TWC2 volunteer Wai Hong (centre) takes notes from the TY 5 Stars and RHGNS men

Six men came to TWC2 on 23 September 2019, each armed with a formal Order from the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT). They were part of a group of eight. The tribunal had awarded each of them about $20,000 in owed salaries. Actually, they were owed more than that but because the ECT had a claim limit of $20,000, that’s about all they can officially get.

The problem now was how to enforce the order to get some real money.

TWC2 has previously pointed out (see, for example, our letter to the Straits Times 5 Sept 2019) that enforcement action is poor to non-existent leaving many workers with no way of recovering their salaries despite fancy-looking court orders.

TWC2 pledged to help find them a pro-bono lawyer and to vigourously explore all options. If further developments take place, we will write a follow-up story.

Intelligent, self-confident guys

What was immediately noticeable to your writer was that these six guys looked different from the usual motley fellows we see at TWC2. They were well-dressed, outspoken — sometimes four of them would be speaking at the same time — and self-confident. Their English was also a cut above average for foreign workers. To be fair, most foreign workers in Singapore are usually well-groomed and self-assured, though their lack of English proficiency might make them seem reticent. But this bunch looked just that wee bit smarter than usual.

The reason soon became obvious. They were all S-Pass holders. S-Passes are a category above the Work Permit band which most construction, shipyard and conservancy workers are in. There are minimum educational standards and a minimum basic salary of $2,600 per month to qualify for an S-Pass, whereas Work Permit holders generally earn far less than that. When we enquired about the jobs that came with their Service-sector S-Passes, we learned that they were cleaning supervisors, each leading a crew of fulltime and part-time workers, some of whom were Singaporeans.

Their jobs

The eight men worked for three different companies, but all the companies were said to be owned by the same boss. Muthuraman, Swaminathan, bespectacled Surenkumar and Nithiyanandham worked for TY 5 Stars Stewarding Service Pte Ltd. Dharmaraj, Sakthivel and Sivaguru worked for RHGNS Hospitality Pte Ltd. The eighth guy, Mahendran, worked for TY Enterprise Pte Ltd. The name of their mutual boss was K Deena Thayalan Naidu. The men said he was Singaporean.

Naidu’s name cards with various company names. The name of TY 5 Stars Stewarding Service Pte Ltd has been misspelled as TV Stars Stewarding Service Pte Ltd. We checked the stated registration number against government records; thus we know that the correct name is TY 5 Stars, not TY Stars.

The three companies had contracts with well-known luxury hotels in Scotts Road, Marina Bay, City Hall and Marine Parade area, providing kitchen cleaning crew. That meant that our S-Pass clients’ workplaces were these hotels, in which they and their crew were responsible for cleaning kitchens, washing dishes, etc. One of the hotels had “24 kitchens”, said the men.

“The day shift was from 7am to 11pm,” said Sivaguru “and the night shift was from 7pm to 10am.” You’d notice the overlap between the two shifts around breakfast time and dinner time when the workload would be heaviest. But you’d also notice the quite inhuman length of their workdays.

The Employment Act stipulates that the maximum allowable overtime is 72 hours a month. On average, that means about 2.5 to 3 hours per day, but these men were putting in 7 to 8 hours of overtime.

Global brands are increasingly concerned about reputational risk when their supply chains are found to be riddled with exploitation and human rights abuses. TWC2 hopes that these hotels — they know who they are since we have named the cleaning contractors — start putting their houses in order.

Tardy payment of salaries

Three of the men had been with the employer for over two years; the others for over a year. Throughout, they’ve never received their salaries on time. “Always two months, then three months late,’ they said in unison.

Over time however, the jobs became more and more stressful. The companies struggled to find enough part-timers to keep the crews at full strength. So, the remaining workers had to do more and more to fill the gaps and there might have been days when it was just impossible to maintain standards. We suspect the hotels couldn’t have been pleased. The supervisors (i.e. the men now at TWC2) confronted their boss about the manning shortages, but the boss wasn’t helpful.

Said Muthuraman: “Boss then said we must go and find workers ourselves. If we don’t find more workers, then it’s our problem.”

“Where are we going to find workers?” the others chipped in. “Anyway, we’re already working such long hours. Where got time?”

It was fast becoming an untenable situation.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was when they discovered that, at least with respect to one hotel, the boss had somehow transferred the hotel contract to yet another company he owned or, at least, controlled. Now the workers began to wonder: If the cashflow from the hotels is going to this other company, but I am employed by the old company, where is the money in the old company to pay me?

So they went off to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to file salary claims. Given the usual tardiness of salary payments, their employer owed each of them abut three months’ salary.

That was at the end of February or early March 2019. It is now September, seven months later, and all they have to show for it is a piece of paper called “Order of Tribunal” affirming that the employer owed them about $20,000 each.

“Boss never even come to MOM for mediation,” they jointly said. “MOM officer say boss asking for more time,” and they were asked to wait.

Then in June 2019, Naidu resigned from directorships of both TY 5 Stars and RHGNS Hospitality and a certain BabuKannan s/o Karunaniddy took over. Some of the men said they knew who Babukannan was, but their information as to his background has not yet been verified. They were of the view that Babukannan was just a stand-in.

Nonetheless, by making this change, it was apparent that instead of showing up to deal with the salary issue, the boss Naidu was trying to put distance between him and his former employees. Seeing this move by the boss, mediation was obviously going to be futile and so their cases were escalated to the ECT.

The boss didn’t make any appearance at the Tribunal either. Without him putting in a defence, the men easily won their orders. The total value of the eight men’s court-affirmed claims totalled some $160,000.

“Boss drives an Audi,” they said.

“Track it down and get us its licence plate number,” TWC2 volunteer Wai Hong suggested to them.

More dirt

We asked some of the man how much they paid in recruitment cost to get these jobs. Five of them said $10,000, paid to a guy named Sri Pathi (spelling loosely based on their pronunciation) who claimed to work for a licensed employment agency. Looking at the documents from two of the men (one from TY 5 Stars and the other from RHGNS Hospitality) we see that the listed name of the employment agency was Nova Maintenance Employment Agency Pte Ltd (License no: 16C8226).

“How could you be sure that Sri Pathi worked under Nova?” we asked the men.

“He was based in their office,” was the simple reply.

Two of the eight men said they didn’t deal with this Sri Pathi. One of them remembered that the agent he dealt with was named Ramesh, to whom he paid $8,000 as recruitment cost, and he wasn’t from Nova. Things get complicated here, and we won’t go further into those details.

All that needs to be borne in mind is that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) calls on all countries to ensure that recruitment cost should not be borne by workers, as doing so is unethical and sets the scene for debt bondage. While Singapore has not banned the charging of recruitment fees to workers, it has set a maximum limit. Based on their basic salaries of $2,600 a month, the maximum fee allowed by law should be either $2,600 of for a one-year contract, or $5,200 if it’s for a two-year contract. Either way, $10,000 (or $8,000) would be illegal.

Then the kicker. Three men said they had completed one contract and had had their S-Passes renewed. To get renewal, Sri Pathi demanded a further $5,000. In cash.

Soon after filing their salary claims, the men approached Sri Pathi to get their $5,000 back. They were told that the money had all been passed to the boss. We cannot verify this but given so many other cases when we’ve heard something similar, it is entirely plausible. If the boss took this money, it would be an offence under Singapore law.

Can the internationally branded hotels be happy to be associated with such practices?