By intern Maya P

The Irish poet Jonathan Swift once said that laws are like cobwebs: they may catch small flies but will let wasps and hornets break through. 

Unfortunately, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) salary regulations are as Swift described: thoughtfully constructed and structurally sound, yet weak enough to allow many blatant offenders to pass through unobstructed. This is the story of one such employer that exploited weak salary enforcement measures to underpay their employee. 

When Raghavan (not his real name) first came to Singapore in mid 2018 to work for the company “SF’, everything seemed hopeful. He was looking forward to starting a new life to support his family in Tamil Nadu. In accordance with MOM directives, his employers duly opened a bank account for him, and paid him the correct salary by bank transfer for the first two months. However, suddenly in the third month, his employer told him that they were switching to cash payments. They claimed that everyone’s salary was being paid in cash. 

This should have rung alarm bells immediately. Cash payments leave no record of how much is being paid, when, and to whom. Neither the worker nor employer can provide a record of salary paid. However, being in desperate need of a steady income to support his family, Raghavan did not object. If he had tried to file a salary claim, he would have had to gather evidence and file a complaint with the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM), which may or may not have been successful. He would have angered his employer only three months into his job and would have risked being terminated.

For a time, Raghavan was still being paid the correct basic salary — $468 a month — albeit in cash. But when Covid-19 hit, everything changed. He was confined to his dormitory for six months and went from being paid between $500-550 per month to $150. This was despite the “reverse-levy” initiative, where MOM paid every employer a support fee of around $700 per worker every month in order to retain foreign labour. Theoretically, employers were supposed to use some of that levy for food and housing, and the rest should have been used to cover the worker’s salary bill. Employers were supposed to continue paying at least the basic salary, or the monthly amount a worker is entitled to regardless of whether or not he has work. However, Raghavan was making $310 less than his basic salary. But since he was being paid in cash, he had no proof to lodge a salary claim. His employer claimed that during Covid, the company was barely staying afloat, and could not pay him any more, even with the reverse-levy stimulus. At this time, many salary claims were dismissed by MOM, due to the “hardship period”.

After nearly a year of being paid $150 per month, deeply frustrated at being exploited in this manner, Raghavan requested a transfer letter from his employer so he could change companies. Under Singaporean law, this is the only way foreign workers can change jobs, apart from resigning and returning home to apply for a new job. His employer refused to give him one and terminated him. He was repatriated to India on 21 February, and his employer walked free of any salary charges. 

In 2020, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) reported a 30% decrease in salary-related complaints among foreign workers, from 4.98 per 1,000 foreign employees to 3.47. But, as Raghavan’s story shows, this figure is little cause for celebration. Workers often do not file salary claims for being underpaid or being paid late (as is reported to happen often) for fear that they will be repatriated or fired and be unable to find another job to support their loved ones. 

For some reason, MOM does not require employers to submit monthly declarations of salary payments, complete with independent bank certification, as is required of companies in the United Arab Emirates. Instead, MOM puts some companies on a “watch-list” for risk of salary defaults, as calculated by data analytics, and are monitored on a quarterly basis. MOM would catch far more offenders by implementing a more comprehensive protocol covering every company in Singapore. 

Raghavan is now back in his hometown, without an income. He will apply for a new work visa, but he may not get one, and his family must make do with what little money he has made in the last year. His employer will, in all likelihood, continue this practice with many other unsuspecting foreign workers. In a country that prides itself on accountability and rule of law, this is a tragedy. To be sure, many companies that improperly pay salaries are appropriately punished. For the most part, regulations are effectively enforced. However, a lack of uniform and unsparing enforcement erodes the legitimacy of the law. For Singapore to call itself one of the world’s most lawful nations, our laws must be worth the paper they’re written on, every single time, for everyone.