In Rest day pay disparity disadvantages low-wage workers, we pointed out how Singapore is an outlier compared to other jurisdictions with respect to wage standards for workers working on their rest days. Our Employment Act requires employers to pay double the basic rate of pay if employers request workers to work on their days off, but if employees ask to work, then employers need only pay the single rate of pay.
No other jurisdiction among sixteen that we reviewed had similar provisions for two different rates of pay.
While at first sight, there may seem to be a valid argument for making a distinction between an employer asking a worker to work and a worker asking to work, in real life the distinction gets so cloudy, it is as good as useless. The chief problem is that for low-wage workers in Singapore, particularly migrant workers, their bargaining power is so constricted, it is virtually impossible to resist an employer telling his workers, “I want you to sign this paper that says you are asking to work this Sunday.” That document then becomes a record of the employees “asking” to work when in reality, even if unrecorded, it is the employer who is asking them to work.
TWC2 has seen such lists of workers “asking” to work on their rest days. Workers know that the unspoken consequences for not complying are too serious to refuse signing.
Moreover, the value of the output so produced by a worker putting in work on his rest day is the same whoever asked to work, and that value accrues largely to the employer. Why should he be given a loophole to pay less to his workers?
Is it a common problem?
We asked ourselves, when we first began researching the issue, whether it was common for employers to only pay a single rate of pay after asking workers to work on a rest day. We had an inkling that it was hardly rare, having seen a number of salary claims by workers who protested that they had not given up their rest days of their own free will.
We ran a simple survey online through our Bengali- and Tamil-language Facebook pages through the last week of March 2023. We were astounded when we got 1,799 responses within seven days. Of these, 15 were not in Singapore and another 153 were domestic workers. Then there were some S-Pass, Special Pass and “None of the above” pass holders which we feel it best to exclude for cleaner results.
That leaves our dataset with 1,563 Work Permit holders in Singapore in non-domestic sectors, i.e. mostly construction, shipyard and process workers. The analysis below proceeds from this total.
We began on a bit of a tangent by asking which day of the week was their usual rest day. 1,538 respondents (98.4 percent) said it was Sunday. So, whilst in the discussion below we use the term “rest day”, in virtually all cases we are referring to Sundays.
Single rate, double rate
Of the 1,563 valid responses in our dataset, there were roughly equal numbers of workers who said they received double pay and workers who said they received a single rate of pay. Each group constituted about 40% of our responses. That’s a lot of workers receiving just a single rate of pay.
A smaller group (4.5%) gave a mix of answers – they could complete a text box to explain a bit about their situation – which painted a picture of something midway between single rate and double rate. For convenience we label is group as “in-between/variable”.
There were 70 workers in this group, and of these, the biggest sub-group (roughly a third of them) mentioned “1.5 times” in their comments. The second most common mention was about (sometimes) getting a day off in lieu. Another relatively common mention was “company rules”, which suggests that many workers were led to believe that company rules were supreme regardless of law (if they even knew about the law).
A number of responses also pointed to confusion between the rate of pay applicable to rest days versus rate of pay applicable to working on public holidays, but since this angle (public holidays) was outside the scope of the survey, we were not collecting data about it.
The pie chart below shows the distribution of answers from these 1,563 Work Permit holders.
Note too that only about 13 percent of them said they “never” worked on a rest day. This low figure tells us how common it is for migrant workers to be working on their one rest day per week, and since, as mentioned previously, only a few of them mentioned day off in lieu, it implies that plenty of workers may, from time to time at least, be asked to work across two weeks or longer without a true day off.
Of those paid double rate
Taking a closer look at those paid a double rate, it is interesting that some 22% of workers said they were the ones asking to work to their rest day. In fact, only 33% gave a clearcut answer saying it was their employer who asked them to work. The biggest subgroup (36%) gave a complex answer (“sometimes employer ask, sometimes I ask”) which we find quite telling. For convenience, we have labelled this group “This way, that way”.
The complexity of their responses is consistent with what we’ve known from anecdotal reports about how rest day work is organised. For many workers, it is something said at the beginning of employment – that they were expected to be available for work on their rest days – and there may even be a roster. They may be asked to put their signature onto the roster as acknowledgement, which then leads men to believe that it was they who had asked to work.
We have also heard other reports of employers needing a smaller crew to do work on a Sunday, and workers can volunteer to be part of the crew. This may seem like a true case of workers “asking” to work, but it is still debatable given the low bargaining power of workers dependent on the goodwill of employers for continuation of contract. Even then, the Sunday crew may be short of a workman with a particular skill, e.g. safety supervisor or driver, and someone with that skill may thus feel pressured to sign up to complete the make-up of the crew. As one can imagine, it is hard to discern in such situations who “asked” workers to work.
Given this reality on the ground, it should hardly be a surprise that “This way, that way” was the biggest subgroup – even among those who were properly paid the double rate. There is also a notable 8% who answered “Not sure” to this question; they made up roughly one in twelve men in our sample.
Of those paid single rate
45% of respondents who were paid a single rate replied that it was their employer who had asked them to work on their rest days. And yet, they were only paid a single rate, which makes this a clear violation of law.
The second largest subgroup here was the “This way, that way”, constituting 27% of responses. This suggests that they felt pressure to agree to being rostered. Once again, it points to how the bifurcated nature of the Employment Act’s provision puts low-wage workers at serious disadvantage.
Although 18% replied saying that it was they who asked to work on a rest day, this should be treated with caution, as explained above. One can have doubts as to how much free will was involved. These men may simply be giving us a reply based on the face value of whatever acknowledgement they signed when rosters were presented to them.
Our survey found that paying employees only a single rate of pay for working on rest days is a common practice, almost as common as paying them a double rate of pay. Then, for nearly half of those who were paid a single rate, it was the employer who asked them to work, making this a violation of law. The 282 men in this subgroup constituted 18 percent of the total dataset of 1,563 men. It suggests that nearly one in five migrant workers in the surveyed sectors are short-paid according to law, on the matter of rest days alone – let alone other forms of wage theft.
What is most visible from the results is the muddle of who asked whom to work. Of the 1,359 men who had to work on their rest days – i.e. after excluding the “never work on my rest day” 204 men from the total of 1,563 – one in three of them (523 respondents) gave us a “This way, that way” or “Not sure” reply. This only shows how divorced from reality the Employment Act’s provision is; it merely allows employers to exploit confusion to pay less than fair.