Five days after the three of them lodged a salary complaint with the Ministry of Manpower on 1 March 2013, they were summoned to the company office. They were each handed their passports and an airticket back to Bangladesh.
Rowshan (at left in picture) protested to the foreman, “Only passport and ticket give, but why salary no give?”
Strictly speaking, the dispute wasn’t so much about unpaid salaries (except for February’s which remained unpaid), but about short-payment. The men said they had not been paid the correct rate for overtime hours (which should be 1.5 times normal rate) ever since they started work a year earlier.
Apparently, the employment agent, a Chinese Singaporean named Jackie, was also there at the meeting.
Iqbal (at right in picture) confronted him. “I say [to] him why overtime salary not 1.5? He say me ‘[When] you coming time, you already sign $19 only.'” The agent was referring to the In-principle Approval for a Work Permit (IPA) which showed Iqbal’s basic salary to be $494 per month. This is customarily understood to mean $19 per day. It appears that Jackie was trying to tell Iqbal that this would be the flat rate regardless whether normal time or overtime.
Iqbal knew better. “Then I say [to] him, this one Singapore law: 1.5 time. Why you no give? Also Sunday double time never give.”
The men recall that Jackie replied that if they insisted on 1.5 times basic pay for their overtime hours, then they “cannot come back Singapore”, indicating perhaps that he would find a way to blacklist them.
Their foreman reinforced the point. According to the three, he told them to accept whatever the company was prepared to pay them; if not, they would be left stranded in Singapore. Reports Iqbal: “Foreman [say to us], ‘You want go back to Bangladesh, then you take salary [that] we give; [if] you not take, then no go back Bangladesh.”
With that tense conversation reaching an impasse, the men took the tickets and their passports.
At the airport
On the advice of the Manpower Ministry officer whom they consulted with, they showed up at the airport on the day of the flight, hoping that they’d be paid in full before departure. Says Iqbal, “MOM say, ‘You go airport. [If] boss settle, you go back. If boss no settle, you come back MOM.’
“So manager come airport. But give only basic salary for February and extra $200.”
Rowshan cuts in at this point: “Manager say, ‘Two hundred dollar better lah. Happy happy, go back.'”
The men refused the money. The offer of $200 was a far cry from the “more than $3,000” they felt they were owed. They refused to check in for their flights and marched back to MOM the next working day. They were given appointments with their case officer on 19 and 20 March 2013. At the time of writing, it is not clear how this case will be concluded.
Rowshan Ali Nurul Hoque, aged 29, Mohammad Jasim Uddin Sheikh Moslem, 22, and Iqbal Hossain Latib Sheik, 24, arrived here together on 24 February 2012 to work for two related companies – Rowshan with Tienrui Design & Construction, Jasim and Iqbal with Tienrui Builders.
Being the first time working in Singapore, Rowshan’s and Jasim’s IPA showed monthly basic salaries of $468. Iqbal’s slightly higher $494 was because he had worked in Singapore before. The thumbnail at right is Rowshan’s IPA.
They worked frighteningly long hours, seven days a week. Their overtime hours exceeded the statutory maximum of 72 per month, as you can see from samples of their time sheets in the next section.
“This is very dangerous practice,” says Alex Au, the vice-president of TWC2. “When workers are fatigued, the risk of accidents and injury climbs. There is a reason for the law and MOM should take the employer to task over this.”
A scrutiny of their time sheets will reveal that:
1. Overtime hours for Saturdays are wrongly computed. Overtime on Saturdays should start at 12 noon, not at 17:00h.
2. Overtime hours are not rated at 1.5 times basic rate, as provided for by the Employment Act.
3. Sundays are not at double rate.
4. No indications of public holidays, which should be calculated differently.
These time sheets clearly support the workers’ claims.
Yet, the employer gave them time sheets for every month using the same erroneous formula. This is unlike other employers who miscalculate and also refuse to issue detailed time sheets and salary slips so that workers have no way to check the calculations.
Wonders Alex: “In issuing those time sheets, did Tienrui genuinely believe it was above-board in applying its formula? Was the company unaware of the Employment Act? That is hard to believe. Almost all employers are aware of the 1.5 rate for overtime pay.”
“Let’s say Tienrui was aware of the 1.5 rate. Two other possibilities then emerge. Either they really thought that private contract supersedes law – recall the way Jackie the agent tried to tell Iqbal that because the IPA implied a certain daily and hourly rate, this rate would apply for both normal time and overtime – or they might have known they were flouting the law, but didn’t for a moment think the workers would have the guts to challenge their boss.”
Perhaps they didn’t think workers would one day be waving those time sheets in their faces demanding that the shortfall in payment be made up?
Alex adds: “Many Singaporeans think that the low-paid foreign workers who come here to work are from the lowest and poorest strata of their countries’ societies – the uneducated and unwashed. This is not so. On the contrary, they tend to have quite a bit of education even if their families aren’t rich. Rowshan has twelve years of schooling; Jasim and Iqbal each have ten years. They know enough math to compute exactly how much they’ve been short-paid.”
Each of them says they are owed between three and four thousand dollars.
Armed with time sheets and several more pieces of paper with tables and tables of computations, these three guys’ claims appear strongly supported.
A move by MOM insisting that the employer continues to house them will also help. Says Jasim, “After we go MOM to complain, we [move] out of company house.” They found their own accommodation and stayed a week, paying $100 each. “But MOM tell boss must give [us] house.”
So they moved back to the company “hostel”.
“MOM say [to us] must go back company hostel,” recalls Rowshan. “MOM officer also say, ‘[If] boss making problem, you call me.'”
This is a welcome change, notes Alex. Previously, workers lodging claims against their employers had to find their own accommodation. The cost of doing so was such a drain on their finances that, before long, they often felt compelled to accept a lower “compromise” offer simply because they couldn’t hold on.
Nonetheless, despite having the necessary documents and not having to worry about housing costs, the three are acutely aware that they may still end up with less than is rightfully theirs. Worries Iqbal, “The supervisor tell me, the company will close down. Bankrupt. Don’t know whether true or not true, but if close down then how?”
Other workers (from other companies) crowding around and listening in on the Tienrui men’s story then chime in, saying that spreading such a rumour is a common ploy by employers to “trick” employees into settling for less.
Employer implements defensive measures
What is worrying is Jasim’s report that in the same company hostel are about 25 other Tienrui workers who have suffered the same salary shortfalls but have not yet lodged complaints with MOM. “Their OT also 1.0 [basic rate], but they scared.” OT is short for overtime.
Adds Rowshan, “One man tell me company give them new paper to sign,” evidently a new contract. “Paper say give only 1 time for OT,” meaning that overtime rate would be the same as basic rate.
“All men there sign already because boss say, ‘You happy, you sign paper. You not happy, you go back.’ They scared send back, so they sign.”
It will be interesting to see what MOM thinks of that. Hopefully, the ministry will send an inspector down to check all the company’s payroll records.