With additional reporting by Lee Kah Ghim (Nur E Alam) and Tan Ruoqi (Nur Mohammad)

Some stories we hear from workers come in fragments and it is hard to fully understand what’s going on with their cases. The stories are also so divergent that one wonders if there are consistent policies or processes in place at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

Elangovan (not his real name) has been waiting “over six month” to get satisfaction over unpaid wages. The shipyard worker says monthly salaries at his company were always three months late, but when they stretched to “four, five month”, his patience snapped. He admits that there was an intemperate confrontation with his foreman, after which it became very difficult to continue working at the job. So he lodged a complaint at MOM for salary arrears.

He asked officials there for a temporary job, but was turned down. Reason unknown.

So how does he survive? A quick look at his meal card hints at how. Turning up at TWC2’s Cuff Road Project at an unusually low frequency of just three times a month indicates that he probably has some kind of income to buy his own meals most days. Perhaps he is part of the underground economy?

This may explain why he doesn’t seem to have much to say about his salary complaint at MOM. He cannot tell us clearly what stage it has reached. “I go MOM for chop,” he says, referring to the regular visits he must make to extend his Special Pass, “but my case officer never call me.” Nor, apparently, does Elangovan make any effort to call him. Maybe he doesn’t care too much if, financially, he is in the black. Nevertheless, having a salary case drag on for more than half a year cries out for an explanation. What is really going on?

In complete contrast, 26-year-old Nur Mohammad Aminur Islam (pictured above) got the full amount owed to him by his former employer, Allianzze Construction Pte Ltd, within a month of registering his complaint at MOM. Nuro’s complaint is similar to Elangovan’s — wages paid chronically late. In Nuro’s case, he says four months on average, and that at the time he went to MOM, he was owed over two thousand dollars.

It had been two years of frustration, despite working all this while. “If I ask boss pay salary, then boss say wait one more week… Pay always late, always late late late,” he says in exasperation.

Why did he take so long to bring his grievances to the attention of MOM? Nuro shrugs, explaining that he could not complain about late wages as he wanted to keep his job. There was a sunk cost of $4,400 that he had paid in agent fees in order to secure the contract. Making that trip down to MOM would have put his job in jeopardy. Thus, it was only when his work permit was about to expire, that he decided to act.

Once his complaint was lodged, perhaps things moved fast for him because he had the needed documentation to expedite his case. Nuro shows us the time sheets that logged the number of hours worked, but the pay slips were little more than handwritten numbers on tattered envelopes. More likely, it is the attitude of the employer that may determine if the case moves quickly or slowly. One that is determined to stonewall can hold up a case for a long time, and for all MOM’s regulatory powers, little progress results.

nur_e_alam_abdur_rahman22A different man with a similar name is an example of this.

Nur E Alam Abdur Rahman’s father back in Bangladesh is fighting for his life in a hospital; his wife is being hounded over various overdue payments and his entire family is pressing him for money to buy food and supplies. Nur is desperate to return home to see to the many problems, but his case has dragged on for a year, no thanks to MOM. And it’s not over yet.

It all began a year ago when Nur (pictured right) was hurt in a workplace accident. The shackles of the pipe on which he was standing got loose, and both pipe and man slammed into another pipe. Nur’s thigh was crushed, and till today his left leg, knee-down, remains numb. He was hospitalised, put out of work, and needless to say, lost his crucial source of income. He began to depend on his savings to pay for his daily accommodation, food and other necessities, hoping that he would recover as soon as possible.

However, everything’s been going downhill since. His father has had to be hospitalized for heart problems; his condition deteriorates with each passing day. With no money, Nur’s wife can no longer pay off their mortgage, and his 7-year-old daughter is now having trouble attending school too.

Under the law, Nur’s employer should be paying him two-thirds of his previous gross salary as ‘medical leave wages’,  but the company has not done so.

He has diligently gone to MOM each time a meeting was called. His appointments card shows fifteen visits. In a voice tinged with despair, Nur explains that each time either the lawyer from the insurance company or representatives from his employer failed to turn up. And so his case remains unresolved, his life suspended in a twilight zone.

“No money, cannot go back.” Nur says quietly, his eyes downcast.

It may seem a trivial matter to the others involved to postpone his case again and again, but to Nur, his father and his family, it makes a world of difference.