By Keith W

“Now I get less,” says Prashath Ranthulan (not his real name). “Other worker, they take $3,000 and go back [home]. Agent give, but tell worker [if] take money, cannot go MOM.”

He was the only one to turn down the hush money. Why?

“I want to complain MOM. I don’t want other worker next time have same problem.”

Through the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), Ranthul expects to get $2,200, which will be $800 less than what his co-workers got.

His is a story of an S Pass scam, something that TWC2 is seeing more and more lately, probably because work permit quotas are tightening. According to the MOM’s website, “The S Pass allows mid-level skilled foreigners who earn a fixed monthly salary of at least $2,200 to work in Singapore.” However, many employers remain desperate for low-skilled workers, and certainly cannot afford such salaries. Ranthul’s case is an example of how the rule is circumvented.

In March and April this year, while still in Tamil Nadu, India, Ranthul met with an agent to look for a job. Since he had a diploma from an industrial training institute, he would qualify for an S Pass. “Agent tell me, salary is $2,200,” he says.

When I ran the story past TWC2 vice-president Alex Au, he somehow wasn’t convinced. He went to sit at the table with Ranthul, talked with him a bit more to gain his confidence, and managed to get Ranthul to admit that even at that stage, the agent had mentioned something about a “cash back”. The truth was that the agent told him to expect to have to return $1,100 (50 percent of the salary) to the boss.

Sure enough, at the end of his first working month in Singapore, Ranthul was asked to encash his salary cheque of $2,200, and return a portion of it to the employer. What he didn’t expect was that the amount would be higher. Instead of $1,100 he was asked to return $1,250 — an increase for which he never received a satisfactory explanation.

Ranthul was unhappy, but there was little he could do. Having paid $6,500 to the agent for the job, he needed to earn back the money.

While he was prepared to stick it out, his employer began to criticise his work during the second month. The boss told him he was “working slow”, among other shortcomings. Still, it came as a shock to him when the agent reappeared at the end of the second month demanding his S Pass. Ranthul knew what that meant: he had lost his job.

After asking around a bit, he decided to lodge a complaint at MOM. As at the date of the interview, Ranthul had not yet received his second month’s salary but was confident of getting it. “MOM officer say company sure pay me $2,200.”

However, he decided against asking MOM to help get the “cash back” portion of the money back.

Says Alex: “At the point when the agent asked him to surrender his S Pass, the offer of $3,000 was also made. Yet he turned it down.

“It seems therefore that he was hoping to get a bigger payout via MOM’s process.” Alex was skeptical about Ranthul’s claim that he rejected the agent’s offer out of altruism.

One possibility, although we did not have time in the interview with Ranthul to cover this, was that he thought he was entitled to much more on account of premature termination. Many workers have this belief that when their work permit or S Pass is for a duration of two years, they have a job guaranteed for two years. This is not so; an employer can terminate a worker anytime. Another possibility would be that Ranthul was hoping MOM could help him recover the $6,500 he had paid to the agent. This of course is impossible, since the payment took place in India and anyway, he had no receipts.

“Now I heart pain,” says Ranthul, distressed about having to write off the $6,500. “Also have mental headache,” he adds. He is hoping to get his promised $2,200 (for the second month’s  salary) soon and go home.

“It may not be so simple,” says Alex. He points out something on Ranthul’s Special Pass (a permit to let him stay on legally to resolve his case) that indicates that MOM is treating this as a case of potential law breaking. “MOM can smell a rat, just as we can, ” he explains. “It is not just treating this case as a dispute about unpaid salaries; it is investigating to uncover a possible offence.”

What MOM may not now be able to look into would be the cases of the other workers who took the $3,000 compensation, since they have all flown home. S Pass scams are more prevalent than the occasional case such as Ranthul’s may indicate.