By YC Loh

Transient Workers Count Too sees thousands of cases a year. One might think we’ve seen all the many ways workers get the short end of the stick. And yet Elias’ story illustrates a new way to deprive a worker of his just salary.

Elias Sherajul Islam, 25, was employed by a parquet flooring company from March 2011 till October 2012, assigned to work on a public housing project in Punggol. He would labour seven days a week, from morning till late at night. Elias never complained about the work, but he was deeply unhappy with how his salary was handled.

In his first ten months on the job, his employer passed his salary by cheque to a Bangladeshi co-worker Rasel — who was technically his equal as “he (had) no position”. Rasel then passed cash ranging from $130 to $300 a month to Elias — a far cry from his basic salary of $650, even without factoring in overtime pay. In total, Elias said he received only $2,640 from Rasel over those ten months,  grossly below what he felt he had earned.

Other workers in the firm got their pay directly from the employer. Moreover, they had proper records in the form of time cards that were filled in by their boss or supervisor, whoever was on site at the time.

Says Elias of his exceptional situation: “never give the salary voucher”, “never give card… nothing also give”. This made it difficult for him to keep track of what he was owed. He needed these records to request for overtime pay.


Illegal deductions

When Elias confronted his supervisor about this, the latter did some calculations for him to explain why his pay was such, but Elias felt they did not sound legitimate. For one, the deductions to his salary included items like the Foreign Worker Levy which Elias knew was not meant to be paid by the workers themselves. The law says it should be paid by the employer (see Footnote). Nevertheless, he stayed silent because he could not afford to lose the job. However he would repeatedly return to dispute his salary with his superiors (“ask… so many times”) as he found it hard to subsist on his meagre pay “makan… money gone (after paying for meals, all the money would be gone)”. But it appeared his boss did not wish to discuss or resolve his salary woes, time and again trying to placate or brush him off, saying, “I give, I give, I give”. But he “never do anything for me”.

His boss finally relented and from Elias’ eleventh to eighteenth month on the job, he received his salary directly from the employer. The remuneration was better, ranging from $300 to $600, but still short of the amount he felt was due to him. His employer only replied “I don’t know” whenever he attempted to sound him out about this.

Then in October 2012, the company gave him a written salary slip for a change — and it showed the excessive deductions. From a top line of over $800, they cut $796 to award him a paltry amount that month. Yet it was what he was waiting for; here at last was some documentary proof he could go to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) with.


Complaint lodged at MOM

There, his case officer asked Elias to “(bring) your boss (to) come meet me”, but the employer never appeared. As Elias tells it, MOM then referred the matter to the Commissioner of Labour (which is informally known as ‘Labour Court’) who held a hearing on 20 December 2012.

At the hearing, Elias’ employer claimed that during the first ten months, Rasel had signed all relevant salary documents on Elias’ behalf and the latter had been properly recompensed. Rasel had returned to Bangladesh the day before (i.e. on 19 December 2012) so he could not be questioned. How convenient! The magistrate was unconvinced by the employer’s statements, said Elias.

In the end, the company offered Elias an out-of-court settlement of about $6,000. The magistrate agreed that if both parties were willing to accept this arrangement, he would “consider the case closed”. Elias thus received this amount, satisfied with the way things turned out. While he admits to being somewhat “sad” at the events, he quotes his mother to explain his stoic attitude: “no fighting, no angry (as long as there is no fighting, no need to be upset)”.

Personally, I was pleased that Elias’ story here had a happy ending — a rarity for many of his contemporaries.


The Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations: Fourth Schedule, Part III, paragraph 10, on page 29 says:

10. The employer shall not demand or receive any sum or other benefit from an employment agency or any other person in connection with the employment or change in employment of a foreign employee.

This is reinforced by the ministry in its FAQ sheet, where it says:

  • Collection of monies from foreign workers as consideration for employment (i.e. employment kickbacks) is an offence liable to a maximum fine of $30,000 and/or an maximum imprisonment term of 24 months;
  • Employers that illegally recover employment costs from foreign workers e.g. levy, security bond, medical insurance costs etc is an administrative infringement, with a maximum administrative penalty of $20,000.