We’re not talking about traffic accidents. Migrant workers who are drivers by occupation face additional hazards related to their employment situation, though how much these worries weigh on their minds and potentially affect their concentration behind the steering wheel is unknown.
Over the past few months, your writer came across four drivers with worrisome tales and now may be a good time to put them together.
Let’s call them A, B, C and D, or perhaps Arumugam, Beko, Chaudhury and Dulal.
Arumugam came to us to talk about a salary issue following a premature cancellation of this work permit, but along the way, he mentioned that his job involved driving a van with the logo of a delivery company that was not his official employer. His work permit said “Construction”, but this van company was largely associated with online-shopping deliveries.
“What kinds of goods did you deliver?” we asked carefully.
“All sorts of things,” Arumugam said.
“Any construction supplies, delivered to construction sites?”
This sounded like a case of illegal deployment where an employer deploys an employee to do work for another company that is not in the same industry sector. We didn’t clarify how long he was doing this at the boss’ instruction because the matter was largely moot since he had already stopped work following the permit cancellation. But it was notable that if not for the cancellation, he might have continued to drive for the delivery company, which would have been against the rules. Resisting the boss’ order would have meant loss of the job possibly followed by a lengthy period of unemployment before he could find another one. On the other hand, carrying on as ordered would have put him at risk of criminal prosecution if caught. Arumugam was between a rock and a hard place.
Beko came to us expressing great unhappiness over the inhumanly long hours he was made to work. Furthermore, “Boss never pay overtime,” he said. We then launched into a series of questions in order to frame a salary claim for him, but one after another, the answers came back in ways that made such a claim harder and harder.
His basic salary was paid in cash, he said, and he was not provided with detailed, itemised payslips, as required by the MOM’s rules. So, proving how much he had been paid would be difficult; the employer could easily turn around and claim they had paid Beko in full, overtime included.
Beko said he was paid a flat rate of $1,700 a month, but when we looked at his In-principle Approval (see explanation in Glossary), we noticed that he was on an S-Pass with a monthly salary of $3,800. At that salary level, was Beko entitled to overtime pay? Singapore’s law on this is complicated. “Workmen” are entitled to overtime pay if their basic salary is less than $4,500 a month, but “non-workmen” are only entitled to overtime pay if their basic salary is less than $2,600. Is a driver a workman? Fortunately, this page on MOM’s website makes it quite clear that a lorry driver is.
What concerned us was that Beko came to talk about overtime; he didn’t mention that he had been shortpaid $2,100 every month from his officially-declared basic salary. We wondered if, from the beginning, he had in fact agreed to $1,700 as his basic. That’s quite possible, since it is roughly what lorry drivers in the construction industry are paid. But why did the employer then apply for an S-Pass with a much higher declared salary?
We don’t know the answer to that. Beko himself might not either; more likely than not, it was a decision made by the company for its own reasons. We then had to advise Beko that in filing a salary claim with these starting facts, many other lines of enquiry may come up. Once they do, the case gets convoluted and prolonged and he may be out of work for a long time (generally, MOM does not let workers with unresolved cases move on to new jobs). And yet, without documentation of his overtime hours, without even a bank record showing that he only received $1,700 a month, a salary claim might not be on the strongest foundations.
Would filing a claim be worth it? On the other hand, how could we advise Beko not to file a claim? He had a right to overtime pay.
Beko got up and said he’d think about what we had said. He climbed into his cab and drove off. We hoped he could concentrate on the road.
“My company ask me to drive lorry,” said Chaudhury, “but I only have Class 3 licence, not Class 4.”
Chaudhury had protested to his boss more than once that this instruction from the top was putting him in an impossible position, but the employer wouldn’t listen, he said.
He himself was in a difficult position. He had paid money to an intermediary (unlicensed, of course) to get this job, and he had not been long enough in this job to earn back what he had put up. Chaudhury could not afford to put his foot down, anger the boss and lose his job.
Our advice to Chaudhury was unambiguous: You must stop.
He heard us, but still, it was too big a leap to decide there and then. So, he thanked us and went away to reflect further on the matter.
Dulal’s complaint was similar to Beko’s. Dulal too had to work insane hours. On a typical day, he had to start driving around 5:30am and would not finish until 11pm. Most nights, he only managed about four hours of sleep.
Singapore’s Employment Act states that the maximum number of overtime hours is 72 per month, which averages to about three hours each working day. Dulal was clearly doing much more than that. However, he would hardly be the first one asked to do so. TWC2’s observation is that even when workers bring such issues of excessive overtime to MOM’s attention when they file their salary claims, no enforcement follows. Enforcement might not benefit the worker who had stopped working and was filing a claim, but it would certainly be helpful to the other workers in the company.
Frustrated by the long hours, Dulal wanted to quit. But, he was also shortpaid, and he came to TWC2 to find out what the process was for filing a salary claim. He was concerned that if he quit he might not be able to recover the arrears.
Unlike Beko’s situation, Dulal’s documentation was better. His In-principle Approval was in order and the payments (although short) had been paid into his bank account. The only problem – and it could still be a big problem – was that as a driver he had no official record of his work hours. He did keep a diary of sorts though the employer could try to impeach its credibility.
In our conversation, Dulal seemed to have made up his mind to file a salary claim. “I don’t care the job anymore,” he said. But in the end, he decided he would stay on the job until the next payday; he wanted to be sure that he got at least some money for the month before he took the leap into the unknown, which filing a claim (and getting fired) would be.
“Come back to us when you’re ready to file a salary claim, ” we said. “We’ll help you do it right.”
The month came and went. As at the time of writing, we’re still waiting for Dulal to come back.
To various degrees, all four men found themselves working against their will. In doing so, three of them could be a danger to others on the roads: two who knew they were overworked and far too tired, and one who wasn’t even licensed to drive a lorry. Yet, it was very difficult to resist their boss’ orders, because they were trapped in their jobs by debt and by the uncertainty of finding a new job without having to pay large sums in agent fees all over again – the leap into the unknown.
Even Dulal, after more than two months driving while tired, hestitated when faced with having to make a decision to stand up for himself, despite initial determination to do something.
Singapore’s policy of giving huge powers to employers (e.g. their consent is needed if any worker wants to transfer) and our general failure to do anything meaningful about agents’ fees lie at the root of this situation. We seem to think that it is in Singapore’s best interest to limit severely migrant workers’ freedom to quit and change jobs.
Tell that to the next person who dies on our roads in an accident involving a migrant driver.