By Lucas Ho

Selvam (not his real name) rests his head, heavy with worry, in his hand. “I very worry,” he says. “So many nights I cannot sleep.”

He knows about a recent the report in the Straits Times: “22 Indian nationals charged for false declaration of salaries,” ran the headline in the Straits Times on 19 February 2014. Ten of these 22 pleaded guilty and were fined $5,000 to $7,000 each. However, as they were unable to pay the fines, they were jailed five to seven weeks in lieu.

Selvam fears his turn is coming next. “Altogether, 230 man” are being investigated by the Ministry of Manpower, and like them, he and his friend Vasu (not his real name) had also worked in a 7-Eleven convenience store. However, their employer was a company with a different name, probably a franchisee or a manpower supply company – the men aren’t quite sure which.

Vasu, looking equally worried, protests their innocence. “How we know salary not real? Agent say our salary $4,000, so we accept the job.”

The agent that they dealt with was based in India, and negotiations took place there. Never having been to Singapore before, Selvam and Vasu had no reason to believe that the promised salary was vastly inflated.

According to the Straits Times story, the 22 men brought to court had made declarations to the Ministry of Manpower as to their salaries, knowing that the figures were false.

The 10 workers from Vina Trading pleaded guilty to the charges on Tuesday. Investigations showed they had received the declared salaries through their GIRO accounts. However, they withdrew cash ranging from $600 to $3,350 – the difference between their declared and actual salaries – and refunded it to their boss.

– Straits Times, 19 Feb 2014, 22 Indian nationals charged for false declaration of salaries

Selvam and Vasu – their employer was not Vina Trading but a different company – say it was only after they had started working that they were told to withdraw over $2,700 monthly from their bank accounts, returning the money to their boss. Asked why they didn’t lodge a complaint immediately with the Ministry of Manpower, “If we complain, boss will send [us] home,” says Vasu. “We pay agent about $8,000 for job,” and couldn’t afford to lose it.

That seems like a lot of money for an agent’s fee, but the agent had told them that since the salary ($4,000) was so good, $8,000 was not only a reasonable fee, it was an amount they could recover in a short time.

I do a quick calculation. If it’s the same agent bringing in 230 workers and if he charged them each $8,000, he’d have made $1.8 million dollars.

The press report mentions that MOM will also be taking action against the employers and employment agents involved. However, it’s not clear how MOM can prosecute the agents since, as Selvam and Vasu say, they are in India.

Notwithstanding that, Vasu and Selvam are in a deep hole. Their only hope is to convince the ministry that they had no prior knowledge that the $4,000 salary was falsely inflated. But how does one prove the negative?

“I only working here six month,” says Selvam. In these six months, “I not even get $8,000 in salary,” nett of what he had to return to his boss, stressing how he has not managed to recoup the placement fee. Now, not only has he lost his job, “I very worry about jail, if cannot prove.”

A week later, I meet Karu (not his real name). Unlike Selvam and Vasu, Karu insists that his salary really was “over $4,000 a month”. But Karu too worked as a sales clerk at a 7-11. Although it is not my position to judge, nonetheless it is hard to imagine how a convenience store can remain profitable at such salary levels.

Perhaps he worked extremely long hours? It didn’t seem to be the case. “One day, eight hours,” is how Karu describes his typical schedule. “Sometimes, twelve hours,” when the store was short of staff.

Karu justifies his salary on the basis that he is a graduate in Business Studies from a “good” college. He says his certificate is real, unlike another press report a few days earlier. This time,

Twenty-five foreign employees have been sentenced to jail between four to 12 weeks for submitting forged academic certificates to obtain work passes to work in Singapore. . . . The accused persons obtained forged academic certificates in their home countries . . . MOM discovered that the certificates were forged following checks with the relevant certificate issuing institutions and respective foreign government departments.

– Channel NewsAsia, 21 Feb 2014, 25 foreign workers jailed for forged academic certificates

Of these 25 workers, sixteen came from Myanmar, seven from India and two from the Philippines. Four were women, the rest, men. However, nothing in the press report suggested that they worked at 7-11’s, so it’s probably just coincidence that this batch too went to court in the same week as the other 22.

I mention Selvam, Vasu and Karu to Alex Au, vice-president of TWC2, and ask him what TWC2 does for these men.

“Not a lot,” is his reply. “There’s no reason to think that MOM’s investigations aren’t fairly conducted; there’s no evidence we know of that we need to draw MOM’s attention to.” If the men come to TWC2 for advice, it’s mostly going to be about what their options are, and the upsides and downsides of each.

“But these cases do remind us that the recruitment process on the other side of the ocean is terribly messy and prone to misrepresentation and cheating.”He explains that some agents act on their own, while others act in cahoots with employers desperate for staff. But most, whether in India or in Singapore, find it only too tempting to make money off workers from agent’s fees or kickbacks.”

As for these cases where employers apply for S-Passes and Employment Passes for low-level jobs, Alex wonders, “Was MOM too quick in processing these applications?” It might have saved taxpayers money if diligent checks were made before the passes were approved, he suggests, rather than investigate months after the workers came in, and then spending time and expense hauling them to court.

Rejecting fraudulent applications at the outset may also save these workers from having to pay $8,000 in agent’s fees upfront. “As things are,” he adds, “the agents in India may be laughing all the way to the bank while these 7-Eleven workers face the prospect of prison.”