By Peter Looker
Polash has no passport. He can’t go home. “My boss, he say passport lost.”
His previous boss at Timberlux International Pte Ltd claimed not to have the passport. “Boss alibaba,” Polash alleges, using the shorthand term widely understood among migrant workers to mean ‘untruthful’. What led up to this dispute has been written in Polash, Palus and their passports. In a nutshell, Polash explains it this way: “I claim against his name salary, that’s why no give passport”.
He complained to MOM about his boss not returning his passport and was advised to make a police report. That he did. “Police report also making”, he tells me, and “Police say never mind can write letter get new passport.”
He has also been to the Bangladesh High Commission, but was unable to pay for a new passport which costs about $200. Polash has not been working. And that’s the point of this story: he needs a job and a sufficient amount of money to be able to get a new passport. It may seem easy to report a passport lost and apply for a new one, but only if you have the resources to do so.
The Ministry of Manpower hasn’t been unhelpful. They gave Polash a list of five agents whom they said could help him find a six-month temporary job. Through one of them, he found a position as an electrician and painter with Goldtec Contract Services at a basic salary of $650 a month.
It lasted all of ten days.
These ten days included two Saturdays and two Sundays. He quit because the new boss refused to pay him the correct rate for overtime work. Under the law, the normal work week is 44 hours — 40 hours Monday to Friday plus 4 hours Saturday morning — and so he should be paid 1.5 times the basic hourly rate for further hours worked on Saturday afternoon, and twice the hourly rate for Sunday.
At first Polash assumed that this would be the case, but he didn’t know he was being short changed until he got his pay. “I money take first, then I know” he says to TWC2. He asked his boss about the overtime but, he said, “Boss say cannot”. So he is not going back.
On the one hand, he really needs work and income; on the other hand, this spunky young man has enough self-respect to not permit himself to be cheated again.
Polash hopes to go home to Bangladesh in two or three months, but cannot do so until he has a new passport.
He intends to go back to employment agents to seek a new job the day after I interview him. He is keen to work, but rightly knows what his work is worth in terms of salary. When asked if he feels angry about his situation, he says, “no angry with job, angry [with] boss.”
TWC2 finds it infuriating that employers who flatly refuse to abide by the law in paying correct salaries get away with their behaviour so easily. MOM may say that they will investigate if workers complain, but unless MOM itself finds the political will to enact rules that mandate detailed itemised payslips and giro payment, workers know that even if they complain, they won’t have any proof in hand to convince the ministry. What kind of incentive is that to workers to whistle-blow?
Secondly, when an employer, by flatly refusing to pay correct salaries, loses a worker who like Polash stands his ground, he suffers no inconvenience at all. Singapore’s open-door policy for employers to bring in fresh hires — even when loads of foreign workers already here and looking for jobs can’t find them — means that employers face no difficulty in replacing the worker who stands up for his rights. Not only is this open-door policy short-sighted in terms of the social costs produced and the injustice inflicted on workers, it encourages an attitude of law-breaking. When one employer gains a competitive advantage in having (illegally) lower payroll costs, it only pushes other otherwise honest employers to do the same. It’s a matter of business survival. This explains why contempt for salary laws is so widespread.