By Isabel Chew
“Before I always think Singaporean very good but today I see I cannot take it lah. Because salary don’t give.”
As I wrap up my interview with Latif, the morose Bangladeshi worker shares with me his feelings about the seemingly hopeless situation. He has not been paid in three months, and is now facing a prickly quandary even as he has sought help from the Ministry of Manpower. He now finds himself stripped of his right to work in Singapore as his case makes its way through official channels. Upon lodging his salary complaint and having his Work Permit cancelled, the Ministry issued him with a Special Pass that specifically says he is “not allowed to engage in any form of employment”.
To make matters worse, Latif has doubts that he would ever see his money again.
He relates to me how he had first approached his boss for his salary back in May 2014: “May coming, I said, ‘Boss, salary give?’ He said next month, next month give.”
Later on, together with the other unpaid workers in the company, Latif confronted his boss again, only to be told that, “Now money anything don’t have. Now I take insurance money. Insurance can give money, I give you money. Insurance cannot give me money, I cannot give you money.”
With an elderly mom sick in hospital back in his home country, Latif grew desperate. “I talking to my boss, give me something money because my mother go hospital. Boss say, now I cannot help you because money don’t have. That’s why I crying already, I tell boss, okay you give me ticket go home. Boss say, ‘Now money don’t have [and that] after main company give me, then I give you.’”
After going for three months without pay, Latif finally filed a complaint with the Ministry of Manpower in July 2014. His employer turned up at the first meeting called by the ministry and promised to pay his workers their rightful salaries. However, not only did he fail to make good on his promise, he also did not show up at a second meeting with the ministry. Instead, the Manpower officer told Latif, “This month you must go back Bangladesh. If not going, your boss cannot give room, food also cannot give.” (See editorial comment below).
The sad truth is that Latif’s heartbreaking story does not begin from there. From the start, Latif was subjected to a series of undesirable conditions at work. In his thirteen months with the company, he was only allowed a grand total of five days of rest – three days during the Chinese New Year holidays, and another two days during the Hari Raya Puasa festivities.
He tells me, “Boss say must work everyday. Boss say cannot give rest. Some men some day fever, but boss also say cannot give rest.”
Latif also claimed that even in those months when he received his salary, he was getting less than what had been stated in his In-principle Approval for a Work Permit (IPA) — the document from MOM that he received while he was still in Bangladesh and which confirmed that a job awaited him in Singapore. While his IPA listed $1,600 as his basic monthly salary (which is equivalent to$67.13 per eight-hour day), he tells me he was actually paid only $26 a day.
As I wind down our interview, Latif adds, “Before, I always think MOM very stick [strict] but today I see, don’t have, because the law cannot help me.”
Not knowing what else to ask, or what to even say to the dejected man sitting before me, I finally ask Latif, “Are you angry?”
His reply: “No, no angry. Just very sad.”
Transient Workers Count Too holds the view that the present practice of the Ministry of Manpower — giving workers a deadline by which they must resolve a salary issue — unfairly nullifies workers’ right to justice. Telling workers that they must leave Singapore within mere weeks of lodging a salary complaint puts workers under immense pressure (often expressed in fairly strong words by supposedly neutral MOM officers themselves) to accept the settlement offers — if any — put forth by employers. These offers are often a small fraction of what the workers are owed.
Moreover, imposing a deadline on workers signals to employers that stonewalling may be a good strategy to employ.
Even when MOM extends the deadline, it often fails to address a related issue: workers need to have continuing employment to provide for themselves and their families. As it is, workers with salary complaints are precisely the ones who have not been paid and cannot be expected to have any savings to tide them over. TWC2 has long argued that workers should be free to seek new jobs while trying to resolve the salary issues from the old jobs.