Paper laws and how workers’ wages are stolen

Posted by on May 14, 2019 in Articles, Stories

In the whole of Singapore, this POSB/DBS branch in Kaki Bukit is the only one where foreign workers can open bank accounts.

Proving a salary claim requires evidence. So we ask our interviewees whether they were paid in cash or through their bank accounts. Bank transfers create an audit trail that will prove how much employers paid (or didn’t pay), whereas cash leaves no trail at all and thus disadvantages the worker in his claim.

Ripon was paid in cash but he once asked his employer to pay him through a bank account. The reply he got was “company policy is to pay cash, not bank” — said so curtly that it was clear that the matter should not be raised again.

This gives the lie to MOM’s pious claim that “Our laws already require employers of work permit holders to pay salaries electronically if the workers make this request,” said Alvin Lim of the Workplace Policy and Strategy Division at MOM in a letter published on 23 June 2015 in the Straits Times. See full letter here.

Technically speaking, Lim is not wrong. The obligation to pay salaries through employees’ bank accounts if employees so ask is enshrined in the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations 2012, Fourth Schedule, Part IV, clause 5. But it is one thing to cite paper laws, another to enforce them.

Mazharul’s wages paid to another worker

Unlike Ripon, Mazharul was confused by our question about the mode of payment. It turned out that the employer, Living Culture, had an even crazier way of paying salaries. Out of about 22 workers, there were five trusted ones who had bank accounts, he recounted. The boss would pay the entire payroll into these five workers’ accounts and expect the five to re-distribute the salaries in cash to the rest of the crew.

Wanting a more secure method, Mazharul asked the boss to pay directly into his account. The complication was that he didn’t have a bank account, and to open one, a letter from the employer was needed before the bank would act. Mazharul asked the boss for a letter. “No time, no time,” said the boss.

So much for the law.

Why Rizaul could only ask gently and couldn’t insist

Rizaul (not his real name) noticed that he was not paid correctly for his overtime hours by the second month in his job. He approached his boss, asking to be paid into his bank account — he already had one from his previous job — so that he could have a record of how much he was actually paid.

“Boss at first promised that next month he will pay to my bank [account], but next month he say ‘Haven’t do, haven’t do.’ Four times I ask him, four times same answer.”

We ask Rizaul: If you knew that you’re not paid correctly, why did you stay on the job? Why didn’t you file a complaint at MOM until now, nine months later?

“I paid $4,500 to my agent. If I complain at MOM, boss will 100% cut my permit. Then what I do? Better to earn first, even [if] less, and then complain.”

Rizaul puts his finger on the key problem. Rights on paper are empty words if the individual has to pay a hefty price to get them. The current law forbids work permit holders from changing jobs. They must either get the blessing of their employer or of MOM to do so. Both are so rare, they cannot be relied on as solutions.  So if the worker were to stand up for his rights, whether to get his correct salary, or to get paid into his bank account, it’s a no-brainer what would happen next. He’d be fired, but with MOM rules being what they are, he can’t be assured of getting a transfer job. What is certain is that he will have to endure at least three months of unemployment while his case wends slowly through the bureaucracy. Losing a job and staying unemployed for months is a very hefty price to pay for trying to assert one’s rights.

This explains why bosses can so easily dismiss requests for payment into the workers’ bank accounts. Bosses know that workers will not pay the high price in order to assert their right to electronic payment.

Ilangovan powerless to stop himself falling into a trap

Kunjappa Ilangovan started working for VRM Integrated Services Pte Ltd in July 2017. From the very beginning,  he was short-paid. He had been promised a monthly basic salary of $1,600 a month — and this is documented on an MOM form. However, the employer used a basic salary of about $520 a month for calculating his wages. Most months, Ilangovan would be presented with a payslip to acknowledge. The payslip would indicate a basic salary of $1,600. Each time, Ilangovan would ask to see the money before he signed it, but the boss would say that if he didn’t sign first, he’d not get any money at all. So Ilangoavan would reluctantly sign, hoping for the best. Yet each time, on opening the envelope containing the cash, he would discover it to be much less than what was stated on the payslip he had just signed.

When he finally lodged a salary claim, the evidence was against to him. The employer could present properly signed payslips indicating that Ilangovan  had been paid the correct salary. Ilangovan had no documentation that he was paid less.

If Ilangovan had had his salary paid into a bank account, he would have a clear record of exactly how much was paid to him. That’s why bank payments are important, and probably why less-than-honest employers resist it.

TWC2 has long argued that bank payment of salaries should be mandatory, not optional. The right to ask for it, although written in law, is meaningless when workers know that to insist on it would mean losing the job altogether. The right needs to be reinforced by an operational rule: pay through bank. No more cash payments.

TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our

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