Based on an interview in late December 2019

Sheikh Keramot Ali is relieved and happy. But it hasn’t always been so. In fact, he’s been anxious about his salary for well over a year.

His worries have been lifted now because he has in hand an Order of Tribunal (a Consent Order) dated 23 December 2019 wherein the employer agreed to pay him $9,000 in settlement of his salary claim. The Order was issued by the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT) and the amount represents about 75% of his original claim. The employer is supposed to pay within two weeks, i.e. by 6 January 2020.

It’s been quite a long road getting here.

Ali was hired by GIB Automation Pte Ltd in July 2018 as a “construction worker” though, to be more precise, his job involved fire alarm maintenance. He was based at the fire command centre of the casino and integrated resort, Resorts World at Sentosa. He had worked a total of about seven years there, but his previous company lost the contract and so the earlier job ended and he had to go home. GIB won the new tender and asked him to join them.

“I ask for $1,800 as salary,” Ali says, “but when I see the IPA, it was only $1,500.”

The IPA (see longer explanation here) is a document issued by the Singapore government confirming that a Work Permit is available to a prospective worker. It also states the salary, based on what the employer has declared to the government.

Ali tried to hold out for $1,800, but when he was assured that he would later get a raise from $1,500 to $1,800, he felt it wiser to seize the opportunity at hand than insist that the IPA be changed.

In the end, though, “The $300 [raise] never give,” he tells us.

Ali’s $1,500 salary is made up of $900 basic monthly salary and $600 fixed monthly allowance

Closer examination reveals that the IPA (imaged above) didn’t actually state a basic salary of $1,500. Instead the monthly basic salary was stated to be $900 with a further $600 described as “Fixed Monthly Allowance”. This would later be a bone of contention.

Long hours

The job involved long hours. Typically, he had to be on duty from 8:30am to 8:30pm. Twelve hours a day. This meant that he was accumulating a lot of overtime.

Moreover, he often worked seven days a week. “In one year, only had eighteen days off,” is how Ali summarises the situation. “Public holiday also working.”

Ali’s payslip for September 2018. All his other payslips were similar

His fears began to mount when he saw his first two payslips. The above shows the payslip from September 2018. There is no mention of overtime pay or rest day pay. (There was no public holiday in September 2018, but even in the months that had public holidays and he worked through them, the payslips showed no extra pay for those days.)

“After about two months, I spoke to boss about OT [overtime]”, Ali tells us. “Boss say he check HR [human resources department], but I know that he don’t want to pay. He is the boss, why must check?”

With those suspicions, Ali resolved to collect photographs of his punch-time cards and payslips every month from then on. He knew ahead of time that one day he’d have to file a salary claim. Fortunately, the employer paid salaries into his bank account. Unlike workers who are paid in cash, Ali thus has bank records that show exactly how much was transmitted to his account for salary. The amounts matched the net totals in the pay slips, but that didn’t make the calculations on the pay slips correct.

The struggle begins

By the end of July 2019, the twelve months’ duration of his Work Permit was coming to an end. Both parties did not want to renew it.

“On August 1, my last day,” recalls Ali. “I ask again, why no pay me OT.”

The company said none was owed. Dissatisfied, Ali went straight to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to lodge a complaint. “Same day, I go.” He had prepared for this eventuality for nearly a year.

Using a template provided by MOM, he computed how much he was owed. It came to a total of about $12,178. About 61% of this amount was for overtime pay; a further 29% was for rest day pay. The remainder of the claim (about 10% of the claim value) was for recovery of salary deductions, pay for working on public holidays, unconsumed annual leave and reimbursement for expenses while carrying out official duties.

Salary claims go through a two-stage process. The first is mediation between parties; if this does not arrive at a settlement, the case is sent to the Employment Claims Tribunal. Ali had two mediation meetings with his employer. They could not reach an agreement. At some point during this process, the company tendered what it called an employment contract which it said Ali had signed. Clause 10 of this alleged contract was interesting. It said,

The management will pay the allowance of S$600.00 as a fixed maximum slab as overtime entitlement for every month which will be paid along with the basic salary every month.

Immediately, Ali said he was duped into signing that contract. “Company only show me one paper and ask me to sign. never show me other pages,” he recalls, explaining how his signature ended up on the last page of the contract.

Indeed, the boss’s signature appears on every page of the contract together with the company stamp, but not Ali’s. His signature was only on the last page, which is consistent with his claim that he was not shown the rest of the bundle.

Extract from the “contract”. Clauses 8 and 10 are contrary to law. Furthermore, while the company signature and stamp is on every page, Ali’s signature is not.

According to Ali’s recollection of what happened at the mediation meetings, the company began by arguing that the $600 allowance paid monthly represented all that was due to him. Thus, it had no further obligation to pay more as Ali demanded. Its position then shifted a bit to saying that it could agree to the claim for rest day pay and public holiday pay, but stood firm on its position regarding overtime pay.

Unsurprisingly, Ali did not agree. From what we can piece together from today’s interview, he might have taken the position that since the company had obtained his signature on the “contract” in a dubious way, the contract was not valid. The trouble with taking that position is that he had no evidence to support his claim that he never saw the other pages of the “contract”. It would not be difficult for the employer to see the weakness of Ali’s position; and this may explain why they would budge no further.

With mediation unsuccessful, the case was then directed to the Employment Claims Tribunal.

By this point in time, Ali tells us, he didn’t feel he was getting any support from MOM officials. He came to the view that they were pessimistic, and possibly discouraging. He recalls his case officer there telling him “no chance”.

Ali came to Transient Workers Count Too for help.

Crash course in law

At TWC2, we advised him that there was a better way to rebut the employer’s position. It would be to rely on the law, and the intent of the law.

Of course, Ali knew nothing about law, without even speaking of the finer points of intent and interpretation. We had to give him a crash course in what he needed to know. This was particularly critical since the rules of the ECT are that parties cannot be represented by lawyers or others in the room. Workers have to speak for themselves.

We taught him that the Employment Act does not allow any cap on overtime pay, and therefore the clause on the so-called contract saying “fixed maximum slab” must perforce be null and void, being contrary to law. He could also argue that “Fixed Monthly Allowance” on the IPA is a separate item from overtime pay, and cannot be applied in lieu of overtime or rest day pay. Overtime and rest day pay must be variable amounts, and must be entirely on top of the fixed salary components stated in the IPA.

TWC2 also helped Ali prepare his bundle of submissions so that the Tribunal would have all the relevant documents at hand.

Ali tells us the ECT sessions went much better than the mediation sessions. The judge, he says, told the employer that the aforementioned clause in the contract was not applicable. With that guidance, he told the employer to try to settle Ali’s claim.

The employer then offered 50 percent of the claim value. Ali refused. After some to and fro, it was agreed at $9,000, or about 75 percent. Then the Consent Order was signed and issued.

Going home soon

Ali smiles all through our interview. He speaks of each event as a warrior would recounting his battles, rousing himself further with each episode till the final victory.

But he also says, “This case I win because TWC2 help me.”

Our interview done, he gets up and goes around the room to shake hands with every TWC2 person around. As he goes up to long-time volunteer Jill, she is bemused. “I’m sorry, but I don’t even know who you are,” she says, but in a very friendly, laughing way.

“Doesn’t matter if you’ve never met him before,” this reporter says to Jill. “He’s just chuffed about how his case has concluded, and he wants to thank everybody at TWC2.”

“Oh well, then,” Jill responds to Ali. “I’m very happy for you.” Still with no clue what his case was about, she adds, “I guess you’ll be going home soon?”

Indeed, he will. Waiting for him is his nine-month-old baby he’s never seen before.