18 Nov 2013, Monday evening
A small group of five men approach TWC2 executive committee members Debbie Fordyce and Alex Au at our free meals location in Little India, telling us that they’ve not been paid and have lost their jobs. Two more workers arrive and Alex sits down with all seven of them to take a brief history. Noting the seriousness of the case and the number of workers involved (60 – 70 workers, they say), they are advised to organise themselves into manageable batches and make their way to TWC2’s office the following day to get a more complete consultation with our social workers.
19 Nov 2013, Tuesday afternoon
Twelve arrive at our office instead of an expected twenty. The others “cannot come because they not have bus money,” explains those who have showed up.
It’s obvious that our first order of business has to be to collect these twelve men’s EZ-Link cards and top up each with $10 of value. Hopefully, they will lend these cards to their co-workers tomorrow so that the others can come. For workers who are already broke, a simple thing like bus fare is critical, without which they can’t even make their way to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) or Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) for help.
Our social workers Kenneth Soh and Nor Karno then piece together their story. It goes like this:
They are part of a larger group of workers — at first they thought they numbered around 70, but by Friday, MOM confirmed a total of 109 — who were employees of Menton Technologies Pte Ltd [See footnote 1]. They tell us that most of their work involved installing cables for Singtel as part of the Open Net project. There were also other projects, e.g. at Marina Bay (or maybe it’s Marina Pier) subway station.
However, Menton does not work directly under Singtel. Menton is a subcontractor for Ntegrator (Singtel’s key contractor for Open Net), which allegedly has not paid Menton for work done. According to the workers, Menton’s managing director Steven Wee recently told them that Ntegrator owes Menton $1.4 million. The workers add that Wee even suggested that the workers show up at Ntegrator’s door to help ask for payment if they hope to see their salaries. TWC2 quickly quashes it: It’s a bad idea and you can get into trouble, we tell the group present.
Every worker we see tells us that he has not been paid at all for the months of September, October and the early part of November 2013. Moreover, they have not received any overtime pay since the beginning of 2013 — that’s ten months’ worth, at least. Some of the workers, who have been with the company since 2012, add that during the last quarter of 2012, they weren’t paid properly calculated salaries either. They only received “salary advances” of a few hundred dollars each which were well short of what they think should be the correct amount. [See footnote 2]
With such a large group of workers, there is considerable variation as to how much each is owed. The handful who were in relatively senior positions, drawing higher basic salaries (and therefore entitled to a higher overtime rate) could be owed as much as $10,000. Those who joined the company only in the middle of 2013 at lower basic salaries (e.g. $468 a month) may be owed about $2,500.
TWC2 estimates that in total, the company probably owes these 109 workers about $300,000 to $400,000, or averaging $3,000 to $4,000 per worker.
At the end of October, the company posted lists of names they wanted to terminate and repatriate. The management told the workers that the company didn’t need so many employees any more. As for what they are owed, the company offered to pay these listed workers $500 each, with a promise to pay the balance at an undefined future date. The workers naturally felt this to be an unsatisfactory offer. After returning to Bangladesh, how much faith could they have that such a promise would be kept?
Starting around 7 November, a few of them, soon followed by others, made their way to the Ministry of Manpower to lodge salary complaints. They were informed that actually, their work permits had already been “revoked” because their employer had not paid the levy for the past three months. “MOM say must stop work,” Rony Khan tells TWC2, “because work permit revoke already.”
They were given an appointment date with the MOM’s case officer for Wednesday 20 November.
On Tuesday (19 November), MOM told them that the appointment was cancelled; instead, case officer Goh Kok Beng made his way to the dormitory in Toh Guan Road East to talk to the gathered workers (Tuesday morning). There, he told the workers that the boss will try to obtain the necessary cash flow to pay them before the end of the month. But if this fails, then MOM will activate “insurance”. [See footnote 3]
Goh told the gathered workers that they can expect to get 50, 60 or 70% of their owed salaries when the “insurance” is activated. How this estimate of percentages has been arrived at is unclear because at this point in time, the workers have not yet calculated how much they are owed.
Goh told the workers that they could look for transfer jobs. Those who have worked less than six months with Menton would be allowed to switch to a transfer job without having to first go back to Bangladesh, but those who have been here more than six months, even if they could find a transfer job, would have to go home and then fly back to Singapore again. [See footnote 4]
TWC2 social worker Kenneth Soh tells the group of twelve in our office that they need to be mentally prepared that even if they can find a transfer job, they may be asked to pay for it. Based on our experience, even if new bosses don’t mention money upfront, they often request for payment or deduct from salaries (perhaps $1,000) soon after new workers have joined the company. This is illegal but is a widespread practice which MOM is not cracking down on. Part of the problem is because MOM has no formal and advertised whistle-blower protection scheme, without which no worker would complain even if he is being victimised.
Calculating overtime pay that is owed
Our white board is rolled out into our main room and TWC2 social worker Karno sets about teaching the twelve workers how to calculate their owed overtime pay.
More workers stream in, making the total today slightly more than twenty. Another round of EZ-Link cards collection and topping up is needed.
Around 4 pm, Kenneth notices that some of the men are quite listless. He asks: “Have you eaten today?” The men say they have not had breakfast or lunch; nothing’s been provided at the dorm. Christine Scully, our Admin Officer, swings into action, ordering buckets of KFC fried chicken. “Give us lots of chili,” she tells the KFC order-taker at the other end of the phone line.
Alex asks the men whether they want to talk to the media. They all say Yes. Alex gets on the phone to the Straits Times.
At some point, the men mention the plight of their co-workers who are staying in four Geylang shophouses. Through the telephone, they have heard that those in Geylang will be evicted either tonight or the next day.
Alex informs a senior official at MOM that about 30 men are about to be thrown out onto the streets. MOM promises to look into this, but the ministry’s reply gives Alex the impression that the ministry has not known about a Geylang group, let alone their impending homelessness — despite working on this case since the first complaint nearly two week before. Consistent with this, the men tell us that MOM case officer Goh Kok Beng only went to the Toh Guan dorm to talk them this morning. The Geylang workers missed out on that session. Perhaps MOM has no idea that there’s a group in Geylang?
Two workers whose command of English is best are appointed as “points of contact”, and are tasked with reaching out to other workers from the same company especially those in Geylang. We hope a batch or two from Geylang will get in touch with us tomorrow so that we can better understand the situation.
With such a large workforce, the men don’t all know each other. Also, they are sent to work at different sites. Unsurprisingly, they only have a vague idea of Menton’s total staff strength, which later turns out to be an underestimate.
These workers who have not received their salaries for the last quarter of 2012 are totally out of luck. MOM will refuse to help them, citing the ministry’s own internal policy — not stated in any law — that salaries owed more than 12 months are not recoverable.
Goh did not quite explain to the workers what insurance this is, although based on social workers’ experience, it is probably related to the $5,000 security bond placed by the employer for each foreign worker. MOM negotiates with the insurance company behind the banker’s guarantee and who is facing a risk of forfeiting the bond, to pay some portion of it out as goodwill to the worker. For example, out of the $5,000 at stake, the insurance company may agree to part with, say, $1,500 as goodwill money in order to get back $3,500 of the bond value. In TWC2’s view, this is a less-than-intelligent way of doing things. MOM should simply forfeit the whole $5,000 for each worker, pool the funds together and pay the workers all that they’re owed, up to the pooled total!
TWC2 does not agree with this policy. TWC2 has urged MOM to adopt as its policy a rule that all work permit holders have up to 60 days to look for transfer jobs when they exit a previous job. At the same time, MOM should tighten up on employers bringing in fresh, inexperienced workers, so that the more experienced workers have a better chance of securing a transfer job. Keeping experienced workers here complements Singapore’s aim to improve productivity.