Around 20 November 2013, “MOM call all 30 men to [a] meeting,” says Ananth (not his real name).
I ask if the boss was present.
“No, not boss, but company driver [was] there.”
Held at the Bendemeer offices of the Ministry of Manpower, a ministry official addressed the men saying that they have received a complaint from one of their former co-workers about their employer charging him for renewing his work permit. MOM wanted to know if these assembled workers experienced the same.
Ananth recalls: “MOM officer say, ‘You must say truth, if you not say truth and later I find out, I will charge you in court.'”
I’m not sure how accurate Ananth’s recollection is of those words, but the gist of it is entirely plausible.
The background is like this: a co-worker, whose name he cannot remember, was injured in the leg by a forklift about five or six months ago. However, Ananth and other workers heard little about the case until they were suddenly called to MOM in November.
TWC2 vice-president Alex Au offers his educated guess about what might have happened. “More likely than not, this injured worker, in addition to lodging an injury compensation claim, also mentioned that he had been asked to pay for renewal of his work permit. This is illegal.”
With this lead, MOM probably launched an investigation.
After a brief discussion among themselves, the 30 workers assembled at MOM then told the ministry official that yes, they too had been charged for work permit renewal.
“I coming Singapore in 2011, month June,” Ananth explains to me. “In 2012 and this year, 2013, boss ask me pay renewal money.”
How much? I ask.
It was $700 each time, he says, and therefore he’s had $1,400 taken from him for two renewals. As far as he knows, other workers were charged the same rate, but since some have had only one renewal while others had more, the aggregate taken by the boss varied from case to case.
Ananth also mentions that MOM asked the boss to deliver to the ministry all the men’s passports, but a little later, they were returned to the company except for the passports of three men (including his). He cannot really explain what the passport movement was all about.
But that isn’t why he’s talking to Transient Workers Count Too. He’s talking to us because he’s out of a job now. His work permit has been cancelled and he’s been put on a Special Pass.
“Only three man call again to meeting this week at MOM,” he explains in our interview in early December. “MOM say our work permit cut already, but we can [look for] another job. If cannot find another job, MOM say they will find job for us.”
Apparently, they were told that they will need to stay in Singapore for at least six months. Ananth cannot understand why.
“It sounds as if MOM wants these three men to stay on as prosecution witnesses,” says Alex. MOM’s move is a “good sign,” he adds.
TWC2 would be pleased to see an employer prosecuted for taking kickbacks. Says Alex: “We’ve waited for a long time, argued ourselves hoarse, asking the ministry to take a stronger stand.”
Alex then patiently explains to Ananth what is likely to be going on, and how he may be asked by MOM to appear in court at a future date. Sensing a little anxiety on Ananth’s part, the TWC2 vice-president assured him that this doesn’t mean he has done anything wrong, and has nothing to fear. Just tell the truth, he is advised.
Nonetheless, Ananth’s problem is an immediate one: He has lost his job.
“There’s a bit of unfairness here,” adds Alex. “MOM should have ensured Ananth remains on the employer’s payroll until MOM can find a new job for him.” Since he has done nothing wrong, he shouldn’t be made to lose income just because MOM wants to cancel the work permit. The cancellation could have been delayed somewhat, suggests Alex.
Fortunately, in Ananth’s case, he’s not financially desperate yet. “Boss pay back $1,400,” he says. Some time after the large meeting at MOM, the employer made restitution to all the men.
The situation for the remaining 27 men is in a state of flux. Ananth is unable to tell us whether they are able to continue working for this employer or whether they too will have to look for new jobs.
It is possible that since the employer made restitution quickly, MOM allowed him to keep these 27 workers and not cancel their work permits. Otherwise, observes Alex. “his construction projects might grind to a halt.” It’s better for the workers too if they are not thrown out of their jobs.
But we don’t know if this is what is really happening. TWC2 will monitor the situation and look out for further news of the prosecution.