By Saw Suhui

Though armed with a set of court papers that ruled in their favour, Debnath Prantush and Islam Mohammed Shafiqul still could not see the light at the end of the tunnel, and had to approach TWC2 for help.

They were colleagues a few months ago but together they left the company because they had not been paid for about four months. Failure to pay salaries on time is against the law.

sunrise_universal_9897Their case reached the Ministry of Manpower’s Labour Court which ruled found in their favour (click thumbnail at right).  However, the process took several months, causing them lost time and opportunity costs.

Here was what went down:

From November 2015 to February 2016, both the workers did not receive their salaries. When they first inquired about their salary, they learned that their boss was not in Singapore. Nonetheless they got word from the boss assuring them that he would be back to Singapore soon, and would then give them their backpay. Taking the boss at his word, they stayed at work.

The wait for the boss stretched on.

They then turned to the boss’ business partner for their salaries. He told them he “don’t know anything”, later letting in on the news that the company had “a little bit of a problem”.

In February this year, Prantush and Shafiqul stopped working. They waited a month more for the boss (who still had not returned to Singapore) to fulfill his promise. Finally, they lodged a complaint at the Ministry of Manpower in March, launching a process that eventually led to a Labour Court judgement in their favour.

The company still didn’t pay up, and to their dismay, they are now discovering that there is no effective enforcement mechanism.

MOM’s advice was to apply at a Magistrate’s Court for a Writ of Seizure and Sale — but there is a catch. They have to pay upfront fees for that, in the order of thousands of dollars. The end result cannot be assured, which is to say, getting back their money is not even a real possibility.

In the midst of all these problems, Shafiqul sounds tired and defeated, as says he sees the money “go far far far”. “Still we pay house rent, food money,” he explains their predicament woefully. And we all know that these things don’t come cheap in Singapore.

While it may be unfortunate that both of them had worked for a company that was in trouble, and one may say it was down to pure bad luck, what seriously compounded this situation was the fact that they were not allowed to work while waiting for the issue to be settled. MOM’s own regulations forbid workers from changing jobs without the employer’s consent which, in this case, is hardly realistic since they are in dispute with the company. Neither do they have permission from MOM itself to look for new jobs either. This predicament has caused them another four months without income, and yet they have to pay the expenses of living in Singapore.

Regarding this, I approached TWC2 volunteer Alex to explain the stance of the organisation. Leaving aside the problem of a lack of a practical, affordable enforcement mechanism, he said, “The most basic solution is this: every worker should be free to change job without permission from MOM or their existing employer.”

Alex puts it into perspective as he uses the example of a Singaporean worker, “If this had happened to a Singaporean, he could have left the company in the first or second month.” Indeed, he could also immediately get a new job and in a month or two, he would have been able to find one and probably more than make up for the bad luck of working in a failing company.

There are two main reasons that TWC2 urges for such as change in the system. Firstly, if a company fails to pay salaries, employees would, by the second or third month, quit and look for a new jobs. That way, they won’t accumulate so much in terms of owed salary and don’t lose so much too.

Secondly, any company who knows that workers can change jobs anytime they are denied their salaries will then take better care of their workers and be less likely to delay payment.

And the best part of all? This would mean be less work for MOM as they wouldn’t find so many cases coming to them.

So why don’t they do it?

Alex shrugs. “That’s another long discussion, I suppose.”