It is normal procedure for the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to require employers to hand over foreign workers’ passports when employees have made salary complaints. “Today, MOM officer call two times to him (the boss),” Polash tells TWC2. “MOM officer give him up to 2pm to bring passports.”
But it was well after 2pm before the boss’ son returned MOM’s call. According to Polash (right, in pic above), the officer told him that the company claimed they didn’t have his passport. So, “MOM ask me to make police report.”
Polash could not believe it was really misplaced since one or two days earlier, the boss had indicated he had the passport with him. Polash tells TWC2 that in that discussion about sending him home, “Boss say, ‘I give you passport and airticket together’,” along with the owed salary. Employees have learnt from bitter experience to see this as bait, where employers offer to pay up at the airport itself, minutes before the worker has to board the plane. Workers like Polash are acutely aware that there is a high chance that at the airport itself, the money presented will fall far short of what they’re owed, yet by then, they may not have much freedom of manoeuvre to reject the reduced sum.
Polash refused the offer and insisted that the matter be resolved through MOM. Thus, MOM asked the employer Timberlux International to hand over his passport.
“How can boss man say he have passport, and then next day say he don’t have passport?”, asks Polash rhetorically.
Polash protested to the case officer at MOM that the employer definitely had his passport. Further enquires were made, and Polash was then informed by the officer that his boss explained the loss this way: Soon after arriving in Singapore in early December 2013, Polash and another new employee Mahabub were sent to MOM for thumbprinting — in order to make their new work permits. They were brought there by the company driver. After thumbprinting, the driver collected Polash’s and Mahabub’s passports to take back to the company office. Apparently, the boss told MOM that the driver had run away with the passports. Polash didn’t hear the boss say this directly, but heard it through the MOM case officer.
Polash thinks this is totally unbelievable. “Mahabub, he go home already. How come when he go home time, company can give him back his passport?”
“If lorry driver that day steal the passports, then how company can give Mahabub back his passport later?”
Palus (left in photo above) is Polash’s co-worker. He too lodged a salary complaint with MOM over the same employer. The boss told MOM too that the company didn’t have Palus’ passport because Palus had never deposited it with them. Not only does Palus think it is a completely incredible coincidence that his passport is also ‘lost’, he is absolutely sure that the reason given by the employer to MOM is incorrect.
Says Palus, who joined the company about two weeks after Polash and whose thumbprinting was thus on a different day: “For thumbprint, Robin (the boss’ son) call me to go office to collect passport. I go myself to thumbprint. Then, about 4:30 pm, I go back to the office in Kallang Pudding, and I myself give passport to Robin. I also give him MOM paper.”
“How can Robin now say, ‘you no give’?”
Palus too has lodged a police report over the missing passport.
Scrawny Polash is unusually self-confident and vocal. Partly, it may be because he’s been with TWC2 before, knows where to get help and knows his rights. It shows in the quick resort to official processes almost as soon as he smells something fishy about salary payments. This is something that TWC2 tries to convince many other workers who, by contrast, continue working for months without being paid, just hoping for the best, only to run up owed payment amounting to thousands of dollars.
Polash and Palus joined this company only in December 2013. The first sign of trouble was when the January salaries were delayed till early March. As at 20 March 2014 — the date of the interview — the February salaries have not yet been paid.
Then at the start of March, “Boss say only he can sign time card, not any other person,” says Palus — which was fair enough, except that the time cards were not signed at all. “But if time card no sign, then salary how?”
Around 14 March, Palus heard about termination and repatriation plans. According to Palus, this was followed by even more sinister news — although it is hard to be sure he heard correctly. “Boss tell supervisor Allaur Rahaman that he planning to tell MOM we all run away in March and working outside, so he will cancel work permits and block us from coming back.” To Palus, this seems to explain why time cards were not signed even though they were faithfully working.
He and Polash then decided to go to MOM straight away. They also came to TWC2 right after.
Late March, the company made offers to Polash and Palus that the two men deemed acceptable. Polash received about $1,500 and Palus received about $1,300.
With TWC2’s help, Polash calculated that he was owed about $2,500, but he told the company he would accept $2,000. However, “company give only $1,500 because Sunday not count.”
“Cannot 100% sure remember which Sunday I work, and which Sunday I not work. This problem because no time card.”
MOM has also permitted the men to seek six-month jobs under its Temporary Jobs Scheme.
They have yet to get their passports back.