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
The salary claim
After paying over $6,000 to secure a job with Deiva Shanmuga Sri Construction Pte Ltd, John Peter Ayyavu’s S-Pass application took quite a while before the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) gave its approval. We don’t know the reasons for that but in view of all else that has happened since, it is an immaterial detail.
The important thing was that John’s anxious wait was over. Notified about MOM’s approval, John bought an airticket and flew into Singapore in November 2019 to start his new career here, installing airconditioning systems.
Employer created a new signature for John
On his very first day on the job, papers needed to be signed — loose ends required by MOM that must be tied up. Among them was a form which his boss Seenivasan Arumugam — the majority owner of the company — signed on John’s behalf. The boss then announced, “this is your new signature and we can now sign for you whenever we please.”
John’s period of employment commenced on 12 November 2019 and lasted only till 31 March 2020 when he lodged a salary claim against the employer. While he received some salary for the partial month of November, he received none for the four months from December to March. Each time his salary failed to materialise, John raised the matter with the boss in person and through text messages, but the typical reply he got was that the money would come through the following month, and all should be “OK”.
Four months on, even that reply vanished. He got cold shoulders from the boss instead.
John did get some extra money so he could get meals, but this too was reduced each month, from $100 to as low as $50 by the fourth month.
As for accommodation, he was housed in a second-floor room in a shophouse in Geylang. The company paid the rent which was consistent with the employment contract that stated: “House: Yes”.
After John launched his salary claim at MOM, the employer would use the fake signature against him over the question of accommodation. The boss created a fake employment contract stating that accommodation was not included and a fake sub-tenancy agreement under which John would have to pay the monthly rent and utilities. The new signature that the boss had created for John was used in both these forgeries.
This side battle between John and the employer will be discussed in Part 3, after we’ve detailed the salary claim.
The salary claim begins
Tired of his employer’s excuses and needing money to repay debt and to cover food and transportation, John lodged a complaint on 31 March 2020 at the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM). The claim was for unpaid salary from December to March, both months included.
Notified that a case had been lodged, the employer promptly cancelled John’s S-Pass, effectively throwing him out of the job. Following standard procedure, MOM put John on a Special Pass which regularised his continued stay in Singapore in order to pursue his claim.
Singapore’s salary claim system
Under the Employment Claims Act, if a salary claim is for under $20,000 in value, then there is a two-stage process.
The first stage would be to file a mediation request at the Tripartite Alliance of Dispute Management (TADM), a unit closely related to the Ministry of Manpower. The aim of mediation to try to reach an amicable settlement.
Should that fail, then the case is escalated to the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT) over which a magistrate presides. Here, the parties are to present their evidence and arguments and the Tribunal arrives at a decision either to dismiss the claim or to issue a money order in favour of one of the parties — the worker if he wins his case.
TADM set the date the first mediation session for 6 April 2020. The employer didn’t bother to show up.
Later in the month, Deiva (the employer) submitted four forged payslips “proving” that John had received his salary for the relevant months. In addition, they submitted a fake “salary advance” voucher showing that John owed the company $2,150. On all these documents, the forged signature was used.
Even on the face of it, the “salary advances” IOU stretched the bounds of credulity. The standard practice at any company giving advances to employees is to have a voucher prepared and signed each time an advance is made. One wouldn’t have four instances of advances, spread over a number of months, with none precisely dated, written into a single voucher and dated the month after the last advance was taken.
This IOU is imaged below, bearing a forged signature. John saw this “IOU” for the first time only after it had been submitted to MOM; it was also the first time he had seen this purported signature.
The so-called payslips submitted by the employer to TADM were curiously quixotic (to put it nicely). Despite the fact that the salary stated on both the employment contract and the S-Pass application sent to MOM in mid-2019 was a monthly $2,800, the purported payslips didn’t even show this amount. Every month showed a different amount; all had amounts less than the contracted salary.
As an example, here is the “payslip” for the month of December 2019:
In any case, under the law, all S-Pass employees had to be paid via their bank accounts. John could easily prove that no wages were deposited into his account for the months in question, these fake payslips notwithstanding.
A few months later, Deiva tried intimidation. During a phone conversation in June, Alagappan, another director of Deiva, told John that Seenivasan would create any document he might need with John’s fake signature.
John realised he needed help. After asking around, he found TWC2 and approached us for the first time on 15 June 2020.
At the Employment Claims Tribunal
Since the employer clearly preferred to use underhand methods rather than participate seriously in the mediation, the TADM phase of the salary claim got nowhere. The case was then escalated to the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT). The first case management conference took place in August 2020 but neither the boss nor any representative of Deiva showed up. In default, the Tribunal awarded John his claim.
Here is the Order issued on 7 August 2020 for the amount of $13,262.74.
All this and it’s only the beginning of the saga. If John ever felt elated by his victory at the tribunal, that elation did not last. The hard slog of actually getting payment was only just beginning.
The problem lay in a few seemingly innocuous words on the very face of the Tribunal’s Order. They said that if the employer did not pay up by 10 August 2020, John Peter would have the right to enforce the order. John Peter. Not the State. Not the criminal justice system even though the Order bore the State crest and one might think that anyone ignoring a court order might interest the State.
It was John’s responsibility — penniless migrant worker though he might be — to go get the money himself.
Go to Part 3.