By TWC2 volunteer Dan based on an interview in December 2019

Islam Md Johirul comes to TWC2’s meal station looking relaxed and happy and sits in front of a caseworker. They seem to know each other well and exchange only casual banter. They don’t talk about Johirul’s case. Even so, TWC2 caseworkers reflexively pull up the relevant client’s case file on their computer just in case there is any new information. I lean over and see a notation made earlier in the file. It says “Case not moving” and the note was dated about two months ago.

“Is your case stuck?” I ask Johirul.

He says it was but more recently appears to be moving again. “New MOM officer now,” he adds. MOM are the initials for Ministry of Manpower.

I learn that his case is already nine months old. Prior to that, he was employed by Blue Hills Design and Build Pte Ltd for three and a half months, during which he was not paid at all. Together with other workers from the same company, who were also unpaid, they filed salary claims at MOM around March 2019. Johirul estimates he is owed about $6,800.

There really isn’t much of a story from these nine months of waiting, because “no progress, nothing happening”.

Yet, there is a story. He has had no income for over a year now. First, he wasn’t paid for the work he was doing, then after he filed a claim, MOM put him on a Special Pass that required him to stay on in Singapore but did not allow him to work. Workers with ongoing cases are typically placed on Special Passes.

“I try to look for new job,” Johirul adds, but he’s not been successful.

“I thought you’re not allowed to work?” I ask.

“If find new company, then can get new Work Permit,” he says. The difficulty has been getting a new job. More experienced TWC2 volunteers believe that employers are prejudiced against workers who have filed complaints at MOM, preferring to hire workers who are meek and easily intimidated. And Johirul reckons that even were he lucky enough to find a willing employer, there would be demands for money to pay agents’ fees — money he does not have.

Johirul isn’t able to tell me exactly what’s going on at MOM with his case; he doesn’t seem to have the full picture. He says that the “boss” of Blue Hills claimed that he didn’t know any of the workers who had filed salary complaints. Based on what he has heard, there was “another boss” who “borrow the quota” from the Blue Hills boss and it was this “another boss” who hired them and gave work instructions. This sounds like there was trading of Work Permit quotas. Is this legal?

One would have thought that so long as Work Permits were issued in the name of Blue Hills — and they were — the directors and owners of the company should be held responsible. They shouldn’t be able to wash their hands of the salary debt just because someone else “borrowed” the quota. So there’s probably more to the story than just that.

I try to ask further but Johirul cannot tell me more. My need to know is idle curiosity on my part, but his needs are far more pressing. History and explanations won’t get him the money he is entitled to.

Johirul adds that MOM has brought in the insurer who issued the security bond. I understand from TWC2’s caseworker that taking this step typically means that there is no realistic hope of getting any money from the employer (Why, why? I continue to ask).

“Insurance propose pay me $1,500,” says Johirul, “but I cannot accept. Too little.”

Apparently there was a meeting to discuss this in early December, which signals that at last the case is moving again. There will be another meeting later this month but the outcome is as uncertain as ever.

“MOM madam ask me how much I can accept. I say maybe 70 percent [of my owed] salary.”

It doesn’t sound unreasonable to draw the line at a 30 percent haircut on the debt. And since the security bond has a value of $5,000, forking out $4,760 — being 70% of his owed $6,800 — should be within the realm of possibility. This should also be considered in the light of the long income-less wait for resolution. Offering him anything less would be victimising Johirul all over again.

Early March 2020: We try to reach Johirul for an update, but cannot get him. The phone number is no longer in use. Most probably, the case has concluded and he has gone home. We hope he got some money.

As a Singapore-registered company, the names and addresses of the directors and shareholders of Blue Hills Design and Build Pte Ltd are available on public record. As at December 2019, the sole shareholder is Thenarassu s/o Chinna Pillai who lives in Yishun; the sole director (since October 2018) is Kanagamuthu s/o Nakkeeran who also lives in Yishun one kilometre from the former, and the secretary of the company (since December 2013) is Thirulselvan s/o Rajoo who lives in Serangoon North.

Perhaps the company is bankrupt and thus there is no way to find the money to pay the workers. But the law does not stop there. Section 113 A of the Employment Act makes directors and officers of the company personally liable for unpaid salaries if they had a role in not paying workers. As a tiny company, it’s a fair presumption that these men must have had a role. In tiny companies, owners and directors make all the decisions. Even if the men were to claim that they had “traded” away the quota to another contractor, this should be dismissed as an illegitimate passing of responsibility.

The prosecution branch of MOM should go after these men, seize their HDB apartments if need be and raise the money to pay the workers.

That said, the process will take far longer than the nine months that Johirul has already waited. On the one hand, defaulting employers should not get away with non-payment of salaries, but on the other hand, employees should have quick resolution. How to square the circle?

TWC2 has proposed a variation of the insurance model. Instead of relying on the security bond insurers to cough up money, a backstop fund should be set up. This can be seeded by a tiny fraction of the foreign worker levy. As in the security bond insurance model, the backstop fund should pay out to salary-unpaid workers much of what they are owed, but the needed improvement is for the fund and MOM to be able to use the provisions of the Employment Act to sue the officers of the defaulting companies, in their personal capacity if need be, to recover the full amounts. Of course, since the worker has been paid earlier by the fund, the sums recovered should rightly be applied to replenishing the backstop fund.

Such a mechanism will achieve both objectives: quick resolution for the worker, and closing the moral hazard from letting employers go scot-free.