In February 2021, the Straits Times featured John Peter Ayyavu’s case in a video and a news story.

By TWC2 volunteer Oliver Zemans with contributions by others

On 8 March 2021, Ayyavu John Peter returned to Pudukkottai — a town in Tamil Nadu, India — bruised and battered from his employment experience in Singapore and his battle with the justice system. It culminated in an ambush attack at Chennai airport by his boss who was angry that John had the audacity to try to enforce his right to the promised wage for work performed.

Fortunately, John was not hurt in the attack. The tall young man with impressive biceps gave as good as he got and it was the boss who ultimately fell backwards.

John’s past few months in Singapore had been defined by countless meetings at MOM and multiple court filings and appearances. Despite this, his rightful claim for his wages — rightful because the Employment Claims Tribunal affirmed it — remained, as at end June 2021, mostly unpaid. The debt that he and his family got into to pay the recruitment “fee” for the job remained unrelieved.

The employer was Deiva Shanmuga Sri Construction Pte Ltd and the boss was Seenivasan Arumugam, a director of the company. In its filings with Singapore’s Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA), the company provided an address in Pudukkottai for Seenivasan, not an address in Singapore. As at June 2020, Seenivasan was also the controlling shareholder of the company, owning 200,000 out of 205,000 ordinary shares. Another director, named Shanmugam Arumugam, also with a Pudukkottai address, held the remaining 5,000 shares.

For all practical purposes, this was an Indian company operating in Singapore and, as we shall see in the story below, breaking Singapore law.

Part of an endemic problem across Singapore

John’s story illustrates the pitfalls and frustrations experienced by many foreign workers who come to Singapore for employment and serves to spotlight the gaps in a system designed to protect workers’ rights, but which falls short again and again to the detriment of John and his fellow workers.

It began in the earlier half of 2019 when the young man and holder of a civil engineering diploma wanted to fulfil his dream of working in Singapore. Asking around soon led him to Seenivasan who was then in Pudukkottai. Almost immediately, John was asked to cough up a sum equivalent to $6,000 to $7,000 to get a job with Seenivasan’s firm.

This corrupt practice is astoundingly common in Singapore’s foreign labour market, and the efforts of our Ministry of Manpower to combat it are plainly unequal to the task. Often, these fees can exceed the total expected annual income, which means the worker would effectively be working more than a year for free.

At some point, it was agreed in John Peter’s case that the fee would be paid in two instalments, and would be closer to $6,000 than $7,000 — though that is still a lot of money, considering that its only purpose was to line someone’s pockets. The first instalment, amounting to 175,000 Indian Rupees (about $3,135 at exchange rate of June 2019) was paid as a bank transfer from John’s father, Ayyavoo M A, to Seenivasan.

The image below shows a transfer of 175,000 Rupees from Ayyavu M A’s Canara Bank account to “yourself” (ie. Canara Bank) with further instructions to transfer the same amount from Canara Bank to Seenivasan’s account at Indian Bank.

The money transfer was dated 15 June 2019. It was after this payment that John was offered the employment contract, which he signed on 1 August 2019. It stated a position of “Asst Civil Engg” with a salary of $2,800.

In the imaged Employment Contract below, we draw readers’ attention to the signature that John Peter used on it. This saga would later involve false signatures.

For some reason, Seenivasan asked John to come to Singapore even before the S-Pass application (see Glossary) was approved. John had to pay his own way here. Soon after arrival, he went to a money changer to change a stash of Indian Rupees into Singapore Dollars, and then met up with Seenivasan to pay him the second part of the recruitment fee.

They went to an ATM machine together. Seenivasan took the cash ($3,050) from John and deposited it into his personal account. When John asked Seenivasan for a receipt, Seenivasan pressed a button to print a deposit receipt from the ATM machine. That is imaged at left.

John stayed two months. The room was provided by Deiva but he had to pay for his own meals when he had no income. Despite waiting two months, MOM’s approval for his S-Pass did not come through and John then had to return to India on 8 October 2019 when his social visit pass expired.

A month later, on 7 November 2019, the S-Pass was finally approved. He then bought a ticket for another flight to Singapore.

Go to part 2.