By TWC2 volunteer Vernice Chua based on an interview in November 2020

Sikder Arzu shows us several photos of his time cards on his phone. We look closely at them, not quite believing our eyes. As in the example pictured below, he was working five to eight hours of overtime a day on top of the eight normal hours he was putting in. The example here shows fifteen days of a month (it’s not shown which month this was) and he was working all fifteen days, including the two Sundays, 7th and 14th, within this period.

Arzu has photos of several time cards on his phone. This one is typical, showing the long hours he was putting in.

Other months were like this too, he says. It was normal to be working a total of 13 – 16 hours a day.

During his time in Royal Vision Scaffolding Pte Ltd, he estimates that he worked more than 200 overtime hours a month when the legislated maximum is 72 hours. He persevered, despite having to manage with only two hours of sleep on some nights.

He also says he was not properly paid for the overtime he put in.

The discrepancy in pay became an issue after Arzu suffered an accident at work. He says a piece of plywood fell on him in September 2019, leaving him with an injured left shoulder, back and leg that rendered him unfit to work. He filed an injury claim at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

However, as explained in the editorial comment below, the amount of disability compensation he may be entitled to depends on his salary, and if that is tallied to an inaccurate amount, it would make the compensation amount unfair to him.

When Arzu learned that rectifying the salary was important for him to get rightful injury compensation, he raised the matter with MOM, following which several rounds of meetings were held. Things were complicated because the employer had partially paid for overtime but applied a low rate, and then threw in some allowances. Since the allowances were not contractually fixed, the employer wanted to claw back the allowances he had previously paid if he had to pay the full overtime amount.

Why weren’t they contractually fixed? In late December 2018, Arzu was introduced to Royal Vision Scaffolding by a friend who was then working in the company. Arzu spoke with the supervisor who, among other promises, said the job would come with a daily allowance of $3. It was all verbal, as is almost universally the case in such hiring situations.

However, when the documentation for the job came through, the salary details had no mention of the $3 allowance, and this became a bone of contention in the afore-mentioned meetings.

To cut a long story short, the dispute over overtime wages was eventually settled and Arzu got some money.

What he couldn’t get back — “I no have proof,” he says — was the $3,000 he paid for the job.

“All man must pay” for their jobs

This was the amount that Arzu was asked to pay the supervisor as “agent fee”. As there was really no agent involved since Arzu spoke directly with the supervisor,  one can guess who was the one benefitting from this asked-for payment.

Since Arzu was then in Bangladesh, he had to ask his uncle, then working in Singapore, to make the payment for him. The deal was carried out near Mustafa Centre in the Serangoon Road area and $3,000 in cash was handed over. Arzu then purchased an air ticket and headed to Singapore.

Arzu wasn’t the only one who had to pay for the job. “All man must pay,” he says.

Bangladeshi workers, of which the company had about ten, paid to the supervisor. Indian workers, says Arzu, had their salaries deducted about $100 a month. “So that means company take the money, not only the supervisor,” he adds.

“How many Indian workers were there?” we ask.

“About 80 or 90,” Arzu estimates. “So, you see, many money for…”

For whoever was pocketing it all.

Having settled the salary issue, the only detail left to be resolved is Arzu’s injury claim. As at the time of our interview, it’s nearing the end and we hope he gets a fair payout. Then he can go home to see his family.

The father

We wonder what the father will say.

As the eldest son of his family, Arzu grew up believing that his future would lie in Singapore despite opportunities in other countries in the region, His father, a veteran with 20 years of work experience in Singapore, tried to dissuade his eldest son from doing so.

When asked why he still chose to come here, Arzu says, “Singapore is good and safe.”

When you make a choice like that, you stick with it, notwithstanding absurdly long working hours, high recruitment fees, salary underpayment, and injury.

Under the Work Injury Compensation Act, there are two kinds of compensation, for “temporary incapacity” and for “permanent incapacity”, The former is better known as medical leave wages, while the latter is a payout for any permanent disability that results. Both quanta are based on fairly complex formulae, but one important factor that goes into the computation is the “average monthly earnings” (for the past twelve months) of the employee.

Average monthly earnings is defined to include overtime.

Thus, should an employee allege that he or she has not been correctly paid during the past twelve months, it becomes important to resolve the issue before a final determination of injury compensation can be made.