By Samantha Ege
Information is what opens the door to knowing our rights, exploring our options and making conscious decisions. Yet, information is something that we do not always have. In the absence of information, our rights can seem invalidated, our options unclear and our decisions not so concrete. In the absence of information, we are vulnerable.
Many transient workers find themselves in this position of vulnerability, especially when it comes to matters of finance. When seeking to recover the unpaid salaries they are owed, some wait naively in the hope that before they return to their home countries, Boss Brother will remain true to his word, Company Madam will return the phone calls, lawyers will step in and the money will appear. The last assumption is a prevalent one.
The lawyers that are keenest to take on injury compensation claims generally aren’t interested in helping workers with salary claims. However, many workers mistakenly assume that the lawyer will deal with all the issues they face including unpaid salaries, not realising that it is their responsibility and nobody else’s to lodge a claim with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Sadly, there are those who only realise this after the twelve-month window for claims has firmly closed.
Fortunately, Md Miganur Rahman isn’t among them, though it is several months into his injury case before the construction worker, who is currently unemployed after a long period of medical leave, learns about the 12-month rule for the first time. A senior member of TWC2 gives him the information with an urgency reflective of the fact there is no time to waste.
‘You must claim now,’ Miganur is instructed.
A clueless and confused look befalls him. He has no idea that he can complain directly to MOM. He thinks he has tried everything: “every month talking talking, calling calling, I ask ‘Boss brother give’… [but] Company Madam say ‘sign first, after next time I give’. Every day, tomorrow, talking…but money no give.’ This pattern has unfolded over the course of six months and centres around Miganur pursuing the sum of $1,400 from his July and September salary. It is now April. In another three to five months, his claim will be invalid.
The Employment Act is meant to protect workers. Among its clauses is one that says salaries must be paid by the seventh day of the following month. Breach of this legal obligation is an offence. And employees who don’t get their salaries on time can report their cases to MOM for investigation. But are all migrant workers aware of this information? Or is this the more pertinent question: Are are all migrant workers aware of this information but even more fearful of the wider repercussions of reporting Boss Brother and Company Madam?
Singapore law also allows employers to terminate any employee without need to provide a reason. Workers who have paid job agents thousands of dollars would not want to lose their jobs. Complaining to MOM would almost certainly trigger exactly that eventuality.
In Miganur’s case, that eventuality has come to pass anyway. He lost his job after the work accident. While for him there are no more repercussions to fear from lodging a complaint at MOM, what has held him back is the absence of information.
Miganur now has the information he needs to officially put forward a claim for his $1,400. Furthermore, he has the Employment Act behind him, which affirms his rights and illuminates his options. To a certain extent, there comes a sense of security in knowing that there is a clear decision to be made: either he lodges his claim, or he doesn’t. But this is just one small element in a larger predicament: he is injured, unable to work, yet desperate to work. Beyond recovering past dues, he has no present income. He is not even close to recovering the $16,000 of agents fees paid in Bangladesh to secure employment (twice) in Singapore.
His vulnerability remains — as is the case with all migrant workers here.