Prado Museum, Madrid

By TWC2 volunteer Joshua T based on an interview in September 2020

Sheikh Rezaule presents two different stories. The first is what one hears when he eagerly tells us about his salary claim. The second he doesn’t even know about. Like an X-ray, it only emerges when we can see beyond the surface of the first story.

“MOM say no more money,” is how he frames the conclusion of his first story. He launched his salary claim in November 2019, after he had worked three and a half months with Taisheng Construction Pte Ltd. He joined the company in July 2019. His labours for all three and a half months went unpaid and he was owed $6,834.

At the mediation sessions, the boss showed up once, but no settlement could be reached. Around February 2020, the case went up to the Employment Claims Tribunal, where Rezaule won a judgement in his favour — for the full amount of $6,834, he emphasises.

The boss didn’t pay up. TWC2 sees this all the time. Court judgements are merrily ignored.

With Covid-19 and the lockdown, things went into slow motion for a while. Around July 2020, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) asked Rezaule for his bank account number, and lo and behold, $4,000 was deposited into it.

“So your boss finally paid up?” I ask to be sure if my reading of the situation is correct.

“No, not boss,” Rezaule says, bemused by my naivete. “MOM pay. Or maybe MWC,” he clarifies, referring to Migrant Workers Centre. “Or maybe insurance,” now referring to the insurance company behind the security bond. “I don’t know who pay, but I think not boss.”

He continues. “So later I ask MOM, balance how? When pay me?” He is still $2,834 short.

“MOM say no more money.”

X-ray reveal

While Rezaule is telling me all this, my editor peruses his case documents. “This is ridiculous,” he mumbles under his breath as he scrutinises Rezaule’s In-Principle Approval (IPA) (see Glossary). This is the document issued by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) indicating approval of the employer Taisheng Construction’s application for a Work Permit for him, back in July 2019. It contains various details submitted by Taisheng with respect to Rezaule’s terms of employment.

“His basic salary is absurdly low,” my editor remarks. “Only $286 per month, or ” — he punches the calculator — “$1.50 per hour.”

“At this rate, he’d have to work three or four hours just to buy the simplest meal in a food court.”

Rezaule’s IPA is a work of art, carefully maximising the gain to the employer while paying him as unfavourably as possible. It even skirts the law in ways that MOM seems not to see.

Sheikh Rezaule’s In-principle Approval provides details of salary terms

Rezaule is an experienced construction worker, having worked at least six years in Singapore. The IPA scintillatingly states a Fixed Monthly Salary of $1,600, which then puts him in the category of an “R1 worker” and which sets the monthly foreign worker levy payable by the employer at a discounted rate of $600 per month instead of the usual rate of $950 — in the case of “MYE-waiver workers” which Rezaule is. See this Straits Times article about levy rates for Work Permit holders in construction, for 1 July 2019 onwards (paywall).

We confirmed from another portion of the IPA bundle that the levy rate payable by Taisheng was $600 a month instead of $950. Thus, the employer saved $350 very month. The State lost $350 every month.

Ah, but the employer had no intention of payng him $1,600 a month. The other parts of the IPA are cleverly engineered to avoid this.

To arrive at the Fixed Monthly Salary of $1,600, the employer stated the Basic Monthly Salary to be $286 per month and then padded it up with a monthly allowance of $1,314. Because the overtime rate of pay is pegged to Basic, not to the Fixed Monthly, the implication of such a low Basic is that for every hour of overtime work, he would only be paid $2.25, still not enough to buy a meal.

Two massive deductions

Then the Fixed Monthly is slashed by two massive deductions. $400 is taken out for housing and another $400 taken out for “Others”, leaving a nett salary after deductions of $800 per month.

In other words, exactly half of the Fixed Monthly Salary of $1,600 is snatched away — a ratio carefully crafted to conform to Section 32(1) of the Employment Act which stipulates that deductions shall not exceed 50 percent of salary payable.

In TWC2’s opinion, both $400 deductions are of dubious legality. Unfortunately, we do not see MOM enquiring into such devious methods of salary reduction.

With respect to housing deduction, Section 30(2) of the Employment Act states that any such deduction…

shall not exceed an amount equivalent to the value of the house accommodation, amenity or service supplied, and the total amount of all deductions [for accommodation, amenities and services] made from the salary of the employee by his employer in any one salary period shall in no case exceed one-quarter […] of the salary payable to the employee in respect of that period.

While the $400 deduction for housing, amenities and services stated in the IPA may be exactly one quarter of the Fixed Monthly Salary, based on what we know of market rates in the dormitory market, this is likely to be in excess of the actual cost and value of the benefits supplied. Even good quality dormitories, from what we’ve observed, do not charge more than $350 a month per resident. On this count, it is therefore likely to be a case of some overcharging and therefore illegal.

As for the $400 deduction for “Others”, it likely falls foul of Section 26 of the Employment Act which makes clear that only such deductions as provided for under the Act can be allowed. The law then lists allowable deductions for reasons such as absence from work, damage, recovery of salary advances and loans, and so on, but there is no provision for any catch-all category called “Others” especially if the deduction came with neither written consent of the employee nor any identifiable benefit given to him by the employer.

The murky nature of “Monthly deduction for Other” is examined in detail in our article What does “monthly deduction for others” actually mean? (January 2020).

This item on Rezaule’s IPA look like a nefarious one.

Yet, in the end, what was all that artistry for? The employer didn’t pay him anything, and as we can see from how the case concluded, that was that.

A third story

All these technicalities are beyond Rezaule. For now, he seems happy enough to have at least gotten $4,000 from…. whoever.

“But if your case is over, why are you still in Singapore?” I ask. “Looking for a transfer job? Or can’t get any flight back to Bangladesh?” Flights are far fewer than in normal times due to to Covid-19.

Rezaule grins sheepishly. “Have another case,” he says, and goes on to tell me about it.

However, since it has nothing to do with Taisheng Construction, we’ll stop here. We’ll just say that all it shows is that a migrant worker’s life is often a string of one problem after another.