A large group of workers from Genius Engineering approached TWC2 for help over salary non-payment. Volunteer Meera Rajah meets two of them.
By Meera Rajah
“Next week… next week… wait”, Rafiqul and Hossain are now – unfortunately – accustomed to this unvarying refrain. It has been three months and four days since they last received their pay. Rafiqul’s eyes are weary. He stares, downcast, at the floor; his posture slouched. He had been promised $24 a day as basic salary, though he also put in many hours of overtime. He was supposed to receive his pay on the fifth day of each month.
Rafiqul worked ten months for the electrical subcontractor before he was abruptly told that it would be closing that week. Hossain had been there for slightly longer. Slightly over a year had elapsed since he first began work; he has even had his work permit renewed just recently. However, understanding the old adage that ‘everything comes at a price’, he had little choice but to agree to deductions totalling $1,500 (three monthly instalments of $500 each) for the ‘privilege’ of a renewal. At the time, he was not aware that this was an illegal practice. If there is a silver lining to the company winding up, it is that “boss” only managed to deduct $500 of the total amount from his payroll so far.
Twenty-three of Rafiqul and Hossain’s fellow workmen have nearly identical salary claims. [Editor’s note: Subsequent to this interview, more workers from the same company showed up at TWC2 — the total reaching 44]. Each of the 25 men has had no source of income for the same unhappy three months. The men rallied together to ask “boss”, clinging on to a glimmer of hope that the dispute could be resolved with clarity and finality – preferably without inciting any acrimony from “boss”. He echoed the refrain that they were now wearily well-acquainted with, “next week… next week… wait”. Each time he was asked, the promised date changed: “Wait… Date 5… Date 8… Date 20”, Hossain recounts, smiling bitterly. “Boss ‘ali-baba-ed’”, he concludes, drawing on a slang term the workers often use to describe insincerity.
The men’s lack of financial security has made it difficult for them to go about their daily lives. As crude as it may sound, it is undeniable that money is an integral part of our existence. Their situation is aggravated by the fact that they have been denied certain basic necessities that an employer is, by law, legally bound to provide, inter alia, food and medical treatment. While the men are still staying in company quarters along Balestier Road, they report that catering arrangements have been cancelled. No meals are being delivered any more. Recently, Hossain had to seek medical help for a fever. When he returned to his supervisor with the $50 bill, he was denied reimbursement. “Supervisor just say, ‘company don’t pay money’”, he recalls, with an edge of despair.
When the workers approached the Ministry of Manpower, the were given the bad news confirming that the company was closing. According to Hossain, MOM officials then helped by pushing the contractor superior to Genius, Propell Integrated Pte Ltd, to pay a significant amount of owed payments to Genius, but their most recent news is that even though Propell had transferred the money to Genius, Genius is still telling MOM that it had no money to pay the men the salary arrears.
At the most recent MOM meeting, MOM told Rafiqul, Hossain and their fellow workmen that the ‘insurance company’ would compensate them for fifty-percent of the amount owed. As of now, they cling to the hope that something will emerge from this and that they’d eventually get a good part of their salaries paid. Hope seems to be the only constant in their lives.
[Editor’s note: A week after this interview, the ‘insurance’ solution promoted by MOM would turn out to be miserly — well below fifty percent. It was rejected by nearly all the men as a totally inadequate offer. Separate story follows.]