Mohamed Johon was one of 21 workers from the same company who marched to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in October 2012 to lodge salary complaints, but most of them have since settled for rather less than they were owed, he tells TWC2. He is one of four still demanding what is due to him in full.

“I remember some of the others,” said Debbie Fordyce, executive committee member of TWC2. Those were the ones who chose to go home rather than wait out the claims process. “The boss gave each of them $500” — presumably in lieu of their salary claims — “and told them to go buy nice things for their families prior to repatriation.”

“And so they did, but when they got to the airport, they discovered that the airticket the boss had bought had no luggage allowance.”

She paid for the extra weight for the men.

Johon, 30, came to Singapore in February 2012. He had paid about S$3,500 to his recruitment agent in Bangladesh for the construction job with Armstrong Developments Pte Ltd. The In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit (IPA) — a letter he received from the Ministry of Manpower confirming that he could come to Singapore for the job — clearly stated that his basic monthly salary would be $650.

“But Armstrong, no work have,” he says of his early disappointment. Instead, he was seconded to another company. In the trade, he’s known as a “supplied worker”.

In the first half of 2012, he felt shortchanged by the situation his employer put him in. The sites to which he was supplied did not have enough work to entitle him to the total wages he was hoping for. “Sometime, no have work also,” he says. “One month, average 22 to 24 day only.”

And even when there was work, “sometime finish 5 o’clock. No have overtime.”

At some point, he was sent to work at a project run by a contractor called Top Zone. Officially, he still remained an employee of Armstrong. There was more regular work, but the rate of pay was well below what he was entitled to according to his IPA, he tells TWC2.

The $650  basic per month works out informally to a daily rate of $25. “But when I starting Top Zone, they pay me only $18 a day. Then later, they change to $15 a day plus $3 allowance.” The total may look the same, but changing it to $15 means the basis for overtime rate (which by law is 1.5 times the hourly rate) is lowered.

“At first my overtime $3.37, then become $3.25, then after become $3.00 per hour.”

The injustice was that not only was he paid less than stated in the official IPA document, he suffered regular pay cuts. At $15 a day, it was equivalent to $390 a month, a far cry from the contractual $650.

Finally, he and his co-workers had had enough, and they went to lodge complaints at MOM.

The trouble with salary claims processes at MOM is that they take too long. Obviously, when a worker lodges such a complaint, his relationship with his boss would have deteriorated so badly, he can no longer work with him. So starting from the day he lodges a complaint, a worker is effectively jobless and without income. The slowness in resolving the issue puts the worker in serious disadvantage. How long can he last without income? Especially when he was not paid, or underpaid for months prior.

Many employers offer workers less than the full amount due. It would be hard for them to deny that they are exploiting the financial distress of the worker. Many workers feel so hardpressed they accept the “compromise” offer.

And that’s what happened to 17 of the 21 workers in this case.

According to Johon, the boss gave them two options:

(a) accept $500, withdraw the complaint and be sent home;
(b) accept $500, withdraw the complaint and be formally transferred to another employer.

Some accepted option (a) — only to find themselves without luggage allowance at the airport — while others accepted (b). But four of them considered $500 insulting and insisted on the full amount.

It’s not yet clear how Johon’s case will turn out, but pertinent questions arising would be:

1.  Does MOM not recognise that slow processing of salary claims puts workers at severe disadvantage, and gives employers an opportunity to exploit it for their benefit — in that they do not have to pay out the full sums?

2.  Does MOM prosecute (a few) employers only for non-payment of salaries, or does it also prosecute for short-payment? And if so, what percentage of short-payment cases lead to prosecution?