By Philomène Franssen based on an interview in January 2018

Those words in the headline I quote from Nazrul, a disillusioned worker currently waiting for the court hearing that will handle his salary claim.

Freshly arrived in Singapore in 2007 with the hope to make a decent living in order to provide for his family back home, Nazrul has had three jobs here with three different companies, but this last one will leave him a bitter taste.

Working for almost two years in this company, Nazrul’s basic salary was $22/day but on average he was being paid $720 per month, including overtime. He was paid in cash, but the amount was seldom in a single sum. For months the payment of his salary had been made in dribs and drabs which, besides putting Nazrul in a position of precarity, also constitutes a violation of the Employment Act that requires employers to pay employees their full salary by no later than the seventh or fifteenth day of the following month.

Worse is in fact that Nazrul’s employer eventually stopped paying him at all between May and August 2017, leaving this worker with four months of unpaid wages and the burden of proof to now press his salary claim.

Despite the evident injustice of such illegal practice, what seems to outrage Nazrul the most — and me by the same occasion — is that his boss is Bangladeshi just like him, and yet exploiting his own countrymen. “If I know he is like that I no come to him,” says Nazrul, nodding his head in sheer disapproval.

To prove how much he is owed, a credible record of overtime hours needs to be submitted. This appears to be Nazrul’s biggest hurdle, and it is not of his own making. To understand why this is such a problem for him, we need to understand the nature of his job.

When working for this company Nazrul, a plumber, did not have one specific work location but was instead deployed to different sites on different days. While this situation is common to a number of construction workers in Singapore, it can easily turn against them if they are required by their employer to bear the sole responsibility of keeping track of and reporting on their hours of work, as in the case of Nazrul. Each month he had to fill time cards that he would then hand over to his employer, who ultimately refused to pay him for the hours he had performed. But one wonders how such a system has persisted till now when it seems to be designed to fail. Indeed, who can be accountable for the veracity of these time cards?

We ask Nazrul if there was a supervisor to sign off for each entry on his time card. He says there wasn’t. His work was such that he either worked alone or in a small group.

Employers who chose to use such a self-reporting system expose themselves to a possible abuse of the system, since it is based on good faith. Likewise, employees become vulnerable to exploitation by fraudulent employers, if the boss disputes the entries, and there is no supervisor to vouch for them. The recurrence of such cases seen by TWC2 wherein workers are left without an incontestable paper trail as evidence to back up their salary claim seems to support our suspicion: too many employers willingly adopt such practices without thinking through the consequences. Perhaps some of them even like the opportunity to deny the hours whenever they please.

A few amendments have been made to the Employment Act in order to address these situations, such as requiring employers to keep salary records relating to each employee (including hours worked, overtime worked and paid, itemised deductions taken from salary and net salary paid in total) and make them accessible to employees. In reality, however, these are not yet systematically enforced. Even when workers pursuing salary claims demonstrate to the Ministry of Manpower that their employers have not lived up to these legislated standards, MOM does not appear to penalise the employers at all.

Another amendment allows Work Permit holders to request payment by electronic transfer, but in reality most workers do not make such requests, by fear of retaliation such as termination of contract and repatriation. Besides, employers almost always hold on to workers’ passports, even though doing so is illegal, and a worker would need his passport to open a bank account.

TWC2 has recommended that electronic payment of salaries be made mandatory, as it has been in UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Bank payments leave an undeniable paper trail that can subsequently be used to support a salary claim.

Had Nazrul benefited from such a measure, he would be in a much better position today to demonstrate that he has not been paid for the last few months, and not have to worry how he can prove his case. Instead tired Nazrul explains to me, almost defeated, “we thinking we come here working only, we not thinking we get these problems. I tired living here, no use.”