By Grace Chua, based on an interview in June 2018
Miah Md Uzzal is heading home. In the previous few weeks, he was on a mission to seek compensation for the salary underpayment he suffered for five years. Sitting at one of the restaurants that provide TWC2’s clients with free meals, Miah appears easy-going and self-composed as he narrates his predicament.
Miah Uzzal started working in Singapore in 2012. On his original IPA (In-Principle Approval) form [explained in footnote1], it was declared that he would be getting a basic salary of $900 a month with a fixed allowance of another $90. This agreement was honoured in the first month of salary payment. However, subsequently, Miah realised that his pay was unilaterally and arbitrarily reduced.
With a frown etched on his face, Miah expressed his utter disapproval over this arrangement. “No rules follow this paper (IPA). IPA never follow. The money go down, down, down,” he stated, gesticulating energetically with his hands. “First month, $990. Second, $700. Go… on…on…$500. Down. Down. Down,” he emphasized, his voice charged with exasperation.
Paid an average of $19 dollars a day, Miah received an approximate salary of $532 a month (inclusive of overtime); a stark contrast to the fixed minimum of $990 stated in the IPA, which should be equivalent to a daily basic rate of $37.76.
Unfortunately, according to Miah, this unilateral reduction of salary occurred persistently throughout the course of five years.
“Why didn’t you file for a salary claim with MOM (Ministry of Manpower) before this?” I inquire. Languidly, Miah shakes his head, “Talk (to MOM) then company send you (home) then… (work permit) suddenly cancel.”
Miah’s sentiments highlight an immovable fact: the price of complaining about underpayment is to lose the job altogether.
Encumbered by onerous debts owed to recruitment agents, migrant workers are thus hesitant to raise salary concerns with their bosses. Triggering repatriation is utterly unthinkable for someone like Miah, who was burdened by a debt of $3,600 paid to an informal agent in order to get the job. As a result, he had no option but to accept the unfavourable salary terms.
“House loan. Loan agent. Many. Many. Cannot send back,” says Miah, shrugging his shoulders in apparent resignation.
The protections of law
Miah Uzzal’s situation is far from an isolated case. In the nine months between April to December 2017 for instance, “the TADM (Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management) received 6000 salary-related cases”. Disputes relating to salary payment are thus prevalent.
Hence, the critical question to ask at this point is this: How far does the existing regulatory regime prevent or restrict the arbitrary reduction of salary?
Under a bylaw of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act [see footnote 2], it is stated that the worker’s salary can only be reduced with written consent provided by the worker. Furthermore, MOM must also be informed of the reduction.
In fact, a high court ruling in 2017 declared in no uncertain terms that a migrant worker should be paid the salary written in the In-Principle Approval letter issued in his home country [see also footnote 3]
Despite such explicit protections from the law, workers are often disinclined to exercise their right to report salary issues due to the possible threat of repatriation. Essentially, the power imbalance inherent in the employer-worker relationship makes it inexpedient for migrant workers to approach the negotiation table.
Additionally, the long-drawn salary claim process often puts workers in a highly disadvantageous position. When undergoing the salary claim process, workers are given Special Passes, which prohibit them from undertaking paid employment. As a result, during the salary claim process, workers often have to bear the high costs of living without having a salary to sustain them. [see footnote 4]
Placed in such a quandary, workers often choose to remain silent and stoically allow this highly objectionable practice to continue unabated.
With the impending expiration of his contract, Miah finally decided to lodge at complaint at MOM. There was after all, nothing else for him to lose.
“Now company, no renewal. That’s why money claim.” Unsurprisingly though, his attempts to seek compensation for five years of underpayment were unsuccessful. According to the Ministry of Manpower, “salary claims can only be made within 1 year after the dispute arose”. Based on those parameters, there was no way Miah could have gotten his compensation for salary disputes dated from 2012-2017.
“MOM say before 2017 too late. No claim,” Miah explains
As for the months he worked prior to Work Permit expiry in 2108, “no claim because amount correct,” Miah adds, showing another IPA on his phone.
I examine the newer IPA. It reflects a figure much closer to his actual salary: $520.
“People complain[ed]. Boss scared. Change IPA,” he speculates.
Without any viable avenue for recourse over old injustices, “Now go back Bangladesh,” he mutters, looking slightly crestfallen.
I watch silently as Miah departs, ambling down the five-foot ways so quintessential to the shop houses of Little India. At that moment, I am acutely aware that Miah is just one of the thousands of migrant workers facing inequitable treatment on a regular basis.
Ironically, in spite of his less-than-ideal experience, Miah’s predicament can be considered optimistic compared to the ordeals endured by other migrant workers. Some of his peers face blatant non-payment of salaries or the sudden termination of contracts, leaving them with insurmountable debt to shoulder.
Miah Uzzal will return home in two weeks. Having worked five continuous years, albeit at a salary far lower than promised, he is at least free of debt.
- An “In-principle Approval” (IPA) is a document generated by the Ministry of Manpower indicating that a Work Permit will be available to a worker for a job in Singapore. Details such as basic monthly salary, fixed allowances and deductions are stated on the document, and would have been provided by the employer when making an application for a work permit. See also footnote 3 below.
- Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations, Fourth Schedule, Part IV, paras 6A.
- A November 2017 High Court decision (Liu Huaixi v Haiffa Pte Ltd  SGHC 270) set down the ruling that “the amount stated in it [the IPA] it would constitute prima facie evidence of the basic monthly salary of the employee” unless the employer can discharge the burden “to show why the IPA figure does not reflect the true salary” (para 33 of the judgement).
- Strictly speaking, bylaws to the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act also require employers to provide “upkeep and maintenance” to workers who have been terminated from their jobs, but have not yet been repatriated. This would include workers who have lodged claims against their employers. There is considerable variation in the degree by which employers live up to this requirement with much depending on the attitude of the boss; enforcement by MOM is also extremely weak. In any case, the meaning of “upkeep and maintenance” is interpreted to mean the bare essentials like food, housing and urgent medical care. There is no cash component — so the worker actually will have no means to travel downtown to MOM, as demanded by MOM officers, to attend sessions for mediation or extension of their Special Passes. Nor does the worker have any means to remit money home to support his family.