The Online Citizen carried a lengthy report, 22 Nov 2013, on the case of about 100 Bangladeshi employees of Menton Technologies who are owed salaries and overtime by their employer. See The report pointed out that the company had been in the news before over a similar issue — not paying its workers.

Even while salaries and overtime are complained about, the issues of where to sleep for the night and who would supply meals were equally urgent.

They are put up in dormitories in Jurong East and in Geylang. The workers housed in Geylang told The Online Citizen (TOC) that their boss had failed to pay the rental, resulting in them being threatened with eviction by the landlord. After TWC2 stepped in, the workers now say the rent is paid up and they are allowed to stay, but no one knows for how much longer. Meals too had to be fought for, after TWC2 informed the MOM that these needed to be catered for too – as the workers, in the meantime, sought resolution to their pay disputes.

The workers also mentioned to Andrew Loh, reporting for The Online Citizen, that

deductions were made from their salaries for loans which the workers allegedly took from the company. The workers deny that they had taken such loans.

The article also pointed to the lack of social support for workers in distress, e.g. provision of housing while they stay to look for transfer jobs, and compensation for unpaid salaries.

What are needed are concrete, long-term strategies to nip such problems in the bud once and for all.

One suggestion which have been made is to set up a fund, call it the Foreign Workers Fund, with contribution from the levy collected.

In 2010, the total levy collected was S$1.9 billion.

In 2011, it was S$2.5 billion.

The Acting Manpower Minister explained in 2012 that “foreign worker levies are not ringfenced for any specific purposes.”

Why not use part of it to protect vulnerable workers?

The Online Citizen reported that Open Net — the affected workers were involved in laying fibre cables for this project — had just been fined $750,000 for failing to meet standards. That’s how cash is drained from the owners and contractors for this project, contributing to the cash flow crisis, and leading to non-payment of salaries.

The Straits Times carried a shorter report, 23 Nov 2013. Headlined ‘Workers claim firm owes them $400k in wages’ (imaged above), it leads by saying that “MOM [is] helping Bangladeshis in 2nd such case against the telecoms subcontractor”.

Straits Times tried to contact Steven Wee, the boss of the employer company, but was unsuccessful. Quoting two workers,

Mr Mohd Al Mamum Mohd Abul Hossain Munshi, 31, said Mr Wee has been avoiding his calls and text messages. “I asked him about our salary but he says he is in a meeting and has no time to talk.”

Added Mr Rahad Munshi Mohd Year Ali Munshi, 23: “I think boss has money problems. He is always late in paying salary.”

Straits Times asked TWC2 vice-president Alex Au how such situations may be better handled.

But TWC2 vice-president Alex Au wants additional measures and calls for an insurance scheme that would ensure foreign workers get the salaries they are owed even if their employers are bankrupt.

“Firms should be made to pay premiums every month for this insurance scheme. This will ensure workers can get compensated and not go home empty-handed,” said Mr Au.

The newspaper didn’t have space for a further elaboration on this. TWC2 pointed out that the insurer should still have recourse to claw back the paid-out monies from the employer so that there is no moral hazard. The key difference is that whereas a worker may not be able to stay on in Singapore to participate in or wait out civil suits or the liquidation of the company, and does not have the financial means to hire lawyers — both factors effectively deny him of his rights — an insurer can and does. That is why having such a salary insurance arrangement is important.

More details on the Menton Technologies case can be found on this website, starting with the story Menton diary, part 1.