The Straits Times reporter met with the men on Thursday 2 March 2017. We thought the story would be out around the weekend, but the newspaper didn’t have enough space. Parliament was sitting and debating the budget; space in the Home section was at a premium.

The story was the kind that we at Transient Workers Count Too see depressingly often: migrant workers slogging away for months and months and not paid. In this case, the group of men were from HBB Engineering Pte Ltd and C-Plus Engineering Pte Ltd, both companies having the same owner — a Singapore permanent resident (originally from Bangladesh) married, according to the workers, to a Singaporean wife. The companies had been contracted for various ‘Town Council projects’ — as the men called them. They built covered walkways in Pasir Ris, Boon Lay, Woodlands and several other parts of Singapore’s residential heartlands.

However, they had not been paid since July 2016. After five months of excuses from their boss, they went to the Ministry of Manpower to lodge complaints towards the end of 2016. Because their basic salaries were slightly different one from another, as were their hours of work, the owed amount for each man varied somewhat. In general, each was owed between $3,600 to $7,600.

Their two months relying on MOM to help them began quite hopefully but soon turned frustrating. At first an agreement was reached with the boss that he would pay them in full, as can be seen below, and this agreement was signed in front of an MOM officer.

But according to Motin Abdul, one of the unpaid employees, “Cheque bounced.”

The men went back to MOM, and this time, the ministry official told them he would approach the insurance company — this would have been the insurer which provided the $5,000 security bond underpinning the work permit for each worker — to pay something. But the men were told to expect no more than half the owed amount from the insurer.

“Cannot!” said Motin, on behalf of the group. “We work very hard, many [hours of] overtime. How can get only half?”

Indeed, TWC2 has long pointed out the inequity of this. A condition of the security bond is that salaries would be paid. By failing to pay monthly salaries on time, the $5,000 bond became liable to be forfeited. Why not forfeit it and pay nearly all $5,000 to the worker if the worker is owed that much? Why does MOM adopt the policy of only asking the insurance company to contribute up to $2,000 and then waive forfeiture?

Back at MOM, the Labour Court route was explored, but Motin recalled the MOM officer discouraging them from filing for a Labour Court case. “He say ‘Labour Court order may be useless. After get[ting] court order, but boss still not pay and MOM cannot do anything.’

“Also, he say must get lawyer for Labour Court, but we have no money.”

The last part about needing a lawyer is a bit misleading because the ministry’s policy is that no legal representation is permitted for salary cases at the Labour Court. Motin might have misheard. Perhaps the official was trying to tell him that even after getting a court order, he’d still need a lawyer to pursue collection, since MOM famously has no power to enforce Labour Court orders.

By this point frustrated, the group turned to TWC2. What else can we do? they asked.

HBB and C-Plus men looking glum while consulting with TWC2, after a frustrating meeting at MOM

That led to meeting the reporter on Thursday 2 March, followed by posing in the evening for the newspaper’s photographer (pic in header). But there was no story in the paper for a week.

Then on Wednesday 8 March, the men trooped into TWC2 again, this time smiling from ear to ear. Surprise! “Boss and insurance agree to pay everything,” said Motin. “Boss pay half, insurance pay half.”

It wasn’t just an agreement on paper. This time, a certain Brandon Koo,  said to be the Singaporean director and business partner of the Bangladeshi owner, came to MOM too and, before the meeting was over, paid each one of them about half the owed amounts in cash. “Insurance company will buy air ticket and pay [the other] half at airport,” explained the men.

After getting a better deal, HBB men flash V-for-victory signs outside TWC2’s office

How did this 180-degree turn come about?

At TWC2, we cannot know for sure, but very likely it was like this: After interviewing the men, the reporter contacted MOM for their response (we know this for a fact) as is usual journalistic practice. Doing so alerted MOM that yet another embarrassing story was going to appear in the Straits Times (after Islam Rafiqul’s and Sujan Ahmed’s) highlighting their ineffectiveness and unsympathetic attitude. Officials at MOM must have scrambled to do better this time.

TWC2 hopes that this heightened level of official diligence would, going forward, be the rule rather than the exception.

We quickly informed the journalist of the latest developments. He may have amended the story as a result; we don’t know. In any case, it was published on Friday 10 March 2017. Click thumbnail at right to enlarge.

There was something unsatisfactory about MOM’s statement at the end of the news story. Here is the bit:

When asked why the workers had waited as long as eight months before they complained to MOM, Mr Motin said: “Boss say if we complain, he cancel work permit and send us home.”

Transient Workers Count Too vice-president Russell Heng said workers have a real fear of being sent home because they would have already paid thousands of dollars to work here.

“MOM’s advice to workers to complain early does not take into account the reality of the situation,” he said.

In response, the ministry said: “Workers should never feel deterred from coming forward to MOM early.

“If the employer attempts to send them home without settling the owed salaries, the workers can and should approach the (Immigration and Checkpoints Authority) officers at the airport and they will be assisted and referred to MOM, foiling any forced repatriation attempts.”

Russell’s comment suffered from truncation in the printed story. His words to the Straits Times were:

“MOM’s advice to workers to complain early does not take into account the reality of the situation. Foreign workers pay thousands of dollars to get these jobs. To resign is to write off the sunk cost. It might be different if foreign workers can look for alternative jobs without first being sent home but MOM’s rules are that they must. Then they need to pay thousands more to get a new job. These rules distort the relationship between boss and employer. The power relationship must be addressed before workers feel free to complain early.”
MOM’s response, as printed in the Straits Times, did not directly address the issue of sunk cost and allowing workers to seek alternative jobs — a key area where MOM inaction over recruitment cost and job (im)mobility is  major contributor to the reluctance of workers to complain early. Instead it addressed a different point: forced repatriation — which was not Russell’s point.
We do not know if Straits Times did not present the full quote from Russell to MOM, or whether it did but MOM chose not to answer it.