By Ada Cheong, based on an interview in October 2018

Ten thousand dollars sounds like a hyperbolic sum of money. But that’s how much is owed to Alam and Mintu respectively, for a year’s backbreaking work. “Boss say ah, ‘Now (in my) pocket, money have. I no give (you), I (as) punishment no give,’” Mintu relates to me.

Getting employers to pay up is always a problem. Their employer, GKH Tiling Contractor, a sole proprietorship, owes them 12 months worth of salary. Both men waited in vain for this salary, led on by promises of forthcoming wages. Their memories of the boss’ promise of paying them overdue wages by Hari Raya Puasa were most stark: “Boss say, ‘Later give, before Hari Raya’. After (Hari Raya), say, ‘I buy ticket ah, send (you) back.’ I say, ‘Six years I working, now you talking like this ah. I got baby at home’.”

Threats of repatriation often deter workers from repeatedly demanding their dues. But in Alam and Mintu’s case, they had had enough. They lodged salary claims at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in August 2018.

Despite the employer’s earlier brusqueness, he did not dispute the workers’ claims when called to a meeting at the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM). MOM had calculated Alam’s and Mintu’s due salaries, taking into consideration overtime rates and extra hours. At the very first meeting, held on 10 September 2018, the boss, Goh Kah Heng, signed a settlement agreement with Alam and Mintu — under TADM’s letterhead — in which the boss agreed to pay Alam and Mintu $12,194.80 and $12,579.10 respectively, before the 24th of September 2018.

Such a smooth process is rare, as employers often fight tooth and nail to dispute the settlement amount. TWC2’s help for workers can be invaluable as this can be long and complicated process. Required evidence, such as copies of accurate timecards and legitimate salary slips, are sometimes forged or withheld by employers themselves, and workers need to know how to contest fake evidence.

No happy ending

Even though the boss signed a settlement agreement at the first meeting and paid each man $500, this case was far from over. Relating the meeting, Alam says, “MOM officer all talking, talking nice. Talking case close already ah, Boss sign already. (If) money no take then (MOM officer) say ‘You go back.’”

As the 24th of September deadline passed, no payment materialised. When reporting to MOM to get their Special Passes extended, a routine all workers go through every two weeks or so, they related the situation to their MOM officer. After some to and fro, the duo were directed to obtain a Writ of Seizure and Sale from a Magistrate’s Court. To do so, Alam and Mintu would have to fork out more money, the one thing they don’t have. Unsurprisingly, they don’t see this as a practical solution.

To the workers, MOM is seen as washing its hands of the matter.

This lack of meaningful assistance from MOM is unfortunately a common complaint of many workers who come to TWC2 for help. Through our many cases, TWC2 has observed that enforcement of settlement agreements and tribunal orders is weak. Employers now know they can sign settlement agreements without any intention of paying up; they rarely face consequences for defaulting.

While it might not be intended, the real effect of weak enforcement is to expect workers to absorb the costs of their employers’ poor business practices or failures to comply with law. If such a situation continues, there is a risk is that all the wonderful laws and TADM processes may one day be seen as mere charades.