By Ashley Frois
Salary disputes and unpaid wages are, unfortunately, common issues plaguing our foreign workers, but Shoriful Islam’s case stands out in particular. He and his colleagues are seasoned workers in Singapore, but on arrival earlier this year for their current job, were forced to sign empty salary vouchers. They knew this was irregular, but refusing to sign would put them in an impossible financial predicament.
Adding salt to injury, they were subsequently paid incorrect salaries for a few months before the employer stopped paying them altogether.
I met Shoriful, a Bangladeshi worker, at Isthana Restaurant, where he had come with a complaint against his employer, PCG Wiley Construction Pte. Ltd. They have not paid him and several other colleagues since July.
He and four colleagues, who have come with him to Isthana Restaurant, grab seats and join Alex and me around a table. They start clamouring to explain that they have not been paid in two months, and Alex tries to organise them to establish the basic details of what had happened. The group quietens, and Shoriful and his friend begin explaining the predicament they are in.
The company they are working for is a manpower supply company with no projects of its own, but has over 60 workers that it seconds to various projects of other contractors.
They tell us that in their In-Principle Approval (IPA), they were contracted for a basic salary of $650 a month. Alex picks up on this and immediately asks them how much they were actually paid — in the months that they were paid — to which they reply that it was $22 per day. Alex quickly informs them that this is not the right amount, as according to the Ministry of Manpower’s guidelines, their basic wage based on the IPA-stipulated monthly salary should be $27.27 per day. They take note of this, and begin to elaborate on their hirer, PCG Wiley Construction.
In any case, according to Shoriful and his colleagues, the salaries stopped coming after July.
As an aside, Shoriful adds that, while this is not his first time in Singapore, he came to work for this company this February. However when he arrived, he was not given any work, and consequently was told that he was not entitled to salary, for the first 19 days.
“This is not correct either,” Alex informs me. “MOM rules state very clearly that work permit holders, as these men are, must be paid at least their basic salaries even if their employer does not assign them any work.”
Shoriful’s friend then begins to describe a very peculiar issue with how the salaries were handled in the company. He explains that when they started work, they were forced to sign and add their thumbprints to 12 or 24 blank monthly salary vouchers (the number varied from man to man). Naturally, they refused, but their boss, Raju, had threatened to forcefully send them back to Bangladesh. “He say he gangster, got gangster, beat us and [send us] back to Bangladesh,” adds Shoriful.
Shoriful’s friend mentions that he had secretly taken an audio recording of the whole encounter, as he had unsurprisingly become suspicious when asked to sign blank salary vouchers. He offers his mobile phone and headphones, and I put on them on to listen to the exchange between him and Raju.
It began with an agitated Raju, who was getting increasingly frustrated with Shoriful and his colleagues who were unwilling to sign the blank vouchers. “This is a new method,” Raju said, claiming that signing the vouchers was a necessary part of the auditing process in Singapore. “You know what is IRS? You know what is income tax anot,” I heard Raju asking them in the audio playback, possibly in an attempt to complicate the matter and scare the workers. Raju claimed that the vouchers would be sent to IRS first, and that he would get them back and show them to the workers.
I then hear Shoriful’s friend, speaking directly but softly into the recording, explaining for the record this thoughts: “I scared,” I hear him say in the recording, “I never get salary, [if] I never write.”
I stop listening to the recording, and the workers explain that they ultimately signed the vouchers fearing violence and gangsters from Raju. Besides, what else were they to do?
Work then went on normally for a few months, albeit being paid less than the correct amount according to MOM formula. Strangely, each month that salary was paid (while salary was paid), Raju would provide them with another salary voucher, this time filled in with the amount he was paying them, and he would make them sign these vouchers again.
For the last two months however, the workers were not paid, and have recently come to TWC2 to seek help. TWC2 social worker Louis is assisting them.
A more urgent issue is that they are being chased out of their company accommodation. TWC2 has told them to bring this to MOM’s attention since by law employers must house their workers till the case is fully resolved and they are repatriated or transfered to a new employer.
Coming back to the salary issue, Shoriful elaborates that Raju’s excuse for not paying them is that he has no more money. But Shoriful’s friend adds that he does not believe that, as Raju still drives a car, which he believes is a Mercedes.
They named their “agent” as Razak, a fellow Bangladeshi supposedly working in Singapore under a Work Permit. “He no working,” Shoriful’s friend says, “only talking, talking, take money.” He was the one who lined up the PCG jobs for them and collected about $3000 to $3500 from each of the workers.
He promised them electrical jobs, as Shoriful and his colleagues are electricians by training. When asked what work they were actually made to do after joining PCG, they add indignantly, “carry rebar”, indicating menial labour. They are furious at Razak.
Since Razak has such a close working relationship with their boss Raju, they also suspect that Raju takes a cut of the amounts they’ve paid Razak.
The group then gets up from the table where we are seated, and heads into the restaurant to get their dinner. They have already been to MOM, but the case isn’t settled just yet (at the time of interview). They have another appointment coming up soon.
They return to the table after getting their food, and we say our goodbyes. I continue chatting with Alex, but before long two other workers turn up, also from PCG Wiley Construction. Colleagues of Shoriful, he had pointed these two over to where we were sitting.
We explain that we’ve heard the story from the previous group, and we briefly cover what was discussed and ask them to meet up with Shoriful to hear all the details about correct salary calculation.
But one of them says something that perhaps was the most poignant line of the entire evening.
“I go Singapore jail better, [if] I go back people hit me,” he says, making a chopping action with his hand to the back of his neck.
Left in Singapore with no work, no pay, and saddled with the debt caused by the agent’s fees, he would rather be jailed here for overstaying and working illegally than to return home and face his moneylenders empty-handed.
Says Alex: “The law may say that workers should be repatriated when their jobs come to an end, even a premature end as in this case. But law cannot operate in total disregard of social and economic reality. If we try to force law upon this backdrop, it will be seen as unrealistic, ineffective and worst of all, inhumane.
“The better approach is to review the law and the regulatory system we have in place to avoid having these problems of high agent fees – the trap they are in – in the first place.”
On 29 April 2015, Kamruzzaman (above picture, right) and Monir Uddin, both ex-PCG Wiley, informed TWC2 that they were going home to Bangladesh the following day. Six months after lodging their unpaid-salary claims, they have received nothing by way of settlement.
They added that “MOM say they no catch boss.” While this can mean one of two things — either the Ministry of Manpower was unable to locate the employer, or that they have decided not to prosecute the employer — it is probably the former since the men added that their airtickets were being paid for by MOM, not the employer. This indicates that “no catch boss” probably means that the boss has completely ignored the ministry and has vanished.