“You see my IPA,” says Shipon as he leaves through a whole sheath of papers. “It say here my salary one month $650.” The ‘IPA’ is the In-principle approval for a work permit and contains the terms of employment that the employer declares to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) at the time of applying for a work permit. A copy is given to the prospective worker before he comes to Singapore to ensure that he knows what he will be getting.

Based on $650 a month (basic), his daily rate, by Shipon’s calculation, should be $25, applying the simple formula commonly used by migrant workers (basic monthly salary divided by 26 working days a month). The actual formula by law is a little more complicated than that, but the workers’ method provides a very good approximation.

Shipon then shows TWC2 about ten months’ worth of actual payslips. “How can they put $18, like that?” He points to a figure on all of them.

The pay calculation for April 2013 is below.

Shipon's payslip for April 2013. Click to enlarge.

Shipon’s payslip for May 2013. Click to enlarge.

It takes a bit of squinting at the piece of paper to figure out what the loose array of numbers means. The upper half has a series of numbers representing hours worked each day. They are not divided into normal hours, overtime hours and Sunday hours. Since by law these have different rates of pay, unless the worked hours are so divided, it is impossible to check the calculations. Looking at the numbers, an educated guess can be made that overtime hours are treated no differently from normal hours — which would violate the law.

Then there is a careless mistake. The “rate/hr” is stated as $18, which sounds quite implausible. Shipon however knows very well it means the basic rate of pay per eight-hour day. It’s the only way the figure of “$788.06” can be arrived at. And that’s what he is protesting about. “Why not $25 basic?” he emphasises.

Using $18 a day instead of $25 means that month after month, he may have been shortchanged by 28 percent. In dollar terms, the difference is about $300 a month or $3,600 over the course of a year.

Here’s the key part of his IPA:


It confirms what he claims: his basic monthly salary is $650 a month with an agreed deduction of $90 a month for housing.

Deductions are another source of contention. Pointing again to his payslips over several months, says the shipyard worker: “Also not correct, every month cutting for house $120. Then have more cutting for electric, for food and for saving money.” A quick glance at the images above will support his point that these are deductions he never agreed to on taking the job.

‘Savings money’ is particularly outrageous. Unfortunately, it is a common practice, even though it is illegal. This tells you how effective MOM is in stamping out this exploitative scheme. ‘Savings money’ is a the withholding of a part of a worker’s salary on the promise that if he completes the full work permit duration without causing “problems”, the full amount will be returned to him. Quite often, from TWC2’s observation, workers complain that it is not returned, on all sorts of pretexts. TWC2 reckons that it is firstly a means to ensure silence on the part of the worker when faced with safety violations or exploitative practices, and when not returned, is effectively an arbitrary pay cut.


Several other workers in same situation

Shipon Chandra Shil is not the only worker from Prosper Environmental & Engineering Pte Ltd to approach TWC2 for advice. About 30 others did so too in the  middle and third quarter of 2013, all with similar complaints.

Mohammed Robiul Islam says his IPA indicated $630 a month basic. And in 2011, his pay slip actually showed $24 a day — which is roughly coherent with $630 a month. Lately, however, a lower rate has been applied, he said, though he didn’t have payslips on hand to show TWC2, unlike Shipon.

Robiul also has grouses about deductions. He says “My IPA never say house cutting money,” meaning that his original IPA showed there would not be any deduction for accommodation. “But actual salary time, first cutting $120, then increase (to) $158, then some more to $193.” Without seeing his papers however, it is not possible to verify his claims.

“Also have cutting $50 for deposit money” — using another term for ‘savings money’.

However, Robiul’s more immediate problem is that he suffered a work injury on 11 April 2013. He was given two months of medical leave but has lost his job. He is entitled to “MC pay” from his employer for the period that he was on medical leave, but it’s not been forthcoming, he says.

He has filed a compensation claim and has been given an appointment at the National University Hospital for an assessment of permanent incapacity in his foot.


Did employer execute a new contract?

A common tactic employers have been known to use is that of advertising a high rate of pay at recruitment — including writing it into the IPA — only to compel workers to sign a new contract soon after arrival in Singapore, with a lower salary and more disadvantageous terms. TWC2 views such tactics as serious infringements of workers’ rights. Employers are well aware that workers customarily pay significant sums of money to agents to secure their jobs, and are thus in no position to resist demands for contract substitution. Taking unfair advantage of such power differential is wrong and such new contracts should not be recognised in law.

What is MOM’s position when faced with such complaints?

Extremely inconsistent — is the best way to put it.  Some case officers summarily reject employers’ attempts to tender such contracts as proof that the workers agreed to lower salaries, but there have also been cases where workers tell us their case officers accept these substituted contracts as valid. Naturally, these workers are dismayed at the patent injustice of it.

In the case of Prosper Environmental, it is not clear if something similar happened. TWC2 asked Shipon if he was offered a new contract and if he agreed to one.

He replied that he never agreed to any new contract. But he also recalls that soon after arriving in Singapore to work and after completing his safety induction training course in March 2012, “Manager say (to) me, ‘You come office.’ So I go office and then he give me paper and say, ‘You sign.’

“All paper English, so I asking, ‘What writing?’ (What does it say?). He say, ‘You sign. (If) you no sign, you go back.’

“How can I go back? I just coming. My agent money not yet get back. So I sign.”

Did he have a copy of the paper? “No give me,” he says. He still has no idea what it was that he signed.

However, it could well be completely unrelated to the salary dispute.

As at the date of interview (5 September 2013), his salary case has been referred to a Labour Tribunal — which workers refer to informally as Labour Court — for which a hearing date has been set. In mediation sessions between employer and employee, MOM has apparently not been able to insist that the employer pay up the difference. Other workers from the same company tell TWC2 that their MOM case officers hardly tried at all, and was disappointingly lax in these meetings. It is not yet known whether MOM will support Shipon’s argument at the tribunal hearing by citing the IPA, or will let Shipon fight it out all by himself.