This poster was seen at a bus stop

On 5 March 2024, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) published a response to our January article titled “How the law on payslips slips away into irrelevance“. MOM’s response can be found here.

The main thrust of our article was how a migrant worker Kajal had been disadvantaged in claiming back his owed salary when, despite numerous pleas to MOM for assistance, the employer stonewalled the request for copies of payslips. Our article went into a broader discussion of how this example suggested a need for more prompt and effective enforcement.

What we see in MOM’s response to our article are three things:

  1. A protestation that all is relatively well on the payslip front (our example notwithstanding) and that our article was “inaccurate” for this reason;
  2. A belated concession that an investigation into Kajal’s employer is in progress, though it should be noted that while Kajal’s case was going on, he was not assured that there would be any enforcement, nor was the resolution of his case held over until the payslips were produced as a result of enforcement;
  3. A broad statement that, as a matter of policy, enforcement would be the last resort after soft measures such as education and training have been exhausted – we’re not sure how soft measures would help workers like Kajal get justice in their salary claims here and now.

Below, we will quote specific parts of MOM’s response and our reply. Here and there, readers may see the acronym TADM. This stands for Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management, a unit linked to MOM that handles salary claims.

Allegation #1

TWC2 alleged that MOM embarked on the Workright campaign because there was a widespread problem of employees not getting itemised pay slips.

This is not true.

In our article, we presented a photo of a poster at a bus stop which readers can also see at the top of this article.

Our article went on to say:

The photograph below was taken along Stevens Road in November 2023. When we showed it around among volunteers and staff in TWC2, one volunteer noted how running such an information campaign implied that even MOM knows the problem is widespread, and that, “This means not getting payslips is common among local employees, too!”

We quoted a volunteer’s reaction to the photograph. We did not directly allege what the motivation was for MOM to run a publicity campaign indicated by the bus-stop poster, though we would argue that the volunteer’s reaction is quite fair. Any reasonable person would surmise that when a ministry chooses to spend money to run an information campaign like that, it would be to address an existing problem. Why spend money on a campaign if no problem exists?

MOM went on to say:

MOM’s inspections have showed that almost all the companies inspected have provided itemised pay slips to their workers.

As is often the case with MOM’s responses, an assertion is made that they have found such-and-such, but the details of their findings and methods used are often scanty. It would be good to know for example, how many companies were surveyed/assessed, percentage compliance (beyond a vague “almost all”), what degree of itemisation constituted “itemised pay slips”, whether the information has been double-checked by asking workers if companies’ assertions that payslips were issued for their retention were in fact true….

Readers are simply expected to take MOM’s protestations at face value, which is the antithesis of transparency and accountability.

That said, MOM’s response contained a final paragraph in which they explained:

MOM also conducts around 5,000 Workright inspections yearly to check on compliance with the employment laws including provision of itemised pay slips.

An Employment Standards Report is issued annually. See 2021 report and 2022 report. While they contain useful numbers, they don’t quite contain enough details about the Workright surveys which, one supposes, these reports would be built on (among other sources of data).

Unlike what what MOM might allege of TWC2, we are in fact very careful in what we write. In this case, we found two Parliamentary replies that touch on the Workright campaign and payslips, which should give readers an idea as to what MOM might be referring to when they spoke cryptically of “surveys”:

On 10 September 2018, Minister of State for Manpower, Zaqy Mohamad said in Parliament,

“On the last item, the proportion of employers who issue itemised payslips, based on MOM’s survey since its inception in 2016, the vast majority or 95% of private establishments provide itemised payslips to their employees in 2017. The survey was done for private establishments with at least 25 employees. So, it is quite substantial. We have seen 95% come on board. But we also recognise that there is some non-compliance, that last 5%. This is where MOM will continue to reinforce the requirement in our communication to employers through various channels, including proactive inspections as part of our WorkRight Initiative. But going forward, we will also strengthen our enforcement against establishments that fail to issue itemised payslips. So, these establishments will be required to attend corrective clinics which will be conducted by TAFEP and the tripartite partners. Establishments which persistently fail to rectify their practices will be issued with relevant penalties.”

On 2 November 2021, Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng told Parliament:

“Between 2018 and 2020, MOM looked into an average of 100 complaints per year from work pass holders on the non-issuance of itemised payslips. Some complaints were lodged directly with MOM while others arose from salary disputes between employer and employee. A further 280 cases involving both foreign and local employees were detected from proactive inspections under the Workright initiative each year. In about 80% of the cases, including complaints, employers were formally notified to make the necessary rectifications. For the others, inquiries revealed that itemised payslips were available digitally or were issued late due to a lapse. No further action was taken for these cases. There were no repeat offenders.”

Let’s parse the minister’s numbers:

Over a three-year period (2018 – 2020), their Workright initiative uncovered 280 employers who fell foul of the obligation to issue itemised payslips. Over the same period, from complaints and claims, another 300 cases surfaced – as many as they found from their Workright surveys.

MOM wrote:

Allegation #2

According to TWC2, Kajal had to forgo pursuing claims for the months before October 2023 as it was a challenge to substantiate his claims for those months without access to his payslips.

This is not true. Kajal could have filed salary claims for months prior to October 2023, and TADM would have mediated the claims accordingly. During mediation, he confirmed that he had no salary issues before October 2023. We note that TWC2, who was assisting Kajal with his salary claims computation, did not include claims for months prior to October 2023 as well.

In our article, we had written:

When Kajal approached us, it was highly probable that, beyond the issue of the salary for October and November, he was also shortpaid for the entire year of 2023, since the company had been illegally operating a policy of not paying for days in which an employee was not assigned work. In order to ascertain how much the unpaid difference was, Kajal would need to calculate from time records.

The problem was that, whilst Kajal’s employer used to provide payslips, this ceased sometime in 2021. Kajal did not receive salary computations for 2022 and 2023. According to Kajal and a coworker, complaining about the lack of payslips would be met with the boss’s ire and flimsy excuses.

[continuing further down]

While Kajal’s situation might appear resolved, it is far from a happy conclusion. Despite knowing about the underpayment of his fixed monthly salary for the months prior to October 2023, Kajal faced a daunting challenge in substantiating the exact shortfall without access to payslips. Consequently, he had to forego pursuing salary claims for the months leading up to October 2023.

As readers would note, we were very careful to explain the situational context and thought processes that led to Kajal choosing to limit his claim to just the months of October to December. A claimant choosing to limit his claim for evidential reasons would still have, as a result of evidential factors (created by the failure of MOM to compel the employer to produce payslips) forgone what might be rightfully his.

To say that it was untrue of TWC2 to say he had foregone his claim is a very careless, perhaps overzealous, use of language on MOM’s part.

While it may be true, as MOM said, that workers can insist on claiming for months even when there is no evidence – and it is only right that TADM should mediate all the same, as per their legislated role – workers would however be acutely aware that trying to force through a claim with weak evidence could prolong the process (including their period of unemployment) and taint the credibility of their claims for those other months where they had better evidence.

Therefore, it is completely rational that workers, as Kajal did, would choose only to pursue claims for the periods for which they had better evidence.

We also need to address this sentence from MOM: “During mediation, [Kajal] confirmed that he had no salary issues before October 2023.”

This might well have been the case once Kajal had decided not to pursue his claims for the earlier months. If Kajal had replied Yes to such a question, it would create exactly the prolonged process and complications about credibility that he wanted to avoid. We should be sensitive to the nuances of context.

MOM wrote in their response to our article:

Allegation #3

TWC2 alleged that Kajal’s request for payslips from his employer was futile even after going through TADM and MOM. There were no visible consequences for the employer’s non-compliance. 

It is inaccurate for TWC2 to state that there will be no consequences in the event of non-compliance. MOM is currently investigating the employer on the non-issuance of itemised pay slips under the Employment Act. MOM will assess and take appropriate actions, including getting the employers to make the necessary rectifications, or imposing penalties for more serious breaches.

What exactly did our article say? This:

Kajal never got copies of his payslips despite his asking through his TADM mediator, and TWC2 writing to MOM.

It is interesting that MOM did not challenge our use of the word futile. It is, after all, exactly what the reality was.

MOM took issue instead with our statement that there were no visible consequences. Indeed there were none. Neither Kajal nor TWC2 received any indication from MOM/TADM that the employer would be taken to task over their non-compliance, despite verbal and written pleas for assistance in obtaining payslips.

It would be only reasonable for anyone not in receipt of such indication to say that no consequences were visible.

In fact, the right thing to do, if MOM had intended from the outset to take action against the employer for their failure to produce payslips, would be to put Kajal’s claim into abeyance, help him get into a new job in the meantime, and revive the claim after the employer had been compelled through enforcement action to produce said payslips. No one even suggested that this should be the proper course of action.

Even now, as MOM writes in its response that it is “currently investigating the employer”, MOM is not divulging what needs investigating – isn’t it as obvious as day that no payslips were provided, contrary to law? – or what “appropriate actions” include. Moreover, until we wrote up Kajal’s story and MOM responded, no one would have known that any investigation was going on. Enforcement has no deterrence value if everything is done in secret.

It would not be outlandish either if a reader were to wonder whether this investigation was only triggered because TWC2 published the story, and not triggered earlier, at the point in time when Kajal was requesting his payslips.

MOM wrote in their response to our article:

TWC2 alleged that the lack of enforcement of itemised pay slips by MOM compromises the ability of workers to recover the full amount of salaries they are owed.

This is not true. Workers’ ability to recover salaries is not compromised if employers do not give itemised pay slips. The onus is always on the employer to prove that salaries have been paid, which was the case for Kajal as well. During mediation, the employer was unable to produce the worker’s pay slips.  Hence, he fully settled Kajal’s salary claims from October to December 2023.

MOM appears over-eager to protest their faultlessness when they make assertions that are so removed from reality.

It is misleading and illogical for MOM to say that “Workers’ ability to recover salaries is not compromised if employers do not give itemised pay slips.” Payslips and their truthfulness are key pieces of evidence as to how salaries have been calculated and paid. Since any claims process surely gives weight to evidence, to say that employers’ refusal to provide payslips does not compromise workers’ ability to recover owed salaries simply flies against common sense.

The very fact that the provision of payslips is mandated in legislation underlines their importance in ensuring salary justice for employees. Why write it into legislation if, as MOM now says, it makes no difference whether employees get payslips or not?

Moreover, only two months earlier before our payslip article in question, we published another payslip article in which we cited the specific example of a worker (therein named Hasan). He was advised by the TADM mediator to withdraw his claim on exactly that ground: he had no payslips. We wrote in that article:

Unfortunately, even at the mediation session organised by TADM mediation, the employer stubbornly refused to provide payslips. From what Hasan told us, TADM did not appear to care that Hasan’s incomplete evidence stemmed from the non-provision of payslips. At the mediation, TADM advised Hasan to withdraw his claim since he “had no evidence” to support his claim. Hasan complied and withdrew his claim.

How MOM can say that “Workers’ ability to recover salaries is not compromised if employers do not give itemised pay slips” when their own officers advise or act this way is hard to reconcile.

On a different note, it’s also useful to review what we wrote in our article about how Kajal’s claim concluded:

Despite these efforts [efforts made by Kajal and TWC2 to get TADM to obtain payslips from the employer], the employer obstinately refused to furnish the payslips but reluctantly conceded to pay $1,100 out of Kajal’s claim amount of $1,597 for salaries for October through December 2023.

Kajal accepted this offer.

It is misleading for MOM to characterise this settlement as “fully settled Kajal’s claims”.

We turn now to the final paragraph in MOM’s response to our article. They wrote:

MOM also conducts around 5,000 Workright inspections yearly to check on compliance with the employment laws including provision of itemised pay slips. These workplace inspections help to educate employers to comply with our labour laws, and employees are aware of their employment rights. If employers have lapses, MOM will take a range of actions ranging from education, training and penalties to help employers comply with our laws.

As an operating policy, such a softly-softly approach is not irrational. However, in specific cases where a worker, having filed a salary claim, is disadvantaged in his claim because the employer obstinately refuses to furnish documentation, such a softly-softly approach becomes inappropriate. We must not expect the worker to bear the cost of the employer’s obstinacy and MOM’s deliberate forbearance. Doing so would be completely unfair to the employee and contrary to standards expected of justice.

Once a claimant has filed a claim, the full force of the law should be brought to bear, and promptly, to ensure that the intent of the law – to enable a claimant to get justice – is fulfilled.

MOM should review its operating protocols.