Islam Rafiqul’s case was highlighted in a full-page story in the Straits Times 19 January 2017. Headlined “Labour Court can’t make employer pay”, it described this Bangladeshi worker’s plight, having been owed over $7,363 in unpaid wages. His case went through the usual channels at the Ministry of Manpower, resulting in him winning a Labour Court order that said the employer must pay him this owed amount by 12 January 2017.
But when the employer did not meet the payment deadline last Thursday, the court’s hands were tied. Instead, the worker was asked to go to the State Courts to take action to recover the sum, a step that would require him to fork out money he does not have.
The case highlights a little- known limitation of the Labour Court, and the dilemma workers face when employers refuse to comply with its orders.
— Straits Times, 19 Jan 2017, Labour Court can’t make employer pay
When Rafiqul went as MOM suggested to the State Courts to obtain a Writ of Seizure and Sale, he was informed that he would need to fork out about $1,000 for the process with no guarantee that his owed wages would be obtained for him. For someone in his situation — not paid for months — he did not have that kind of money.
Beyond referring him to the State Courts to find his own solution, MOM offered no further help, and Rafiqul was told that it wouldn’t be long before he’d have to go back to his country with nothing but the piece of paper from the Labour Court.
Seeing the printed story, a long-time supporter of TWC2, Aseem Thakur, has launched a donation page to help Islam Rafiqul. See: https://give.asia/movement/help_for_mr_islam_rafiqul
Link to the Straits Times story. If the link does not work, click the thumbnail at right.
The response by the Ministry of Manpower was carried as a separate story lower down the same page. It said that salary recovery matters are “civil claims”.
The Labour Court can order an employer to pay a worker what he is owed, but cannot enforce the order because it is a matter between the worker and employer.
Such salary recovery matters are “civil claims”, a Ministry of Manpower (MOM) spokesman said.
MOM gets about 4,500 salary claims by foreign workers a year, “less than 0.4 per cent” of the foreign workforce. Nine in 10 of them are settled through mediation. The rest go to the Labour Court.
“Most employers comply with Labour Court orders. They are debarred from employing new foreign workers at least until they have done so,” the MOM said.
The rest were mostly in financial trouble or had ceased operations.
Mr Islam should not have let the unpaid salary pile up, it added. “The likelihood of salary recovery would have been higher if the worker had come forward earlier instead of allowing the sum owed to accumulate and the firm to rack up higher debts to other creditors,” it said.
— Straits Times, 19 January 2017, MOM: Salary recovery matters are civil claims
TWC2 found it very strange that MOM takes this position since it should be well aware that failure to pay salaries on time is a criminal offence. If only these recalcitrant employers were threatened with criminal prosecution — with fines larger than what they owe their employees plus the possibility of imprisonment — it would concentrate their minds.
Why foreign workers are hesitant to seek help over owed wages
The Ministry of Manpower’s view that workers who have not received their due pay would stand a better chance of recovering it if they come forward early with their complaint is sound (“MOM: Salary recovery matters are civil claims“; Jan 19). Waiting only means the arrears mount up.
However, it is important to recognise that this is not as straightforward as it might appear.
There is a great power imbalance between migrant workers and their employers, making workers hesitant to seek help.
They know they will lose their jobs once they lodge a formal complaint. They know the rules forbid them from seeking alternative employment and that they will be repatriated, if not at once, then when the case is concluded, with or without payment.
Once home, they might have to wait months and pay thousands of dollars to agents to get a new job.
MOM’s own rules forbidding change of employment make it very costly for workers to complain.
For most workers, keeping quiet and hoping for the best will appear the safer approach, at least until months later, when their meagre savings run out.
If workers were allowed to obtain alternative employment within their approved sectors without first going home, then MOM’s advice to complain early would be more realistic.
There is another problem with the MOM’s stated position that after the Labour Court has found that salary is owed, it is a civil matter for the worker to pursue for himself.
Non-payment and delay of salary is a serious offence in Singapore law. Sections 21 and 34 of the Employment Act prescribe fines and imprisonment.
A similar rule is found in the Fourth Schedule of the Work Passes Regulations 2012, buttressed by Section 22 of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA), which has even tougher penalties. Section 20 of the EFMA lifts the corporate veil, holding officers of companies personally liable.
It would seem that there is a reluctance to prosecute errant employers.
Given the hardships imposed upon workers by the failure of some employers to pay them what they are due, these laws should be enforced.
Noorashikin Abdul Rahman (Dr)
Transient Workers Count Too