The headline of the story in the Straits Times was:

MOM will take up issue with employers if workers are not paid: Lawrence Wong

The newspaper reported Lawrence Wong, the minister heading the Covid-19 Task Force, saying that if there were instances where foreign workers were not being paid, the government would approach the employer to find out what was going on as it expected employers to do their part and pay their workers. (Straits Times, 22 August 2020, Link behind paywall)

Wong was replying to a question put by Bloomberg at a 21 August 2020 press conference. The question was:

I’ve been hearing some kind of complaints regarding some of the workers who haven’t been paid or in a situation where they are unable to return to work not because they are not approved by the government but rather because they don’t have the jobs. I’m wondering if that’s to an extent true, if it’s a widespread issue, and how many of these workers are we looking at or perhaps in this kind of limbo at the moment.

You can hear the question and Wong’s reply in this video, starting from 32min 18 secs:

The Straits Times summarised his reply, and Health minister Gan Kim Yong’s additional comments thus:

“The Government has been providing considerable support to employers, and we do expect employers to do their part to continue to pay the workers,” Mr Wong said during a multi-ministry task force virtual press conference.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong added that for pay issues, whether as a Singaporean or foreign worker, one should alert the Manpower Ministry (MOM) so it can take up the issue with the employer appropriately.

“It is important to ensure that our workers get paid,” said Mr Gan, regardless of whether one is a local or migrant worker.

Although Wong, in his reply, treated the question of salary and returning to work separately, the two are in fact linked. The issue that is causing the greatest frustration among migrant workers is that of not receiving anything remotely close to their contracted basic salary through the months of April, May, June and July. These were the months when their dorms were quarantined or they were otherwise prevented from leaving those premises.

Even now, many of then — perhaps still over a hundred thousand — have no work to return to despite getting a “green” signal on their app indicating that they are safe to return to work. That may be because, as Lawrence Wong indicated in his response, other complications have prevented the worksite from starting up.

It is easy to say (in isolation from the question of returning to work) that salaries should be paid, but the Ministry of Manpower has so hopelessly confused the question of salary entitlement that even if Lawrence Wong says salary should be paid, MOM says at the same time that they aren’t entitled to any salary at all.

In other words, the government is giving two contradictory replies at the same time.

  1. Salary should be paid.
  2. No, you’re not entitled to salary.

One simple example:

TWC2 wrote to MOM in late July relaying complaints from three workers from Hong Seng Engineering and Trading. The workers said they had not been paid their June salaries. MOM’s reply (3 August 2020) was that “since they were not working, employer need not pay them salary”.

The workers were not working because the dorms were locked down, project sites were closed and the employer had no work for them.

However, under the law — Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations 2012, Fourth Schedule, Part III, Section 4 — it is very clear that whether or not the employer has work for the employee, salary remains payable.

4. Except where the foreign employee is on no-pay leave outside Singapore, the employer shall, regardless of whether there is actual work for the foreign employee but subject to any other written law, pay the foreign employee not less than —
(a) the amount declared as the fixed monthly salary in the work pass application submitted to the Controller in relation to the foreign employee; or
(b) if the amount of fixed monthly salary is at any time subsequently revised in accordance with paragraph 6A of Part IV, the last revised amount.
Such payment must be made not later than 7 days after the end of each salary period, which shall be agreed between the employer and the employee and which in no case shall exceed one month.

Thus, Wong’s reply and Straits Times’ report gloss over the issue. It’s very easy to say that salaries should be paid, but it is MOM itself that ignores the law and gives employers a free pass, rather than enforce it.