By Alex, based on an interview in August 2019

Mazumder Mihir Chandra’s English is very poor for a guy who claims to have worked nearly ten years in Singapore. He can barely string a sentence together and most of the time TWC2 volunteers have to appeal to another Bangladeshi worker to help translate. It’s a pity, because Mazumder certainly has a story worth telling — the outline details are troubling enough — but it’s proving too difficult to get the earthy details from him.

We’re left with just the outline.

His saga began in August 2017, exactly two years before our interview (August 2019), when he came back to Singapore after a hiatus in Bangladesh to join a company he calls “Long Loot”. We can’t get the full company name from him, and “Long Loot” is a transcription based on his pronunciation of whatever the name was. At Long Loot, Mazumder worked as a plasterer, which is quite a skilled job, and was supposed to earn $30 a day (approximately $800 a month).

“Two month, thirteen day,” was how long that job lasted.  Not having been paid, he filed a salary claim at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). That didn’t quite succeed, though Mazumder cannot detail what exactly happened with the claim process. All he can tell us is that eventually he was given $1,400 “from insurance”. When workers use this phrase, it suggests that MOM had to arm twist the insurance company that had provided the security bond to pay something to the worker in lieu of forfeiture of the bond. It indicates that the employer didn’t pay up the owed salary.

Transfer job

Mazumder was relatively lucky in that in the short while he worked for Long Loot, he came to know another company — “same project, another subcontractor,” he says — who took him on about two months after the Long Loot job fell apart. This second company was De An Construction. This would be what we at TWC2 call a “transfer job”, i.e. one where the worker didn’t come from his home country to start work, but joined while he was already here in Singapore.

With transfer jobs, TWC2 is always very concerned that workers are not provided with their In-Principle Approval letters (IPAs). We immediately asked Mazumder, “Did you get an IP letter for this De An job?”

He gives us a complicated answer. Mazumder affirms that his boss did show him an IPA when he started with De An, but the emphasis should be on ‘show’. It was put in front of him with a demand for Mazumder to sign it. As soon as Mazumder did so, the IPA was taken away. “Boss take, I no keep,” is how Mazumder describes what happened.

However, Mazumder can remember that the salary written there was $1,600 per month. But he cannot tell us if this figure represented the basic salary or the fixed monthly salary; he probably doesn’t even understand our question or know the significance between the two terms. Understandably, he cannot tell us anything about allowances or deductions on the IPA since he had only a quick glance.

The De An job began on or around 10 January 2018. It ended on 19 April 2018, just a little over three months later. Why? De An wasn’t paying him his salary either. Once more, Mazumder made his way to MOM to file another salary complaint.

We try to ask him what happened with this second salary claim; how did the process go? But with his limited English, it is hard going and we feel bad to put him through it. What he does show us however is an Order of Tribunal, issued by the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT), which says:

This Claim having been called for Case Management Conference before the Assistant Registrar… and upon hearing the Claimant(s), and the Respondent(s) not appearing, in default it is ordered that:

The respondent(s) do pay the Claimant(s) the sum of S$8,961.32…

The Order of Tribunal was dated 23 April 2019, about a year after he walked off the non-paying De An job. The words cited above indicate that the employer (De An) was non-responsive to mediation and the Tribunal process.

Unsurprisingly, De An has been non-responsive to the Order of Tribunal too, self-importantly official though that piece of paper may be. TWC2 has seen many cases where defaulting employers simply ignore what the workers call “court orders” — which these are.

It is now August 2019 when we interview Mazumder, four months after the lofty Order of Tribunal was issued. We ask him what’s happening. He tells us, “MOM say go find company lorry.”

What has a lorry got to do with anything? We know enough to guess. MOM must be suggesting that he launch a Writ of Seizure and Sale, a process wherein a debtor’s assets are seized and auctioned off to pay creditors (i.e. Mazumder).

“Company office no have,” says Mazumder in frustration. “How I find lorry?”

And that’s assuming the company ever had a lorry at all, which is doubtful.

“Then how?” we ask him.

The latest, according to Mazumder, is that MOM is referring him to Migrant Workers Centre, a government-linked welfare body, which is being asked (or so Mazumder says) to give him some money.

The big hole: poor enforcement

The outline story is wretched enough. The helicopter view drenches Singapore, a place that prides itself in good governance, in shame. Here is a migrant worker who for the past 24 months has spent 6 months at work and not been paid for any of it. He then spent 18 months hoping that MOM’s much-vaunted salary claim process would get him his owed salary. And it’s still not quite over.

Meanwhile, two employers have simply vanished from the story; one of them clearly in defiance of an Order of Tribunal. So much for respect for the law.

Mazumder’s tale is, sadly, not unusual. TWC2 handles hundreds of salary cases each year, and our experience leads us to believe that the salary claim process has a lot of box-checking, but pathetically little attention to enforcement.

Yes, enforcement is difficult and it is tempting to say that MOM and other agencies should try harder. But there comes a point, and this story suggests that we are at that point, when the realisation should dawn on us that what we have here is a system problem. There are two aspects to this system problem.

Firstly, so long as all sorts of dodgy employers are liberally issued Work Permits for foreign workers, we’re going to continue to have victims like Mazumder. Sterner checks will make a difference. Secondly, so long as only a fraction of defaulting employers are prosecuted for violation of the Employment Act, there will be no fear of the law.

Here, a reply to a parliamentary question by Minister of Manpower Josephine Teo is germane. On 6 March 2019, she gave some figures with respect to Orders issued by the Employment Claims Tribunal:

Of the ECT orders issued, about half of the claimants received full payment from their employers. Another 16% reported partial payment, while 36% reported no payment.

While her reply spoke of percentages, she had not clearly stated what the base number was (How many ECT orders were issued?), without with it is difficult to interpret her reply.

The minister then went on to add:

Cases that resulted in partial or no payment usually involved employers in financial difficulty, or large accumulated salary arrears before the employee reported to TADM. In 12 cases (1% of ECT orders), the employer wilfully refused to pay despite having the means to do so. MOM is investigating and prosecuting these employers.

Twelve cases. But what is interesting is that she said these constituted one percent of ECT orders. She had earlier said 36% defaulted completely (and 16% defaulted partially, totally 52% who didn’t fully comply with court orders). So that means only 1 in 52 defaulting employers are taken to court for breaching the Employment Act.

The burning question is: Why not prosecute every employer who broke the law and failed to pay salary — which in effect is a theft of the wages of his workers? Why be so forgiving of those “in financial difficulty”?

After all, do we not prosecute anyone, who despite being broke (in “financial difficulties”), goes out to rob and steal? Why treat employers with such kid gloves?