By Eitan

After a year of volunteering, I can now spot a new guy at our soup kitchen with little difficulty. Unlike the ‘regulars’ who know the drill — present a meal card, sign into the registration book, get a token — and who also engage in some banter with TWC2 volunteers, the new ones look quite lost. Our location has no sign to tell any worker whom to approach or what to do.

“First time here?” I ask three men standing quietly by the side, each clutching some documents, not sure whether these will be in any way needed.

Yes. They say they are new. A friend told them about free meals at this place. Is this the right place?

“Are you working, or no more work?” I ask. TWC2’s meal programme is only for those who are out of work. And they don’t look injured to me, so it’s not immediately obvious that they’re unable to work.

But prompted by my question, they begin their tale of woe. It sounds like an interesting tale, so I ask them to come back to talk to me after they’ve had their dinner, leading them to the Cuff Road team to be registered and issued meal cards and meal tokens. TWC2 volunteers have very specific roles: writing volunteers like me don’t register workers and registration volunteers don’t interview and write.

The men want to talk more than they want to eat. They put off collecting their dinner from the counter — in any case it’s peak hour now and the dining room is full to bursting, no more seats — and come back to me to expand on their story.

Men queuing to collect their standard meal at TWC2's free meals programme

Men queuing to collect their standard meal at TWC2’s free meals programme

“Company close on September, day six,” says Hossen (left in top pic).  But before that, they had not been paid for three months. The last month for which they received their salary was May 2014. They’ve each worked two to three years with Hern Da Construction Pte Ltd, and everything went more or less smoothly. They got their wages on time and managed to send money home. Then things took a nosedive this year.


Downtown line

What caught my attention at the beginning was their mention that the projects the company was involved in included the Downtown Line. With the company in difficulty, “Now all project, I think stop,” says Hossen.

In June 2013, another construction company, Alpine Bau, declared itself bankrupt. Work on three Downtown Line stations near where I live, King Albert Park, Sixth Avenue and Tan Kah Kee, ground to a halt, and I observed that the worksites were mothballed for months after, while a new tender was called. With many Singaporeans complaining about a tight squeeze on trains, any delay to transport infrastructure development is a politically sensitive issue.

This time, however, it may not be as serious. It turns out a little further in the interview that Hern Da was not the main contractor and they were only working at one station location, a project site the men refer to as “Expo 93”. Samsung is the main contractor, the men inform me. With Hern Da filing for insolvency, there may be some disruption, but nothing as serious as happened when Alpine Bau collapsed.

Nonetheless, Hern Da is (or was) a big company. “Have 220 worker,” says Hassan Kamrul (right in top pic). He and his friends name four big projects that the 220 workers were deployed to: a condominium called Parc Olympia, a project at the National University of Singapore, a third project at Changi Prison, and “Expo 93”. These other projects may suffer delays too.


Partial settlement at best

“Company call meeting, all workers come,” says Hasan Kamrul. That was when they were all told the bad news. Many of them had anyway suspected that the company had financial troubles since they had not been paid for a few months. After receiving the bad news, the workers then went off to the Ministry of Manpower to lodge formal complaints.

Hossen says he is owed about $2,500 in unpaid salaries and $1,000 in “deposit money” or “savings money”– illegal deductions ($100 per month x 10 months) that the company made monthly from their pay packet. Hasan Mehedi (centre in top pic) estimates that he is owed about $2,100 for two months’ salary and $1,000 in “deposit money”. But with the company unable to pay, they were told by ministry officials that the best that can be done is to get the insurer behind the $5,000 security bond to cough up some money. They were advised that they shouldn’t expect more than 50 percent.

TWC2 does not understand why the ministry appears to be imposing on its own efforts a ceiling of 50 percent. As explained to me by TWC2 vice-president Alex Au, if one looks at the precise wording of the security bond, the entire sum can be forfeited when an employer fails to pay salary on time. Alex asked in a letter published in the Straits Times on 25 August 2014 (link) why MOM does not just forfeit the whole sum and pay the workers in full. In each of these three men’s cases, the $5,000 would comfortably cover all their outstandings. According to Alex, MOM has not responded to that pointed question.


Main contractor partially responsible for salary

Hasan Mehedi can count himself lucky anyway. The current amount owed to him ($2,100 + $1,000) has already been reduced from the original amount he was owed. This reduction came about when Samsung, the main contractor at Expo 93, paid him $1,700 in salary on behalf of his actual employer Hern Da. This is a remedy prescribed by section 65(1) and 65(1A) of the Employment Act.

The other two men however report that the main contractors at the sites they worked at  — Koh Brothers at Parc Olympia, and the Sembawang Group at Changi Prison — have not yet offered this remedy. They hope these main contractors will follow suit.


Accommodation an issue

rumman_siddik_khalilur_rahaman_2221aAll three guys are now worried about where they will stay. The dispute is going to take some time to resolve. They feel under pressure to accept the 50 percent settlement because they cannot be assured of being able to stay on in the company dormitory.

(Additional reporting by Alex): Rumman Siddik (pictured right) is already homeless. “Sleep at MRT station,” he says. He was unfortunate in that his Work Permit expired just days before Hern Da went belly up. Unsurprisingly, Hern Da was in no position by then to renew the permit. But the effect was that without a Work Permit, his dorm pass also could not be renewed when it too expired on 28 September.

“Now no room to stay,” he says. “Very big problem for me.”