Lutfor (not his real name) at left speaking with TWC2’s Alex Au

In January, we wrote about a worker (Lutfor) whose salary claim hit a road bump at the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT). See Court tells worker his TADM-prepared claims calculations are wrong. Who can help him calculate correctly? Lutfor (not his real name) came to TWC2 for help.

On 17 May 2024, MOM responded to this article saying it contains “inaccuracies and misinformation”. In the post-script below, we show how there is nothing inaccurate here, for what MOM says in its response only confirms our story.

In January, we wrote about a worker (Lutfor) whose salary claim hit a road bump at the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT). See Court tells worker his TADM-prepared claims calculations are wrong. Who can help him calculate correctly? Lutfor (not his real name) came to TWC2 for help.

We sat down with him at our office, reviewed all his papers and recalculated from scratch what he was owed. Our calculations yielded a figure of $10,625.23. It’s an aggregate of various sub-items, such as unpaid basic salary, overtime, extra pay due for working on rest days or public holidays.

Then Lutfor faced another road bump. TADM – the unit at MOM that handles salary claims – resisted amending the Case Referral Certificate they had originally issued, even though the ECT had said amendment was necessary. We don’t fully know why there was resistance, but fortunately, it was eventually overcome after some back and forth.

We spent the next few weeks making sure Lutfor understood how exactly the claim amounts had been calculated and how he could use his evidence to back up those numbers if challenged. He was a quick learner, and soon gained confidence in answering any question thrown at him cogently and confidently.

His ECT hearing was in late March 2024. At the conclusion, the Tribunal Magistrate awarded him most of what he had claimed. The employer was ordered to pay Lutfor $7,876.50, or 74% of Lutfor’s claim. There were some parts of the claim where the issues were a little vague, e.g. whether the third day of Chinese New Year, when the company did not resume work, should be treated as compulsory annual leave or an extra company holiday, and other parts that were debatable and which Lutfor chose not to proceed with (whether the customary meal allowance that was discontinued should be treated as an entitlement).

There was also a decision by the Tribunal Magistrate which remains unclear (less than one day’s pay for working on a public holiday). Still, 74% was a good result and Lutfor was happy and relieved it was over.

On 2 April 2024, the employer paid Lutfor the court-ordered amount.

A stressful nine months

We meet up with Lutfor one last time before he goes home. It’s been a very stressful nine months, he tells us. He first launched his salary claim in July 2023 and it has taken this long to get resolution. Without salary, he has had to borrow money to survive. Unluckily, his mother and son also needed medical care, and the family has had to pawn jewelry and borrow money from Brac Bank (in Bangladesh) to tide things over. But now it’s his responsibility to pay up those loans.

Here are some extracts from the debriefing interview.

Original words: I case before 27 July. Then now is still, to now March, March running. Is nine month. I am just boring, nothing to work. No work. I am down lot of money, lost. Boss only pay … before four month boss no give makan, I, I ownself I do. I borrow take from my people, friends… and boss… last two months, or two and a half months… give food, only makan food provide me.  And coffee money, evening and morning is I ownself borrow take people. I ownself do.

What he was trying to say: My salary case began on 27 July 2023. Now, we’re in March 2024. It has been nine months, and it’s been boring with no work. I have lost a lot of money. For four months, my boss did not even provide money for food. I had to come up with my own money for that. I borrowed from my compatriots and friends. Only in the last two or two-and-a-half months did the boss give me food, only food (not money for food). For my morning and evening coffee, I had to rely on what I could borrow from others.

Even though he was without a job while his salary claim remained unresolved, he remained the breadwinner for the family. The only way he could provide, especially for medical emergencies, was to borrow.

Original words: I, because I, ah, still sit down, no money no work. So I family all family need to take care. I spend family money so much My family, my mother injury. I have to medical money need to payment money and after two months later, my son was injury. I give the hospital. It when… continue twenty days this payment give money also come. I need to payment, I take borrow people.

What he was trying to say: Because I had no work, I had no income. Yet, I still needed to take care of my family. I spent a lot on them. My mother suffered an injury and I had to pay for her medical treatment. Then two months later, my son got injured. I had to pay the hospital for a twenty-day stay. To make these payments, I had to borrow from others.

When his nephew was going abroad – almost surely migrating for work – his sister called in the loan she had given Lutfor previously. Very likely, the nephew needed to pay an agent for whatever job he was off to.

Original words: And my sister’s son, go to other country. My sister I when I come in Singapore this time I take borrow him two lakh Bangla money. So this money I need to borrow take other people then give him. 

What he was trying to say: And my sister’s son had to go to abroad. When I came to Singapore, I had borrowed 200,000 taka (Bangladeshi currency) from her, so now I needed to borrow money from others to pay her back.

Concluding the interview, we ask Lutfor how much was his total expenditure during the nine months between the commencement of the salary claim and the final resolution.

Original words: So I think Singapore money nine thousand or ten thousand like this that’s all I am very hard to Um, very difficult to this time doing I very lost money. 

What he was trying to say: I think I spent about nine or ten thousand Singapore dollars. It’s all been very hard. It’s been a difficult time, and I have lost a lot of money.

The math looks bad. He got about $7,800 as his owed salary after succeeding at the Employment Claims Tribunal, but during the nine months of unemployment, he borrowed and spent $9 – 10,000.

Why did he have to remain unemployed?

Indeed, that’s a good question – why did he have to remain unemployed? The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) seems to have designed a process that almost requires workers to remain idle for however long their claim lasts. After the wage-delinquent employer has cancelled the employee’s Work Permit, MOM puts the worker on a Special Pass, thus regularising the worker’s immigration status while he fights his claim. That part of the Singapore system is good.

The Special Pass, however, does not allow the holder (worker) to work. So, if the claim proceeds slowly – often due to an employer’s intransigence – the worker is idled for months and months.

It doesn’t have to be so. After all, MOM’s policy is that any worker with a valid claim will eventually be given permission to transfer to a new employer, usually at the end of the claim. But why ‘at the end of the claim’? We have seen a few instances where the worker went into a new job even while the claim was in progress and we’ve wondered why that wasn’t more typical. That said, a case worker tells your writer that we’re seeing more such instances now (good) but it’s not yet routine. Is that due to resistance from MOM officers to the idea that workers should go into new jobs as soon as possible, thus withholding permission till the very end? Or is it because even when MOM gives the green light, employers generally do not wish to hire workers with ongoing cases?

If it’s the former, then the fix is simple. Modify policy. Offer claimants the chance to change jobs as early as possible in the claims process.

If it’s the latter, the fix may be a bit more complicated but not all that difficult. TWC2 has long advocated that employers should be incentivised to hire workers who are already here in Singapore and available to start work immediately rather than bring in new ones from abroad. MOM can maintain a ready list of available workers for employers to select from. Work Permit applications for workers already here can be processed more quickly than applications for workers from outside Singapore; the wait difference can mirror the length of the “already-here” list. Employers who can’t wait too long for manpower will then be motivated to hire a worker already in Singapore.

There are considerable benefits from efficiently using the idle labour we have on our island. Besides helping workers like Lutfor who have to remain breadwinners for their families even while they wait out their salary claims, there are these benefits:

  • Creating a bias in favour of workers already here is also a bias for retaining skills and experience;
  • Saves money flying in new workers from abroad;
  • Precious dorm beds are not wasted housing idle workers, while other employers scream about insufficient dorm capacity for the new workers they want to bring in;
  • The wage-delinquent employer is spared the cost of housing and feeding the claimant worker for the entire duration of the claim process. In Lutfor’s case, for example, housing him for nine months at, say $400 a month, means the employer has had to fork out about $3,600 in accommodation cost alone (about half of the owed salary).

To celebrate or not?

As much as a victory at the Tribunal ought to be something to celebrate, Lutfor doesn’t feel elated. The conclusion of the case brings nearer the day when he is expected to repay all the loans he and his family have taken out; it brings the dreaded prospect for having to pay another agent more money to find him a new job. There are so many things wrong with Singapore’s migrant labour system, it tarnishes the shine from the few things, such as a salary claims process, that go right.

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23 May 2024

On 17 May 2024, MOM responded to this article and its twin article Court tells worker his TADM-prepared claims calculations are wrong. Who can help him calculate correctly? with a statement accusing TWC2 of “inaccuracies and misinformation”.

There was no inaccuracy or misinformation in what we wrote. Even a close look at MOM’s statement reveals no specific difference of fact. Instead, what MOM appears to prefer is for the story to be telescoped such that they would appear prompt in delivering the service that the worker wanted, whereas our story highlighted the delays and obstacles in getting the desired outcome. MOM’s beef seems to be that we are not playing ball by putting out a sanitised version of the story.

There is no dispute about the fact that the original Case Referral Certificate (CRC) that TADM produced for the worker Lutfor did not reflect what he wanted to claim. At the Employment Claims Tribunal, the CRC was thus considered erroneous and sent back for amendment.

With TWC2’s assistance, a new set of calculations was produced reflecting Lutfor’s wishes. Lutfor went back to TADM on or around 4 January 2024 to ask that these new figures be reflected on the amended CRC.

It would have been the simplest thing to incorporate the new numbers into an amended CRC.

Yet, it would take two weeks to get this done. Our story mentioned this delay. MOM’s statement, read between the lines, also hints at a delay. In those two weeks, Lutfor and TWC2 made repeated requests for action including an email we sent dated 18 January. We were concerned about having to meet Tribunal deadlines. The fact that we had to make repeated requests was a good basis to surmise that there was resistance to making the changes, though we stated in our story that we did not know why there was resistance.

It is almost amusing to read MOM’s preferred and telescoped way of telling the story. They wrote “After attending a session at the Employment Claims Tribunals, Luftor asked TADM to amend the Claim Referral Certificate to a different claim amount. TADM did so accordingly” – as if making the change was the smoothest thing in the world, glossing over the difficulties Lutfor faced in getting his wishes recognised.

MOM in its response has revealed something of what was going on – conflicting impulses behind their processes. On the one hand, MOM’s statement said TADM maintains “neutrality in the claims process and register the claims according to what the claimant intends”, and for this reason TADM “issued a Claim Referral Certificate based on his intended claim amount.” Ultimately.

But, the original CRC was rejected by the Tribunal because it did not reflect Lutfor’s claim intentions. Why this was so is hinted at in MOM’s response, when they said, “The TADM mediator had gone through Lutfor’s documents, alongside with employer’s documents to verify the claim amount. However, Lutfor did not accept the TADM mediator’s verified claim amount, and sought to claim for an amount that he had independently derived.”

In other words, TADM decided for Lutfor how much he should claim based on TADM’s reading of the materials, which is rather contrary to the earlier claim of “neutrality”.

Even after Lutfor was sent back to TADM by the Tribunal to get the CRC amended, “TADM had requested for clarity and the reasons behind the Employment Claims Tribunals’ instructions to amend the Claim Referral Certificate”, said MOM in its statement, underscoring once again that TADM’s impulse was to act as gatekeeper to assess and control how much Lutfor could claim.

It looks as if these conflicting notions of TADM’s role played a part in the delay.

As the foregoing discussion shows, for MOM to take issue with our characterisation of the events as “resistance” is belied by their own account of what was happening on their side behind the scenes.

This is the public service rendered by TWC2 when we publish stories in such detail, even if they are not the sanitised versions public servants prefer. We shine a light on what goes on in gritty detail. In the process we raise good questions, such as this one here: Is it any business of TADM to try to decide for the worker what he or she can claim at the Tribunal?