At the end of February 2019, Kuttaiyan Murugesan approached a TWC2 volunteer telling her that his Ministry of Manpower (MOM) officer had just told him his case had been concluded and he should be going home (to India) soon. But he had yet to receive his owed salary, he said, so how could the case be “concluded”?

It was the first time Murugesan discussed his case with one of our volunteers even though he had registered with our meal programme seven months before, in August 2018.

In fact, Murugesan had first made a complaint at MOM a year earlier around March 2018 over salary arrears. According to him, he rarely heard from his MOM officer through the first few months. Then the officer in charge of his case changed midway and things accelerated somewhat, the case officer meeting him him a number of times. He was under the impression that things were progressing with his claim until the surprising feedback that it had now been “concluded”.

When we looked at the Special Pass that MOM had issued him, we saw that his case had not been classified as a salary claim but as an “investigation”. All the while, Murugesan had thought that after describing his salary woes to MOM, the officer there would be helping to recover his owed wages. The wording on his Special Pass indicated otherwise. MOM was investigating something, but whatever it was, it didn’t necessarily include getting his salary back for him.

This was confirmed when we asked Murugesan whether he was asked to attend any mediation session conducted by the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM), the body that normally handles salary claims. Murugesan said no.

We then asked him to recount what exactly happened in his job with Fabricare Laundry. He had been working there for six years as a “machine operator” washing soiled hospital linen. For the first four years, his salary was properly paid at the agreed $2,400 per month, he said. Then it was reduced gradually month by month till it was only $200 – $300 per month. (Somewhere down the line, the officially-declared salary seemed to have increased to $2,600 a month.)

We heard from MOM that in addition to the above facts, there was the additional complication that he had taken salary advances from his employer, the recovery of which was shown as deductions from his monthly salary. “Hence, his claim for short payment of salary could not be substantiated,” MOM wrote in reply to our query.

When we asked Murugesan about that, he said that the quantum of advances and resulting deductions was far smaller than the total amount short-paid. He also said that since his salary and any issued advance would be deposited by the company in his bank account — that being company practice — scrutiny of the bank statement should be able to establish how much by way of advances he had received.

Clearly, detailed examination and calculations need to be made, and any unexplained deductions should still be subject to the proper salary claim process. But what was concerning about this case was that, firstly, the process didn’t commence when Murugesan lodged the claim, and secondly, the initial reply (cited above) from MOM to our query sounded like dismissal.

The process for salary claims is well laid down. In the first stage, both employer and employee are brought together for mediation by TADM. In this setting, each side can present documents to support his arguments. If mediation fails, the case goes to the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT) where a magistrate adjudicates the claim and counterclaim. This formal two-stage process has the advantage of having neutral mediators and adjudicators, and it comes with relative transparency. Documents and evidence must be exchanged between both sides, for example.

In Murugesan’s case however, his salary claim was shunted off into an opaque process called “investigation”. According to a passing mention in an email TWC2 received from MOM, it was Murugesan’s employer who was being investigated, though it’s not clear over what. Murugesan recalled that some time in November or December 2018, he was brought to the State Courts, accompanied by his MOM officer, and questioned about this case. He said that he was not sure what that was all about.

TWC2 helped Murugesan insist that his salary claim should be attended to. Without us, he would have been at a complete loss what to do. With us, he learned that he had a right to due process and the confidence to ask for it.

We also enquired with him whether he was offered a place on the Temporary Job Scheme (TJS) through 2018. Migrant workers required to remain in Singapore to assist with investigations are often given a place on TJS. Murugesan said yes, he was, but as he had no fixed address, something went wrong with the job application and in the end the placement was withdrawn. After we protested to MOM that he should have his salary claim looked into (2019), MOM offered TJS to him again, but by now he really wanted to go home as soon as the case could be settled and he turned it down.

Finally, in May 2019, came the good news. In the two months prior, he met with his MOM case officer two more times. On one of these occasions, the boss attended too and a settlement was finally reached. From Murugesan’s initial claim of about $18,000 and taking into account salary advances, etc, both parties agreed on $14,000. The ex-employer then gave him a cheque and an air-ticket. Fifteen months after lodging a claim, fifteen months of worry and joblessness were over. Murugesan flew home relieved and satisfied. And grateful to TWC2.