Looking downcast, Jeyaraj (not his real name) recalls a recent meeting with his case officer at the Ministry of Manpower: “MOM officer also say, ‘I understand boss alibaba, but cannot prove. If you want prove, I can help, but waiting long time.'”
Alibaba is a commonly-used term among Indian and Bangladeshi workers to mean ‘dishonest’. To paraphrase, the case officer was telling him that while he too believed the employer was trying to cheat, proof would be hard to find.
Alex Au, TWC2 vice-president, sitting beside us as Jeyaraj recounts his story, tells the worker that the case officer’s advice was probably spot on. It will be very hard to prove Jeyaraj’s claims, and it may take months to sort truth from fiction, if ever. In the meantime, he may be without work, yet have to pay for his accommodation and sustenance. “Every month, you will spend $200, $300. How long can you wait? How are you going to help your family?”
Jeyaraj, aged 32, has three young children at home in India.
“Tomorrow have meeting in MOM,” adds Jeyaraj. “MOM officer say [even if] boss little bit money give, best take and go home.” He looks at Alex expectantly, hoping for more advice.
“I think so too,” says Alex, “but make sure employer pays for airticket.”
It is unlikely that the employer will pay Jeyaraj the full $1,481 in unpaid salaries that the worker claims he is owed.
Jeyaraj came to Singapore to work for a contractor in September 2012. As a skilled plasterer, he worked on several public housing projects in Yishun, Sengkang and Punggol. His salary was regularly late, and at first was paid in cash.
Around January, he opened a back account and asked his employer to pay his salary directly into his account. Work Permit conditions issued by the ministry require employers to pay by bank transfer if the employee so requests. Work Permit Conditions, Fourth Schedule, Part IV, clause 5 (page 30) says:
If the foreign employee so requests, the foreign employee’s salary shall be paid via direct transfer into the foreign employee’s bank account in a bank established in Singapore.
Yet, according to Jeyaraj, the employer did so only partially. “January salary, boss pay full, but very late. Pay only in March. February salary also full, also late,” he says. “But for March salary, he put only $500 in bank.” Jeyaraj’s salary that month should be $855 based on his time card.
“April, no pay at all.”
Jeyaraj worked patiently till the end of May and then decided that he should lodge a complaint at the ministry. He figures that the total of April and May salaries, and the shortfall in the March salary is $1,481.
However, when asked by MOM to answer for non-payment, the employer submitted “forgery” papers, says Jeyaraj. “Boss show MOM many paper [payment vouchers] say they pay me already. Some more, show MOM paper say I borrow $500. The signature on the paper(s) also forgery one.”
Going by previous cases where workers alleged that employers have presented salary vouchers with forged signatures to MOM, the authorities will find it very hard to prove the matter. It is not surprising that the case officer (and TWC2’s Alex) did not want to raise Jeyaraj’s hopes of recovering the owed amounts.
Alex however thinks that if MOM applied a stricter interpretation of the law — as cited above — MOM could be less helpless. He points out that “The law uses the word ‘shall’ which indicates once the worker has requested payment through a bank, it is obligatory upon the employer to do so. The fact that some months’ salary payments were made directly into his bank account is supporting evidence that this request was made.” These direct payments (for January and February, but paid in March and April) are indicated with white arrows in the image below.
Alex further explains: “Since the worker requested payment through bank transfer and the employer started doing so, it should be suspicious when the employer then presents cash payment vouchers after being accused of non-payment of later salaries. In such a dispute, a presumption should be applied in favour of the worker and it should be for the employer to disprove this presumption, not for Jeyaraj or the MOM case officer to have to prove the vouchers false.”
This incident shows how “ineffective” the current law is, adds Alex. “Bosses are still running rings around the law,” he says, “because it isn’t watertight.”
TWC2 has long pressed MOM to make payment of salaries through bank transfers mandatory. Together with making the issuance of itemised salary slips mandatory too, such a move should eliminate similar disputes over cash vouchers and forged signatures, and create less work for MOM.