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
Harassment and abuse of process
When John Peter Ayyavu’s employer, Deiva Shanmuga Sri Construction Pte Ltd, was notified that the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT) had issued an order against them for wages owed, they woke up, took notice, and struck back. They filed an application to set aside the tribunal order on 5 October 2020.
Now, it was up to John to protect the integrity of the order. TWC2 helped John counter the arguments put forth by the employer. These included:
- that they (the employer) were never informed of the ECT hearing;
- that their Singapore-based director was sick on the date in question.
These claims were easily refuted, though it is worth noting here that the medical records presented to “support” the second argument had various dates, none of which was the hearing date.
As frivolous as these claims sound and indeed were found to be, the impact on John of this fresh round of hearings was more stress, and more meetings and filings by our TWC2 team.
Even when the employer’s application to set aside the order was dismissed, it was not the end of the matter. They launched an appeal of the dismissal. While this appeal too was eventually dismissed, weeks passed and John had to remain in Singapore without the means to support himself.
In the end, the employer failed in their attempt to quash the ECT order, and it stands to this day that John is entitled to his unpaid salary. However, having a tribunal order in hand and having the order paid are two very different things. There is a process (of sorts) for enforcement of salary claim orders, but the process requires information about the debtor’s finances and assets, and the use of bailiffs and lawyers. Against thinly capitalised corporations holding few assets, it is much harder. In any case, would a typical foreign worker know anything about where a company’s assets and bank accounts are?
Shortly after, TWC2 helped John engage a pro bono lawyer named Benedict Eoon from Covenant Chambers LLC to help enforce the order.
Counterclaims at Small Claims Court
At the same time, it also became evident that the employer was not yet done with their tricks. John soon found himself a respondent in two baseless claims brought against him in the Small Claims Court. In one, the claim was for damages for “stolen tools and equipment”, while in the other, the employer claimed that John owed “unpaid rent”,
Coincidentally or not, the value of these two claims, when added together, totalled almost the exact amount that the employer had been ordered by the ECT to pay John as owed wages.
The two Small Claims Court cases were heard separately in early 2021. The one about the alleged stolen tools was heard on 26 January 2021, but since the employer did not attend, it was dismissed.
The claim over the alleged unpaid rent had several hearings between 14 January 2021 and 23 March. The employer first presented to the court a Rent Agreement in which John had supposedly agreed to pay rent for his accommodation. John argued that although he had stayed at the property, there was no agreement for him to pay since accommodation was to be provided by the employer in line with the Employment Contract. The employer then produced another “Employment Contract” allegedly signed by John in which was stated that accommodation was not provided for.
In both these documents presented by the employer, the false signature that the employer had earlier created for John was used. See Part 2 for the history of this false signature.
The Small Claims Court magistrate observed that the signatures were so different from John’s signature on the original Employment Contract, he could not take the supposed Rent Agreement or (substituted) Employment Contract at face value.
Since the burden of proof lay with the claimant, he then asked the employer to produce more evidence that a rent agreement existed. In his written grounds of decision, he wrote that if indeed there was a tenancy “a lot of normal documentation and communication would be generated, for example, if rent was not paid on time (as in the present case) this would prompt chasers and reminders to pay rent.”
Deiva was unable to produce any such evidence, and thus the magistrate found in John’s favour.
Recognising the considerable amount of time spent by John and TWC2 volunteers in preparing John’s defence, the magistrate ordered Deiva to pay a cost of $300 to John.
Meanwhile, Seenivasan the boss, who was then in India, harassed John on WhatsApp, including a threat against John’s life upon his return to India. He also filed police complaints in India against John’s father, alleging that during India’s covid lockdown when travel between districts was not permitted, John’s father had nonetheless travelled and threatened Seenivasan.
John attempted to bring a Magistrate’s Complaint in Singapore against Seenivasan over what, by any reasonable standard, amounted to harassment, but this move was stymied because the magistrate found the harassing conduct to have been by a person outside Singapore and would not attribute the director’s threats as actions of the Singapore-based company of which he was a director.
Unfortunately, John was not entitled to counsel before the magistrate; if he had, counsel would know how to advance a legal argument about how the actions and words of a director and majority shareholder can be seen as inseparable from a corporation (Seenivasan’s company, Deiva, was incorporated in Singapore). Without counsel in the room, this argument was not presented.
Two months later, with better advice, John filed a second Magistrate’s Complaint, this time over forgery and conspiracy. Indeed, the employer’s attempts to introduce forged documents in both the salary claim and the frivolous Small Claims Court cases should not go unaddressed. This met with more success than the first Magistrate’s Complaint.
John appeared before a Duty Mgistrate on 3 March 2021 for examination and affirmation of the complaint, which was then referred t the Central Police Division HQ for investigation. As of the time of writing, we believe the investigation is ongoing.
Enforcing the ECT order
The frivolous Small Claims Court claims dismissed, John could turn his attention to enforcing the order he had in hand since the year before, over his lost wages.
The first step would be to obtain a garnishee order against the employer’s corporate bank account. Fortunately, John had copies of deposit slips from errands he had run for his employer and with those, John could see the account number. With the help of the pro-bono lawyer, a sum of just over $1,000 was seized from this account through the garnishee process; this was the total amount of funds in that one account that John was aware of.
Regulations prohibit seeking garnishee orders against provident fund or tax accounts the employer may have held.
On 6 February 2021, Deiva (the employer) offered an instalment payment plan comprising twelve instalments each of $1,000. Through his pro bono counsel, John rejected the offer. John knew if he accepted this, the Ministry of Manpower would consider the matter closed, and he would be sent back to India. Once repatriated, it would be hard for him to continue to press for payment and quite likely, further instalments would not materialise.
Even though John rejected the instalment plan, on or around 25 February 2021, Deiva paid $1,000 to him. John took the money while making it clear that doing so in no way signalled his acceptance of the instalment plan. It was money due to him under the ECT order and should have been paid the previous August.
With this payment and with the amount seized through the garnishee order, the balance remaining from the original $13,262.74 in the ECT order was now $11,142.77.