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

Continued from Part 3.

More tricks

Having failed in their attempts to make counter claims against John Peter Ayyavu through groundless action via the Small Claims Court, the employer, Deiva Shanmuga Sri Construction Pte Ltd,  then offered an instalment plan for payment of the owed salary.

John Peter rejected this plan. The order he had from the Employment Claims Tribunal clearly said that the owed amount should have been paid by 10 August 2020, some six months earlier.

John was still owed $11,142.77 out of the original amount of $13,262.74 on the court order, but getting it was going to be a herculean task, his legal rights notwithstanding.

Help from the Migrant Workers Assistance Fund

As it became clear that there would be no quick resolution of the problem, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) sought the assistance of the Migrant Workers’ Centre and secured a $4,000 ex-gratia gift to John.

With that, MOM told John it was time for him to go home. Perhaps the ministry considered his case to have progressed enough for him to be repatriated even though, as explained in the editorial comment just below, he was nowhere near recovering his unpaid wages in full.

John booked a flight for 8 March 2021.

Fact-checking MOM

A shorter, earlier version of John Peter’s story did not mention this $4,000 ex-gratia gift since it was written in September 2020 before John received this money. There, we wrote that John “did not recover any monies owed to him by his employer, as at late September 2020.”

Even though that was a statement of fact as at September 2020, MOM took issue with that version saying that John “had in fact recovered half of the claim amount (~$7,000) through a court order issued by the State Courts and an ex-gratia payment by the Migrant Workers’ Centre.”

We felt strongly that the way MOM was constructing the narrative was misleading and we wrote to them to point it out. Firstly, any ex-gratia gift should never be counted as recovery of monies owed; the debt as set out in the ECT order remained unchanged however much John received ex-gratia. We felt that MOM was trying to paint an unjustifiably glowing picture of the effectiveness of their salary claims system by inflating the rate of recovery through such phrasing.

Secondly, the $7,000 figure could only be arrived at with the inclusion of the amount TWC2 helped John obtain via the garnishee order and the $1,000 offered by the employer. MOM’s wording that John “recovered half the claim amount … through a court order…” is at best an incomplete truth, ignoring the efforts that the pro-bono lawyer and TWC2 had to put in when the State machinery failed.

MOM subsequently replied to TWC2 with new wording, agreeing that John “managed to recover some monies through the enforcement of a garnishee’s order and some payment from the employer. At the same time, MOM sought the assistance of [Migrant Workers Centre] to extend ex-gratia payment to Mr Ayyavu to help tide over his financial situation. Collectively, the amount Mr Ayyavu received was close to half of the ordered amount by the ECT.”

What about the complaint about kickbacks?

The opening of this story (see Part 1) described how Seenivasan got payment from John and his family as consideration for giving John a job.  John’s father paid 175,000 Indian Rupees in India (about $3,135) and John himself paid a further $3,050 in Singapore. Such payments are called kickbacks and are illegal.

The law clearly says that no employer shall demand or receive any sum or other benefit from any party in connection with the employment of a foreign employee. The words are clear enough, but as will be discussed in this section and in Part 5 (commentary), having a law is one thing, executing it meaningfully is another.

Unlike many other workers who were made to pay for their jobs, John was in a better position to prove his case, Part 1 of our story displayed the documentation that John had, showing the money transactions involved.

John first raised this issue with MOM quite early in the saga, so early in fact, that he cannot recall when exactly. What he does remember was the “MOM lady” saying that this was not an issue that MOM could do anything about. John was discouraged from taking the matter further.

In November 2020, when the Straits Times interviewed John for their video documentary CloseUp: Migrant Burden, the newspaper asked MOM for their reaction to this kickbacks complaint. According to second-hand information we received from the reporter, MOM’s reply was something along these lines: the matter had been looked into and no investigation was being pursued.

Disappointing though it was, this reply was at least consistent with what John was told at the start.

Then suddenly on 22 December 2020. John was summoned to MOM and questioned for nearly four hours about the kickback allegation. He became hopeful that something might now come out of it.

This was not to be. After another two months, we heard that MOM was closing the matter because they judged that there was insufficient evidence. MOM would later write to TWC2 saying,

MOM’s investigations, which involved interviews with other employees of the company and the company directors, found insufficient evidence to support [John] Ayyavu’s alleged kickbacks claims. We made multiple attempts to update Ayyavu on the outcome of his case but we were not successful in contacting him as he had returned to his home country.

The last bit was rather strange, because John reported to us after he had gone home that he had in fact been contacted by an MOM officer, albeit over the progress of the salary recovery. So MOM was indeed able to contact John post-repatriation, as was TWC2, since he kept his WhatsApp number active.

What’s also strange is how interviewing directors of the company is considered adequate for an investigation. Or other employees — what would they know about what the boss did vis-a-vis John’s application for a job? Interestingly, MOM’s reply did not mention anything about interviewing John’s father, the man who went to a bank to arrange a payment of 175,000 rupees to Seenivasan.

And with that, John Peter had no further hope of recovering the $6,000 he and his father paid to get the job. This loss is on top of the unpaid salary.

Yet another attempt to deceive

That call from MOM to John in India itself opens another story, another attempted trick. MOM had, rightly, imposed a hiring freeze on Deiva (the employer) so long as the ECT order remained unpaid. In that call, John was told that Deiva had sent an image of a cheque to MOM. The photo of the crossed cheque dated 7 April 2021 showed an amount of approximately $11,000 — which is about the unpaid balance from the ECT order — and that it was made out to John. Clearly, Deiva wanted MOM to believe that the outstanding amount had been settled and the hiring freeze should be lifted.

The MOM officer asked John to verify this. John told MOM that he never received any such cheque.

Should the hiring freeze ever be lifted when an employer is shown to resort readily to dishonest tricks?

As at June 2021, John has not received the balance owed. John confirmed such to us. We’re also certain that we’ve not seen the last of the attempts to deceive MOM.

Will it ever end?

More importantly, the question is whether salary non-payment and stonewalling of ECT orders will ever end.

Thousands of migrant workers have been victimised by employers in Singapore using some, if not all, of the loopholes detailed above. A thorough review of the process to close loopholes is warranted and strongly recommended.

Essentially, we have a system where workers are made to assume much of the risk in the employment relationship. They first put in work and only later are they paid. When they are not, they have to prove that they were not paid even though documentation of wage payments is under the control of employers. Even when they win their cases at the Employment Claims Tribunal, enforcement is left to workers; somehow these workers with ECT orders have to know where the assets of their employers are.

Moreover, they have no inherent right to continue staying in Singapore even if their cases are unresolved. MOM can tell them to go home, thus undermining their ability to pursue their claims.

As for kickbacks, the ultimate decision by MOM to close the matter speaks for itself. Here again workers have to assume the risk in the employment relationship. Raise loans to pay recruitment costs and kickbacks and hope for best. But don’t hope for MOM to do much.

Go to Part 5.