By Alex, based on interviews in December 2019.

“He’s going home early morning tomorrow,” David, a caseworker at TWC2, updates me. “His boss paid him twelve thousand.”

“Well, that was fast,” I was surprised. “I guess he is happy with that even though it isn’t exactly the $14,000 that he was owed.”

“Oh, he’s happy. And he’s very grateful to TWC2”.

Rahman Mahfuzur’s salary claim moved faster than most. In just about a fortnight, it went from him showing up at TWC2 for the first time to getting a ticket home — with money in his pocket.

When he first showed up at our meal station on Thursday, 19 December 2019, he was anxious and uncertain. He came to ask what he should do. His Work Permit was expiring and the company was not going to renew it — something about “no quota” — but he had been shortpaid for all the time he had been working. How could he get the amount paid before he had to go home?

“Have you gone to MOM yet to file a claim?” we asked him. ‘MOM’ is how foreign workers like Mahfuzur refer to the Ministry of Manpower.

“No,” he said. “How to go?”

That told us how lost he was. He had no idea how to begin to file a claim. We would have to walk him through every step to take. After a brief conversation to make sure that he had a legitimate case, we sketched out the things that had to be done and prepped him for the various stages of a salary claim. But first, we stressed, he had to go to the ministry to get the process started.

“Can you do it tomorrow morning? It will be Friday,” I ask him. “Are you able to get time off from work to go to MOM?”

“I not working tomorrow,” Mahfuzur replied.

“Why not?”

It was a complicated reply, a mixture of being sick and not being assigned work by his supervisor. Never mind the details; what was important was that he would have the time to go to MOM.

“Good,” we said. “After you have filed a claim at MOM, come straight away to TWC2’s office.”

“Where is office?” he asked in his soft-spoken way, and we gave him an address and a map. We always have such pieces of paper at the ready.

A meticulous chap

Friday afternoon, Mahfuzur showed up at our office armed with all his documents including a sheath of forms MOM had just given him to fill in. He had no idea how to complete those forms.

We began by asking him to explain the various documents he had, because at first sight, they were confusing. Understanding his documents was also a way to grasp what exactly his case would be built on.

We were surprised how comprehensive his collection of documents were. He had the following:

  • a copy of his In-principle Approval for a Worker Permit (IPA) which stated his basic salary to be $1,600 a month;
  • time cards for all the 12 months we worked, showing the number of overtime hours he had put in;
  • photographs of monthly pay slips he had to sign for each of the 12 months;
  • copies of the monthly pay slips given to him accompanying the actual salary paid.

The curious thing was that the employer generated two different kinds of pay slips. The ones Mahfuzur had to sign showed a basic salary of $26 a day (though, mysteriously, the October 2019 one had a different rate), some inexplicable allowances and deductions, but no overtime pay. He would be asked to sign them a few days before the actual pay day. Not being given copies of these, Mahfuzur photographed them each time he signed. Examples A1 and A2 below are for the months of February and June 2019.

Mahfuzur was made to sign this pay slip for February 2019, but didn’t get his salary straight away

Mahfuzur was made to sign this pay slip for June 2019 but didn’t get his salary straight away

Then a few days later would be the actual pay day. He would be given another pay slip, with different numbers on it. See examples B1 and B2 for the similar months of February and June 2019. This version of the pay slip would show a basic salary of $20 a day, overtime hours and overtime pay (at 1.5 times the rate of $20 a day), and once again some strange allowances.

When Mahfuzur got his February salary in cash, he also received this version of the pay slip

When Mahfuzur got his June salary in cash, he also received this version of the pay slip

The two different versions of the pay slip would always have the same final total, which was what was paid to him. Compare A1 with B1; and A2 with B2.

Neither of the two versions came anywhere close to the salary rate of $1,600 per month stated on the IPA, which would be the legally enforceable salary. At $1,600, the equivalent daily rate for an 8-hour day should be $67.13. The $20 or $26 daily rate that the company was using in its A and B versions of the payslips were only a third of that.

Mahfuzur’s In-principle Approval for a Work Permit (IPA) states that he should be paid a monthly salary of $1,600. This excludes overtime.

As for why the company created two different versions of pay slips, Mahfuzur couldn’t tell us. Was the company maintaining two sets of accounts? we wondered. Regardless what the explanation might be, it only goes to show how flagrantly an employer can breach statutory requirements — if the employer is of a mind to. Section 96(4) of the Employment Act makes it an offence “if the pay slip given to an employee is incomplete or inaccurate, whether or not the employer knew that the pay slip is incomplete or inaccurate”.

MOM wanted Mahfuzur to calculate exactly how much he was owed in readiness for his next meeting there; thus the multiple forms given to him. Thus, Friday afternoon was spent teaching him the mathematical formulae for calculating how much he should have been paid, based on the IPA salary. Netting off what he had actually been paid would leave us with the unpaid portion. That would be the quantum of his claim. We had to stress that it didn’t matter what the company put on either version of the pay slip; the basic salaries stated there and those calculations were irrelevant. What was important was the IPA salary.

Having finished high school, Mahfuzur was a quick learner. He figured out the mathematics soon enough and started on the forms. But since he had to calculate his owed wages day by day for each day of the twelve months he worked, it took hours. He was also very particular about neatness using white correction paint to erase his occasional mistakes and waiting for it to dry instead of scratching out any errors.

Mahfuzur filling in MOM forms which require him to calculate his salary day by day.

“He has beautiful handwriting,” observed David. “He’s very careful.”

“At the rate we’re going, it’s going to take us to midnight,” was your my pessimistic response.

In the end it only took about four or five hours, though that still meant that it took us past 8pm. We had to order food in to keep him and David fed. Thank goodness for food delivery services.

Fear takes hold

Just as Mahfuzur was finishing, his phone rang. It was his supervisor calling. He hesitated, his face betraying his fear.

“Pick it up,” we said. “Talk normally.”

The gist of the conversation was that he needn’t show up for work the next day, Saturday. It wasn’t clear why. Mahfuzur wondered if it was because MOM had told the employer that he had lodged a salary claim and now the company was angry at him. This was possible but in our view not likely to be the case; it was too soon. Until Mahfuzur had submitted all the forms, the case would not be officially open.

What was significant was the fear on Mahfuzur’s face, and David and I felt we had to talk him through it. From experience, we could guess what it was about: a fear of physical assault and forced repatriation in the middle of the night as soon as the employer came to know of the filed claim.

This worry was especially acute as the weekend was approaching. TWC2 would be closed. MOM would be closed. If there’s a good time for an employer to attempt a forced repatriation, Saturdays and Sundays were it.

We explained to him that he really had nothing to fear. Such things don’t happen often though the urban myth was that it happened all the time. Even if his employer were to try, we advised Mahfuzur how he could protect himself, pointing out that he had in hand a letter from MOM (that he received that very morning when he went there) giving him an appointment in a week’s time. All he had to do was to show the airport police this letter, and the police would turn him around and let him stay in Singapore. The operating policy is that once a case is opened or an appointment date with MOM set, no worker can be sent home prematurely.

“So long as you show the airport police the letter before the immigration officer stamps you out of Singapore, you cannot be forcibly sent home,” we advised him.

Of course, the obvious next question would be where he would sleep for the night after being turned around at the airport.

“Then I go where?” Mahfuzur asked.

We told him about our emergency shelter. “You just show up there,” we said. “We’ve already given your name to our caretaker, so if you show up there over the weekend, he will know who you are and has instructions to take you in.”

TWC2 is very grateful to our donors who help us maintain the shelter. Rent is costly in Singapore, yet having an emergency shelter is critical for workers in Mahfuzur’s situation.

Having addressed all his concerns, we called it a night. It was nearly 9pm.

The following week, Mahfuzur went to MOM again as scheduled, presenting his calculations. The claim was officially opened with the owed amount formally stated to be a little over $14,800. He was given a mediation date of Friday 3 January 2020.

The employer would be asked to attend.

Mahfuzur got even more worried about what consequences awaited him.

It is very easy for Singaporeans to dismiss such fears. We live in a society where people rarely take the law into their own hands. But in countries like Bangladesh, things are different, and Mahfuzur would have grown up in a society where security cannot be taken for granted.

Unwelcome visitors

And sure enough, Mahfuzur had reason to worry.

On the morning of 3 January, before he set off to MOM for the scheduled mediation meeting, he called David to inform him of the latest developments. Mahfuzur’s supervisor had kept pressing him to drop the case, causing him great mental stress.

There was also a visit made to his father’s house in Bangladesh where the visitor spoke to his father, strongly telling the older man that his son must drop the case. The visitor turned out to be a brother of a co-worker in the company, and the message was perceived by the family as some kind of threat. Now, not only Mahfuzur but the entire family felt insecure.

Mahfuzur told David he was too afraid to continue staying in the company dormitory. He feared he could be beaten up at any time. Given what had happened, it was an understandable concern. David advised him to relate the recent developments to his MOM officer and ask to be relocated to a safer dormitory.

In the end, we don’t know whether he did so because at the mediation session, things took an unexpected turn — in a good way. The employer offered a settlement of $12,000.

Mahfuzur accepted the offer. It was immediately paid in cash, together with an airticket home.

At TWC2, this conclusion was a surprise, having seen many cases where employers fought tooth and nail. We don’t know what changed the employer’s mind when in the lead-up to the mediation session of 3 January, the indications were that they would take a combative line. Maybe it was because Mahfuzur had diligently collected his evidence over the months — his carefulness and attention to detail really paid off — making his case unusually strong. But it is also possible that the supervisor’s actions were quite separate from the boss’. Maybe all the threats implicitly made were not authorised by the company.

However, if that were the case, the next question would be why a supervisor or co-worker would feel such a stake in a salary claim that he would act like this on his own. One would naturally begin to wonder if the supervisor or co-worker played a role in the recruitment of workers, and any misrepresentation of salary, once exposed and compensated, would have consequences for him. Would, for example, the company claw back the $12,000 from the supervisor or co-worker?

All this has to remain speculation. Given his quick departure, we didn’t have a chance to ask Mahfuzur whether anyone else in the company had a role in his recruitment. We only know that he paid 300,000 Bangladeshi taka (about $4,860 Singapore dollars) to get the job, so being able to recover $12,000 from the employer was obviously important.

The air ticket given to him by the employer was for a flight departing a mere hours after the mediation meeting, in the wee hours of 4 January. It hardly gave him time to buy some gifts for his family, but he must have felt safer to get out of Singapore than to stay on — though how safe he and his family would be in Bangladesh remains an open question. Still, he took time out to speak with David telling him about the outcome and expressing his thanks.

At this point, TWC2 expresses our thanks to our donors. They make it possible to have caseworkers like David who provide the assistance and comfort that desperately bewildered workers like Mahfuzur need. They make it possible for small things like buying them dinner should they have to sit at the office for hours filling in MOM forms, and big things such as assuring them that we have an emergency shelter should they get forcibly taken to the airport.

Together, we make it possible for guys like Mahfuzur to receive the guidance, help and fortitude to get the salary justice that is rightly theirs.