A volunteer with TWC2 (back to camera) helps two workers prepare for a hearing at the Employment Claims Tribunal. They have to make written submissions in English, and after we’ve drafted one for them, we have to explain what it says, line by line, so that they know what they’re signing as their submission.
In June 2020, as the Covid-19 lockdown began to be lifted and as the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) began to revive cases that had been suspended, TWC2 decided to do a snapshot study of salary cases to guage what has happened to them through the lockdown and where things stood at that point in time. The poll was conducted in late June and early July 2020.
We hoped to be able to get a sense of:
- Whether MOM/TADM officers had remained in touch with men during the Covid-19 lockdown (April 7 – June 19, 2020)
- What the status and progress were of salary cases just prior to, during, and shortly after lockdown
- Whether MOM/TADM mediation strategies and tactics may have changed due to new circumstances.
TADM stands for Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management, the body responsible for organising mediation between employers and employees in the event of dispute. When salary claims are filed at MOM, they are routinely referred to TADM for mediation. In many workers’ minds, MOM and TADM are the same, especially as TADM meetings take place in MOM’s own building at Bendemeer Road.
We spoke to 103 men, nearly all of them living outside dormitories and eating with us at our Cuff Road Project. Three men were staying in dormitories and we surveyed them through the phone. Two of these three dormitories had been “cleared” of Covid by then, but the men were still not allowed out.
Whether MOM/TADM officers had remained in touch with men during the Covid-19 lockdown
A good majority of respondents (76%) said their MOM/TADM officers had been in contact with them during the lockdown, through the phone, WhatsApp or email. The purpose of contact was varied, though more than half the calls asked about the workers’ wellbeing. Workers reported these examples:
What did MOM officer ask/say?
- Where do I stay now?
- How is my temperature, body, health?
- Do I need any help with food money? (I said yes, but no help came).
- Talked about Covid, but not about my claim.
- Discussed/informed me about extension of my Special Pass.
- Have I applied for a new work permit/job transfer?
- Offered me $1,400 to settle my salary claim … but I said I have to think first.
- Told me I need to return to Bangladesh … I asked about the money company owes me (four installments paid so far). Boss had said he would send the rest of the money to my account in Bangladesh, but I told the MOM officer I wanted to stay here until I get my next installment, but the officer never called me back.
24% of respondents said they had no contact with their MOM/TADM officers during the lockdown.
What the status and progress were of salary cases just prior to, during, and shortly after lockdown
91 men (88% of the sample) reported that they had filed their salary claims before the lockdown began (i.e. before 7 April 2020). Claim amounts ranged from about $1,000 to a high of $40,000, with a median around $4,000. Except for one respondent who gave an unclear answer, the rest managed to file new salary claims during the lockdown, some on their own, some with TWC2’s help.
Of the 91 men who filed their salary claims before the lockdown, seven had not had a mediation meeting at TADM. Most of the rest had one to four meetings each.
About two-thirds of this subgroup (i.e. those who had one to four meetings at TADM) reported that the boss or company manager attended one or more of the TADM meetings. The remaining one third said neither the boss or the company representative showed up.
We need to be cautious about these findings because of the confusion between MOM meetings and TADM meetings. As mentioned above, it is not always clear in workers’ minds the distinction between MOM and TADM. It is possible that what the worker thinks was a TADM meeting might have been only an MOM meeting where the boss was not required to show up.
Unsuccessful outcomes from mediation
When the boss was reported to be present, we asked the worker what the boss said at the meeting. Examples of responses:
- Boss said he had no money. Would not pay outstanding salary.
- Manager attended and told TADM that the boss had run away and the company was closing.
- Boss counter-offered a smaller sum to settle the salary claim.
- Boss wanted to deduct the cost of air ticket home from my salary claim.
- Boss said he would pay up the owed salary, but still hasn’t done so.
- Manager came and spoke privately to MOM; I don’t know what they said.
A number of responses also referred to “insurance money”. This would mean an ex-gratia payment from the insurer behind the Security Bond, usually an amount negotiated by MOM in the event that the company has wound up or the boss has disappeared. The messy, somewhat incoherent responses we got from our respondents only indicated the confused expectations men had, stemming from the discretionary nature of this payout. No meaningful analysis could be made of workers’ comments.
Some cases pending before the Employment Claims Tribunal
Even before the lockdown, thirteen men had moved their cases from the (unsuccessful) TADM stage to the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT), and one was about to meet his TADM officer to prepare to file at ECT. Only one worker of the thirteen had a precise court date (just two weeks away); the others weren’t sure.
Interestingly, two of the thirteen had essentially completed their journey through the ECT. Their employers having failed to show up at court, they were given default judgements in their favour. However, despite having Orders of Tribunal in hand, they are still stuck here in Singapore. The ECT orders have so far been ignored and they are still waiting for satisfaction.
Permission to look for transfer jobs
42 men in our sample of 104 (40%) said they had received MOM’s permission to look for transfer jobs. Of these, 24 men (about half of them) said they had “found” new jobs. Yet virtually all of them were not or not yet at their new jobs, which was an unexpected finding. Because it was unexpected, our questionnaire didn’t drill into why they were in limbo. It’s certainly worth a further look.
It is possible that this is one effect of the lockdown. Even though a new employer might be prepared to take a man on, it just wasn’t possible to start work under the circumstances.
Half our respondents mulling ex-gratia money or reduced amount instead of full settlement of owed salary
To make sense of the varied answers, one question played the role of summarising their case status. It was a multiple choice question.
What is the current situation about your case? Of 103 respondents:
- 10 respondents (10%) said “I think MOM is arranging meetings with my boss”.
- 13 respondents (13%) said “I think my case is going to the courts”.
- 47 respondents (47%) said “MOM is offering me money to close the case”.
- 19 respondents (18%) said “No idea at all what is happening”.
There were 14 blank responses (14%)
Nearly half our sample (47 men out of 103) thus had specific offers made to them, though most were less than happy with the amounts offered. These were the men who said “MOM is offering me money to close the case”.
They were really of two subgroups. 24 men said they knew the money would be coming from either the Security Bond Insurer or Migrant Workers Centre (MWC). Ex-gratia amounts offered ranged from $850 to $2,500, with one outlier saying $4,000.
21 men misunderstood the question. Subsequent answers from them revealed that the money they were promised (or likely to be promised) would come from the employer in settlement of their cases.
The remaining two men didn’t give us clear answers as to which party made them the offer.
This is not to suggest that the other half of our overall sample were going to get full settlement of their owed salary. They’re just not even getting an offer of any kind. Either their cases are on the way to the courts or they have no idea where their cases currently stand, or it’s early days yet, having only filed their claims very recently.
Whether MOM/TADM mediation strategies and tactics may have changed due to new circumstances
Ten men could tell us what MOM/TADM said to them should they reject the offered money from the insurer, MWC or the employer.
- Two men told us the MOM/TADM officer said that as the employer had no money or was bankrupt, the ex-gratia payout from the insurer or MWC was all there was.
- Three men had what they perceived as unhelpful, dismissive replies.
One man reported: “If not accept, then there will be problem”. The officer did not explain what “problem” would arise.
Another reported a similarly curt reply: “If you reject the offer, then what happens after that, MOM is not responsible”.
The third man reported that his MOM/TADM officer insisted that he would be repatriated without any clear explanation about how his case should move on. A further request for a transfer letter was met with “This matter is not my department’s.”
- Three men reported being told, “If you reject the offer, then case will go to court (ECT)”, but the MOM/TADM officer didn’t mention anything about first being repatriated.
- Two men were told, “If you reject the offer, then case will go to court (ECT)”, but the worker was told that he’d be repatriated, and then he would have to pay his own way back to Singapore for his ECT hearing.
The last type of message (in bold above) is very concerning. We have written about its consequences in the article Post-Covid roadblocks to salary justice (26 June 2020).
As expected, there was little movement in the filed cases during the lockdown. MOM/TADM officers mostly stayed in contact with workers, but more often than not, it was to check on their wellbeing and to keep their Special Passes current.
It was not possible to organise mediation meetings when workers were confined to dormitories. Video meetings were technologically beyond their resources — limited wifi bandwidth — and anyway, staying 10 – 20 men to a dorm meant a lack of privacy. MOM officers would also have been working from home, so it would be difficult even for them.
There have been more recent contacts with the lifting of the lockdown, but mostly they have taken the form of encouraging workers to accept whatever money was being offered. When workers resisted, a new situation then unfolded which TWC2 had never seen before — a decision to repatriate workers without first exhausting the claim process, or expecting workers to bear significant new costs in order to proceed. This is an unacceptable policy change.