By Eugene Teo
Many migrant workers see working in Singapore as a breadwinning opportunity, but is it really? Uddin Mohi, 23, will probably tell you there are huge risks.
Uddin worked at a painting and plastering company, S.A.E. & C (S) Pte Ltd, from April 2015 till November 2015. Of the eight months that he spent working there, he wasn’t paid for six of them.
This is most certainly not a common employment practice — to withhold salaries for so long. He wasn’t the only one who faced this problem though, as he recounted that there were more than 30 colleagues in the same situation.
To my surprise however, Uddin tells me that only four of the employees (him included) have complained to Ministry of Manpower (MOM) so far. Explaining why such a small number of workers has chosen to complain, he says: “The rest, newer workers. They scared boss ask them go airport, go home”.
The fear of repatriation among migrant workers in Singapore is clearly very real, and for good reason too. They have paid handsome sums of money to to get their jobs, and they would suffer a tremendous loss if, by lodging a complaint with the authorities, they if have to go home without having earned enough to recoup the sum. No doubt, they aren’t recouping anything even now if the employer isn’t paying their salaries, but by staying in the job, they keep their hopes alive that one day they might be paid.
Uddin lodged his complaint on 13 November 2015. MOM then set up meetings between Uddin and the company, and served as the mediator. Through the four or five that took place, the man in charge of the company never once showed up. Instead, he delegated that task to one of his subordinates, who had little to no knowledge about the situation. This made mediation almost impossible.
With no settlement reached, the complaint was moved on to the Labour Court. There, the judge found in favour of Uddin, and issued an order to the company to pay up.
Labour Court orders don’t always mean much. It’s a paper victory for many because there is no practical enforcement mechanism. If a company is insolvent and going out of business anyway, it will likely ignore these orders. Many workers receive nothing despite having a Labour Court order in hand.
Uddin’s fate hung in the balance. Would the company pay up?
All seemed well early April 2016. Uddin received a cashier’s order for the amount as ordered by the Labour Court. He went to a bank to encash it. To his utter disbelief, the staff at the counter informed him that the cheque could not be deposited, because he did not have an account.
Our editor at TWC2, Alex Au shares his thoughts on this matter: “What went wrong was that the company issued Uddin a cashier’s order, yet stamped it with the term Not negotiable, A/C payee only.” This meant that the money must be deposited into an account, and cannot be redeemed in cash. Uddin didn’t have an account, so the cheque was a good as useless.
Uddin went to MOM to seek help on 6 April. The attending MOM officer told Uddin to come back for a new cheque in a few days’ time.
The few days stretched to nearly two anxious weeks. As of the date of the interview, he is still waiting. Everything he had fought for, the very cheque he had held for a precious few days, seems all but lost once again. He looks defeated, disappointed at how the situation is panning out for him.
I ask him why he decided to fight for his unpaid wages, and didn’t the prospect of being repatriated terrify him. “I scared,” he admits, his eyes glistening, “but mother no good (in health), so must get money send back. Mother die, money also no use!” I can’t help but feel moved.
Three days after the interview, he receives a new cheque. It is quickly banked in and Uddin can breathe easy once more.
Says Alex: “TWC2 is very happy for him. He’s one of the lucky ones where the Labour Court order is honoured by the employer. If only we have more of such outcomes!”
But what about the other 30 workers in the same company? Are they still working for no pay?