initial payment of $1,000. The remaining sum owed to them will be paid today when they meet their former employer at MOM, he added.

Sime Chong is also expected to give them air tickets to return to China, he added.

— Straits Times, 19 Dec 2012, Foreign workers say firm has not been paying them, by Lim Yan Liang

The ministry indicated that the workers had a right to stop work when their salaries were not paid on time.

It said: “Based on the facts available, the ministry does not consider this to be a strike.

“The employer had breached the terms of the employment contracts when he failed to pay the workers their salaries on time. This is also a statutory breach of the Employment Act.

“As a result of a breach of the employment contract, the workers may regard themselves released from their employment contract, and hence would not be contractually obliged to work.”

— ibid.

In a blogpost to mark International Migrants Day, Acting Manpower minister Tan Chuan-Jin wrote:

There have been various criticisms directed at our management of migrant worker matters. Indeed, as with all issues, I do believe we can do more. Our various systems, including those dealing with employment issues for workers, can be improved and we will continue to work on them.

— Manpower blog, 18 December 2012, Recognising the contributions of foreign workers in Singapore


UPDATE, 20 December 2012:

The four China workers (Wang Zheng Hua, 38, Chi Wen Wu, 37, Wu Liang Zhong, 41, Kai Sheng He, 45) were paid in full after a 10- to 15-minute conciliation session at the Ministry of Manpower, reported the Straits Times (Workers’ wage dispute resolved, 20 Dec 2012) and is expected to fly home to Nanjing, with tickets paid for by the employer. The four, from China’s Anhui province, were paid a total of $14,000 in back-pay, or about two to three months’ wages, by a representative of their ex-employer Sime Chong Construction, said MOM.

They had not been working at the Yishun site where the Indian workers protested, but were at a different construction site in Punggol.

The ministry’s investigations into Sime Chong for breaches of the Employment act is said to be continuing.