Based on details collected from casework in May and June 2018

When Rahman Safiar went to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to get his Work Permit processed, he was in for a shock. It was not even two weeks after arriving in Singapore for a new job with a promised basic salary of $1,600 per month, yet he was told by an MOM officer that his employer was reducing his salary to $452 instead.

That’s a 72% reduction.

The promised $1,600 salary had been clearly stated in a document generated by MOM and sent to Rahman Safiur prior to his taking up the job. This document, called “In-principle Approval for Work Permit”, contains details submitted by the employer when applying for a Work Permit for Safiar. The stated salary would therefore have been a submission by the employer. Like many other online applications to the government, the details submitted must be reckoned as true.

MOM’s practice of sending a copy of the IPA to the worker began some years ago, intended to ensure that the worker knew exactly the basic terms of the job before he came to Singapore.

This is the notification that the MOM officer handed Safiar when he went for thumbprinting for his Work Permit:

According to Safiar, the officer simultaneously told him that he need not act on the new information right away. He could start work at the company and see if the company paid him the $1,600 or $452 salary. Salary complaints could be lodged later.

This seems to be a case of a sympathetic ministry officer trying to work his way around a dog’s dinner of an operational process designed by those above his paygrade.

Poorly thought-out process

When TWC2 came to know of this case, we were floored by the number of questions that immediately came to mind. Many possible scenarios could follow after a worker is handed such a notification, each one leading to more complications. MOM seems not to have thought things through.

But first, we need to backtrack a little. TWC2 believes that this notification form was MOM’s way of implementing a provision in the subsidiary legislation of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act which says any salary reduction must have the worker’s written agreement (footnote 1), and even then, the employer may not implement the reduction without first notifying the ministry.

Over the past few years, TWC2 has highlighted how often employers of migrant workers have arbitrarily slashed salaries. This is done in many ways, including:

  • Compelling workers to sign new contracts very soon after starting on their jobs, with coercion springing from the threat of immediate termination and repatriation, exploiting the vulnerability of workers who have paid thousands of dollars in recruitment costs;
  • Simply paying less than promised, and when later investigated by MOM, tell the authorities that the workers had been priorly informed and that they had agreed to the reduction;
  • Simply paying less than promised, and when later investigated by MOM, show the authorities fake backdated contracts with forged signatures of workers.

We’ve noticed through the years that MOM’s response to such disputes have been all over the place. When the contract is mostly verbal, sometimes MOM takes the employers at their word, sometimes they give more credence to workers. When employers put written contracts before MOM however, even if the documents are alleged to have been produced through coercion or forgery, these contracts are too often accepted by MOM as valid. MOM seems unable or unwilling to give weight to the real possibility that workers can be subject to coercion. As an aside, we ask ourselves: Might this be because if MOM recognised so, it would have to acknowledge the roots of coercive powers — recruitment costs that are sky-high and MOM’s failure to control them? As for forgery, neither MOM or the police have an effective way of investigating the matter. Based on the cases we’ve seen, MOM puts the onus of proof of forgery on the worker, but the worker is at a loss since there is no agency that can help him prove it at an affordable cost or within a reasonable time. We’ve seen cases where without proof, MOM accepted forged documents as genuine.

This new “Your employer has reduced your salary” notification pictured above (hereinafter called  the ‘notification’) appears to be an attempt to bring some rigour to the process by making sure that the employee has freely consented to the wage reduction. It’s a step in the right direction, but as we shall see below, it’s so cackhandedly implemented, it may make things worse.

The inevitable dispute

Rahman Safiur is a cool-headed guy. Despite the shock of being told that the employer was reneging on the promised salary, he maintained his composure, went through with his Work Permit issuance process and went to work.

Within a couple of months, it was obvious that the employer was not paying him the $1,600 basic monthly salary. He quit and lodged a salary complaint at MOM.

His claim was almost derailed when MOM’s dispute officer (not the same officer who spoke to him about the notification earlier) took the position that since the employer had notified MOM at the start that the salary was being reduced, Safiar had no longer any basis for insisting on $1,600. She might not have said it quite like that since this description of the moment was based on Safiar’s recollection.

Fortunately, Safiur insisted that although he had been handed the notification, he had never agreed to it. And after some internal checking, the dispute officer changed her stance. Safiar eventually got most of his full salary, but the difference didn’t amount to much, since he worked for only a short while.

Safiar might have been just lucky

What led the officer to change her stance after initially dismissing Safiar’s claim? Perhaps it was some nugget of information from within MOM’s information archive that Safiar had not given his agreement when handed the notification on thumbprinting day. How is this information captured? Was Safiar simply lucky that the officer who handed him the notification was conscientious enough to write a memo recording what transpired?

What if the officer had not recorded what he said to Safiar or the absence of a reply by Safair? Would Safiar’s later salary claim have been jeopardised?

TWC2 asked MOM a series of questions regarding their standard operating procedure surrounding the notification, including:

In Rahman Safiur’s case, the MOM officer did not press him for an immediate answer as to whether he accepted or rejected the salary reduction. Is that the standard operating procedure  — to not press for a response, possibly leaving the matter ambivalent — rather than to press the worker for an answer?

In addition, we asked for clarification as to MOM’s default interpretation of a non-answer by a worker. Would a non-answer by a worker after being handed the notification be considered non-acceptance or acceptance?

Moreover, we also asked what if the worker, shocked, spontaneously told the MOM officer that he did not agree to any such salary reduction. We were interested in knowing what MOM would then do with such a response: would MOM be duty-bound to inform the employer?

As anyone familiar with the power dynamics between employers and migrant workers would know, once an employer is informed that the worker is resisting the salary reduction, almost certainly the employer would terminate the job.  We asked MOM whether their standard operating protocol would then be to offer the worker the right to seek a transfer job and/or a place under their temporary job scheme.

Our many questions were put to MOM on 24 May 2018. About a month later, we received a response that actually said nothing substantial. Basically, the reply was that as Safiar’s case was currently under investigation, the ministry could not share more.

That’s actually not what the questions were. They were not about Safiar’s case. Our questions were of a general nature, about what MOM’s operational protocol was under different scenarios depending on various responses by the worker when shown the notification form. So why did MOM deflect our questions by characterising them incorrectly?

Should be treated as a criminal offence, not a civil dispute

TWC2 feels the whole approach that MOM is taking is misguided. This view undergirded a final question that we posed to the ministry. In that question, we argued that when an employer such as Rahman Safiur’s informs MOM of a reduction of 72% within the first month of a worker’s arrival, it should be seen as prima facie evidence of duplicity on the part of the employer at the point when the work permit application was first submitted. The employer must have had no intention to pay the declared, higher salary. By typing that fallacious salary figure into the work permit application, it would be an instance of providing false information, which is a criminal offence under Section 177 of the Penal Code.

We asked if MOM adopted the same view: To see such behaviour as a criminal offence and thus take appropriate action when employers notify officials of such a steep reduction even before the man has obtained his newly-minted Work Permit.

Taking a firm stance on such salary shenanigans not only better reflects the seriousness of the matter, but through stamping out such practices, will reduce the amount of work at MOM at the dispute resolution level. Instead of tying itself in knots trying to deal with the minutiae of each attempt at salary reduction as merely a civil dispute, MOM should just cut the Gordian knot altogether.

For this last question too, we have not received any response from MOM.

1. The Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations 2012, Fourth Schedule, Part IV, Section 6A, says

6A.— (1)  The employer shall not —

(a) reduce the foreign employee’s basic monthly salary or fixed monthly allowances to an amount less than that declared as such in the work pass application submitted to the Controller in relation to the foreign employee; or

(b) increase the amount of fixed monthly deductions to more than that declared as such in the work pass application submitted to the Controller in relation to the foreign employee,

except with the foreign employee’s prior written agreement.

(2)  Before implementing such reduction or increase, as the case may be, the employer shall inform the Controller in writing of the proposed reduction or increase, as the case may be.

(emphasis added by TWC2)