TWC2 volunteers discussing Hulash’s evidence before his hearing date at the Employment Claims Tribunal. Hulash has back to camera.

Your writer overhears a conversation between a TWC2 volunteer and a migrant worker at TWC2’s office. The language is not familiar to him, and he asks the volunteer, “What language are you speaking?”

“Hindi,” she says.

Indeed, it is uncommon to see a migrant worker from the Hindi-speaking heartlands of India.

On 17 May 2024, MOM responded to this article saying it contains “inaccuracies and misinformation”. We stand by our story. In the post-script below, we show how inadequate and misleading their reply is.

Hulash is from Rajasthan, a state in the northwest of India. That is even more unusual. He may be the first Rajasthani TWC2 has seen in years. And when your writer hears that he wasn’t a construction worker, but instead had been working in the “Agri-tech” sector – rare again – this begins to sound like an interesting human interest story.

But – and this story comes in two parts – by the end of this saga, readers will notice that we’re talking about the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), like we often do in many articles on this site. It didn’t start off as the focus of this story, or even a part of the tale at all, but the things that go wrong at MOM have a strange tendency to make themselves compelling. In short, even when we try to post a story that doesn’t involve MOM, what goes on there is some sort of vortex from which escape is impossible. The story bends helplessly to MOM.

Japan is the land of dreams

Hulash didn’t even intend to come to Singapore. Japan is where, according to his friends, well-paying jobs can be found. The minimum wage in Japan is close to 2,000 Singapore dollars a month.

Hulash and his friends got themselves tourist visas and were preparing to get there when someone Hulash refers to as an “agent” from a neighbouring village said he could get him a job in Singapore. This would come with proper documentation, unlike the more risky prospect of looking for work after arriving in Japan on merely a tourist pass. The Singapore job, said the agent, would pay roughly $2,000 month if overtime is taken into consideration; it’s as good a prospect as working in Japan.

And so, Hulash agreed to come to Singapore, paying the agent 550,000 Indian rupees (roughly $8,800) for the job. No training course was needed prior to coming to Singapore.

Hulash’s friends (at least one of them) did go to Japan. The one that Hulash mentioned with some detail is now working as a driver for a factory.

Left homeless after arrival in Singapore

Hulash arrived at Changi airport in Singapore on 16 December 2022. He was taken to the employer’s factory and put to work within hours of the aircraft’s wheels touching the runway. It was such a whirlwind of a day, he didn’t know what was going on – he said through our translator.

At the end of the workday (his first), he was left to find his own place to sleep for the night. Imagine that. Here’s a stranger new to Singapore with little money and no English, and no accommodation had been arranged beforehand.

Fortunately, he had a couple of telephone numbers in hand, and after a call or two, was invited to stay with some “friends” in a shared room. It wasn’t going to be free. His share of rent was to be $350 a month. There were six or seven men sharing the room (the number varied from time to time). We’ll be referring to this room later, so we’ll call it the “$350 room”.

This room had a corner where they could cook for themselves.

Hulash’s Work Permit stated that he would be working in the “Agri-tech” sector. This term is new. We ask Hulash to describe what he did on a regular basis in his job.

He worked in a factory, he says, packing fruits and vegetables. The products came from Thailand, Malaysia, Australia and elsewhere and, from his explanation, it sounds like the wholesale lots were repacked by him and his coworkers into retail-sized packs for further distribution to shops and supermarkets around Singapore.

There were about 30 workers in the factory, from a variety of countries: India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, while the company’s office had Chinese and Vietnamese. There was no common language at all in the workplace, so any instruction from management, given out in English, had to be translated by the few workers who understood enough English to their native languages to be relayed to their compatriots. Hulash was not one of those with enough English.

Salary vandalism

Hulash’s In-principle Approval (See Glossary) stated these monthly figures:

  • Basic monthly salary: $1,000
  • Housing allowance: $200
  • “Other” allowance: $300
  • Therefore, fixed monthly salary:  $1,500

There would be no deductions, said the IPA.

The document also specified the overtime rate of pay to be $7.87 per overtime hour.

From the very beginning, the employer did not abide by these terms. Below are what the employer issued as his payslips for the months of March and April 2023 (Hulash’s third and fourth full months at the company). As one can see, whilst the basic salary was honoured, there were other line items that look incorrect.

For example, “overtime” is stated as $300 – a nice round number – and it would remain the same number for all the other full months that Hulash worked. However, the overtime rate stated in the IPA is $7.87, and these decimal places are unlikely to yield a nice round number when multiplied by the number of overtime hours Hulash worked in a month. It is even more unlikely that in all the other months too, the extra hours, when multiplied by 7.87, would miraculously come to exactly $300.00 and not a cent more.

Hulash confirms to us that overtime work was a daily reality. The crew would be given tasks to be completed each day – so much of this and so much of that to be repacked – and invariably the workers would find themselves working to about 10pm each day. It varied from around 9:30pm to past 11:00pm.

Even though the company required employees to do a face scan at the start and end of each workday, the company did not provide employees with time cards. Hulash had asked MOM for help to obtain the face scan metadata so that he could properly calculate what he was owed, but the employer failed to do so and MOM – as in so many other cases that TWC2 has seen – just lets the employer get away with it, jeopardising a worker’s claim. See Footnote 1 which explains that employers have a legal duty to furnish such details.

Based on what Hulash can recall of his overtime work and some evidence he has in hand, he is claiming around $7,800 in overtime pay.

Coming back to the payslips, it appears that the employer was treating what was stated in the IPA as “Other” allowance ($300) as a fixed rate for overtime pay, regardless of the number of hours worked. This is against the law. The allowance should be paid as an allowance, while overtime pay should be a separate line item.

Payslip for March 2023.

Payslip for April 2023. Notice how the “Domitory” deduction of March 2023 became “Domitory & Deposit” in April. Same amount of $630. Hulash tells TWC2 that according to the company it was $450 for the room and $180 as repayment of a salary advance (“deposit”) which Hulash had not taken. He says it was fictitious.

The other striking thing from the payslips is that whilst the employer paid out the $200 housing allowance, they also clawed back $630 in “Domitory” [sic] deduction. However, the IPA had assured Hulash that there would be no deduction.

Hulash stayed in the $350 room for about 15 days. He was then pressured to move to a room suggested by the employer, closer to the factory. He relented and moved, and that’s when the $630 deduction began. After four months of that, Hulash couldn’t take it anymore and, in April 2023, moved back to the $350 room. At 4 km from the factory, it was a bit further than the company’s room, but he could easily cycle to work. From May 2023 onwards the company stopped deducting the “dormitory” $630 from his salary, since he had moved out.

Nonetheless, the overtime pay was incorrect and remained so.

There was also a daily difficulty over food in the company’s room, which had no cooking facility. Rajasthanis are not used to the kinds of food available commercially in Singapore or through mass caterers. Their staple is a form of flatbread.

The $350 room at least had an area where he and his roommates (also from northern India) could cook.

The food issue wll resurface later, discussed in Part 2 of this article.

Passport renewal

Hulash’s passport originally had an expiry date of 29 August 2023. Aligned with that, his Work Permit also had an expiry date of 29 August, which makes sense.

Naturally, Hulash was highly motivated to renew his passport so as to extend the life of his Work Permit. Within a month or two of his arrival in Singapore, he went to the Indian High Commission and got it renewed. He then told his employer about it and requested that MOM be informed of the new expiry date.

At first, the staff in the company office said they’d do it later since there was plenty of time, but as August 2023 approached they still had not done so. Hulash reminded them but nothing happened. He then took it upon himself to go to MOM on 10 August 2023 to inform the officials there directly.

We believe this was the trigger that got him fired in the later part of August. Why an employer gets so offended when a worker acts to protect his own interests – offended to the point of retaliating against the employee – is a mystery to us. Why is it so unthinkable to be a good employer? Or at least a reasonable one?

Hulash went straight off to MOM again. This time, MOM said they couldn’t reinstate him into the job (fair enough) but after hearing about the unauthorised deductions and shortpayment of overtime pay, helped him file a salary claim.

MOM’s salary mediation unit, TADM, tried to get Hulash and the employer to settle the dispute amicably. TADM was partially successful, helping him get reimbursed for the housing deductions and unpaid salary for his final month (August 2023). However, the employer wouldn’t budge over the issue of overtime pay, insisting that the “Other” allowance of $300 had been endorsed by MOM as equivalent to overtime pay (not true). Unable to reach a settlement, TADM referred the issue to the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT) for adjudication. At the ECT, it will be quasi-judicial process, one that migrant workers would have a hard time trying to handle on their own. Hulash was right to come to TWC2 for help.

The vortex

This is the point where this story is supposed to end: a story tracing the path of a migrant worker from Rajasthan to Japan to Singapore, via avaricious agents (several layers of them, including a party in Singapore, says Hulash), salary vandalism, diet and cooking, and ministry officials ready to help where they can.

Just as we’re wrapping up the interview, we begin to hear more. WhatsApp messages are thrust into your writer’s hands. They’re about food. The messages are between Hulash and MOM. There’s a huge sucking sound. The story spirals away from its intended arc into a vortex.

Continued in Part 2.

1. Employers’ obligation in relation to employee records

Section 95(1) of the Employment Act requires employers to make and retain “prescribed particulars” of employee records. A glimpse of what the prescribed particulars are can be seen from this page on MOM’s website. Overtime hours are among them.

Section 95(2) says these details should be “readily accessible to the employee or former employee to which the employee record relates.”

Sections 98 and 99 of the Act gives power to the Commissioner of Labour to require employers “to produce for examination any books, documents, accounts and returns which the Commissioner may consider necessary.”

Section 101 makes any wilful defiance of the above provisions an offence, and punishable by “a fine not exceeding $5,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or to both”.

29 May 2024

In their boilerplate opening paragraph, MOM accuses us of “inaccuracies and misinformation”, but provides no example of such. We stand by our story.

Specifically, MOM said that “MOM and TADM officers did not receive any request from Hulash to assist with obtaining his face scan metadata from his employer. Hulash requested help with employment records like timesheets and payslips, but did not respond after MOM officers asked for more details to assist him.”

We’re a little incredulous that MOM may not realise that “face scan metadata” is the same thing as “time sheet”. When companies operate a digital clock-in system, modern technology uses a finger or face scan to determine the identity of the worker clocking in. Included in the stored data would be the time the worker arrives at or leaves work. A printout of such data would be the time sheet.

In a WhatsApp message 15 December 2023, Hulash informed an MOM officer he had “neither time sheet nor salary slip”. That statement, said in relation to an upcoming appointment regarding his salary claim was, as MOM acknowledges, a request for help in obtaining such documents. The reply from the MOM officer one minute later was “Where are your time sheet and salary slip?”, which made no sense since Hulash had already said he was not given these documents. It’s true that Hulash did not directly answer this question, but what answer could he possibly give? It should have been obvious that the question should have been posed to the employer – where are Hulash’s time sheets (face scan metadata) and salary slips; why have they not been issued to him?

MOM wrote in its response to our articles that “We would like to clarify that a worker’s ability to recover salaries is not compromised even if his employer does not issue itemised pay slips. The onus is always on the employer to prove that salaries have been paid.”

This is an oversimplification of reality. At TADM, workers are asked to state the amounts they are claiming. Workers would need time sheets and salary slips (particularly when partial or incorrectly-calculated payments have been made) to compute the balance owed. Without these details, the owed balance cannot be calculated, and the claim amounts may be wrong. Incorrect claim amounts are a serious hurdle when a case is escalated to the Employment Claims Tribunal. For MOM to say that a worker’s ability to recover salaries is not compromised is shocking in its naivety.

On the matter of food, MOM wrote that “MOM had been engaging with both Hulash and his employer since October 2023 on Hulash’s dietary needs. The employer had provided vegetarian food for Hulash, and was willing to provide additional vegetables for him to cook his own meals, but Hulash rejected the offer.”

Indeed, we have 19 pages of WhatsApp conversations between Hulash and MOM, spread over several months, largely discussing about food, but the long and short of it was that the employer was only offering rice-based vegetarian food, when Hulash had made it clear repeatedly that this would be culturally alien to him. The issue is not whether vegetarian food was being offered or not. Our article made it clear that the issue was about the cultural appropriateness of the meals being offered.

Hulash had proposed early on that instead of trying to jump through hoops getting Northwest Indian-style meals for him, the easiest solution was for the employer to just give him a food allowance and he would do his own marketing and cooking.

His MOM officer WhatsApped him on 16 October 2023 saying “I cannot tell your boss to give you money. Because I tell the boss to give you food.”

This simply proves our point, that MOM was not effective in solving this problem. MOM went around in circles. On 20 October 2023, for example, the officer messaged Hulash to say, “If you want the dry ration, you can call MWC. Rice or Instant Noodle or canned food they have.”

Does MOM think that rice and instant noodles are part of the Northwest Indian diet?

Four months later, MOM might have finally realised that the Northwest Indian diet did not include rice or noodles. A message dated 22 February 2024 said Hulash could collect chapati flour from MWC at 51 Soon Lee Road. But Hulash was staying nowhere near there, and if he had just been given a monetary food allowance, he could buy the same much closer to his place of residence. Why go through the trouble of travelling to Soon Lee Road with all the time and cost involved?

So, when MOM said in their response that they “had also referred Hulash to the Migrant Workers’ Centre, who reached out to Hulash to provide food support,” and that “Hulash similarly declined the offer”, they should also have disclosed the details of the offer (like we have done here), without which readers may get the impression that Hulash was being unreasonable.

Your Content Goes HereLikewise, when MOM wrote “While the employer provided food for Hulash, it was not accepted due to Hulash’s personal preferences,” MOM’s choice of phrase “personal preference” is also misleading. It was not a case of personal preference. This was a case of cultural inappropriateness.

Yet, despite the difficulty in getting culturally appropriate catered meals, it was clear from the start that the Gordian Knot could be cut simply by giving Hulash a monetary food allowance. That’s exactly what our Part 2 article’s point was: Why was it impossible for MOM to require employers to give a monetary food allowance? It is a question MOM avoids in its response to our commentary, instead accusing us of inaccuracy or misinformation, of which there was none.