Based on an interview in February 2020:

Akash faced salary problems in two different jobs within a space of eight months. Even so, he comes across as a guy who just wants to move on. Perhaps that is a good survival strategy. Why dwell on the problem when it cannot be fully fixed and the chances of salary recovery poor?

Akash first showed up on TWC2’s radar in June 2019, telling us about a salary claim he lodged against his first employer. Although it was only eight months ago, he cannot now recall how much (in dollars) the claim of salary non-payment was for. Too much has happened in the meantime. All he can remember is that there was no restitution because he “close case.”

But why did he abandon the case? we ask.

“I find new job, so I have no time to do case,” he explains. Apparently, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) gave him permission to look for a new job, and he was able to find one soon enough. Seeking time off from the new employer to attend to meetings at MOM may undermine his relationship with his new boss.

Consequently, the previous employer didn’t have to pay him any salary arrears. “Boss only give me $50 makan money.” Makan money is how workers describe small amounts for meals.

Oh no, not again!

It is now February 2020 and he shows up at TWC2 again. Once more, it’s a salary problem, this time with the new employer he found in mid-2019, NSG Electrical & Construction Pte Ltd. Despite its name, it isn’t really an electrical company, but a manpower supply company, says Akash. Workers like him are seconded to other contractors’ worksites when they are in need of extra labour.

Akash shows us a copy of his IPA (see explanation) on his phone. It shows a basic monthly salary of $440, with no deductions or allowances.

Although it’s a dark image on Akash’s phone, one can see that his basic salary was $440 a month.

Apparently, salary flowed as expected in the first few months, but from November 2019 onwards, his wages stopped coming through.

“Have work, everyday have two hours overtime also,” confirms Akash, “but company not pay.” He has kept photographs of his time cards for those months (with signatures against each entry — presumably by a supervisor), and his case looks quite solid.

However, because his salary is so low, the claim value is only about $1,700.

Print-outs from the photos that Akash took of his time cards; they will help him prove his overtime hours.

Asked to pay for the job

A further discussion reveals a more complicated picture. He had suffered deductions in the previous months too, he says. What exactly happened? we ask him.

He says: “when I looking for job, this [NSG] boss ask me pay $2,400.” His is alleging that that employer asked for money in order to hire him. Desperate for a job, he had little choice but to agree.

He didn’t have all that much in cash with him and only paid $400. As for the balance $2,000, “boss cutting my salary,” claims Akash.

TWC2 then points out to him that, if so, it was illegal for the boss to demand payment for giving him a job.

Section 22A of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act states in no uncertain terms that:

22A.—(1) No person shall deduct from any salary payable to a foreign employee, or demand or receive, directly or indirectly and whether in Singapore or elsewhere, from a foreign employee any sum or other benefit —
(a) as consideration or as a condition for the employment of the foreign employee, whether by that person or any other person;
(b) as consideration or as a condition for the continued employment of the foreign employee, whether by that person or any other person; or
(c) as a financial guarantee related, in any way, to the employment of the foreign employee, whether by that person or any other person.

Thus, his salary claim should not be limited only to the most recent three months in which he was not paid at all, we urge him. He should be able to include those prior months in which the boss made illegal deductions.

However, Akash’s immediate reaction seems to be to brush aside the matter, perhaps concerned about prolonging the salary case. We leave it to him to think further about it. Should he decide to take our advice and amend his claim, TWC2 will help him do so, we say.

The bigger picture

Akash’s claim that the boss took money from him for giving him a job is no isolated case. TWC2 hears this from many workers all the time.

However, two things are noteworthy about Akash’s allegation:

  • This was a transfer job; the claimed events took place in Singapore.
  • Akash does not mention any intermediary. Many bosses use intermediaries to provide themselves cover.

These two features distinguish his claim from those made by others. The alleged offence occurred within Singapore jurisdiction and the beneficiary is clearly alleged to be the boss himself.

This should be an easy case to investigate, except that:

  • The first $400 was allegedly paid in cash.
  • The monthly deductions to make up the balance $2,000 are not documented since Akash did not receive written pay slips.

In other words, the evidence trail is poor. However, even if it is not possible to build a case for kickbacks, at the very least the employer should be investigated for not issuing detailed itemised pay slips, a requirement under the Employment Act.

And the root cause for such demands — $2,400 to get a job, in Akash’s case — has to be addressed. It lies in the poor bargaining power of foreign workers when it comes to landing a new job. Letters issued by MOM granting workers the right to seek transfer jobs are normally valid for only two weeks (though at MOM officers’ discretion, the time period can be extended somewhat), putting a severe time constraint on foreign workers to find new jobs within that small window period.

Meanwhile employers are free to hire from any of the tens of thousands in source countries wanting to work here, many willing to pay much more.

TWC2 has long argued that we should not be so liberal in allowing employers to hire directly from abroad so long as there are unemployed foreign workers here in Singapore looking for transfer jobs. For one thing, we need to retain the skills and experience of the workers already here, instead of hiring inexperienced men from abroad.

More generally, if the authorities recognise that it is hard to investigate and prosecute cash kickbacks demanded by employers, then the outcome shouldn’t be throwing up one’s hands in despair and saying “there’s nothing we can do”; it should be to turn our attention to the structural factors that make it possible for unethical, law-flouting employers to make such demands and get away with them.