Wednesday, 27 September 2023

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A 19th century page from a 21st century draft


Story by Ng Sook Zhen

Their living quarters is a shop house unit in Lavender, their beds are wooden boards, the only toilet is shared by 40 people and a typical workday is 13 hours.

It could have been a page taken out of a 19th century book about Singapore’s immigrant workers.

There is a difference though – these migrant workers do not get fair wages, some do not even get their wages.

The page flips and you realize the story is set in 21st century Singapore.

Welcome to the world of Mr Zhong, Mr Kuang and Mr Gan from Jiangsu Province in mainland China. The trio – who helped build Sentosa Cove – want to return to China in time for Chinese New Year, but have only received a portion of their deserved wages from employer Jiangsu Rundong Construction Engineering Company. 

“With no money, we cannot go home,” said Mr Kuang.

First, although 13 hour days are clocked in, overtime pay is irregular and arbitrary. Take for instance a typical month with six 13-hour days a week and a Sunday with eight hours. They are only credited with what Mr Gan claims as “totally arbitrary figures based on the company’s liking”. This is in spite of the fact that they diligently filled up time cards showing their working hours.

Time over their basic 8 hours (for which they receive $32, though they were promised $50 a day by their agent in China) is written in the contract as 1.5 times their $4 per hour price tag. As precise as their contract sounds, the clause is not adhered to practically. Their salaries were also withheld for three months when they first started work, meaning they only got their first salary payment in March 2008 though they started working in Singapore in November 2007. This pattern continued until September 2008, even after many workers had complained about this system of being paid three months late and wanted to resign.

When Gan, Kuang and Zhong’s work permits expired after a year in November 2008, they told their company they wish to return to China and wanted what was owed to them. Instead, their company renewed their work permits without their knowledge or permission. Gan, Kuang and Zhong only found out when they went to MOM to file a complaint and an MOM officer told them that their work permits had been renewed for yet another year – this time with a company called BHCC, though it was owned by the same ‘boss’. Despite their protests that they do not want to continue working for their company, whatever name it was given, they were told that only their employer had the right to cancel and renew work permits.

Currently their overtime wages for September and October have yet to be paid, while the total wages for November are still owed.

But this is not the only problem they face.

The company had deducted $2,800 from the workers over a seven month period – an amount that was meant to be returned to the workers upon completion of their term. However, the company is now refusing to do so, blaming the men’s agent in China for not paying the company what they are due. Gan, Kuang and Zhong are adamant that this has nothing to do with them – they have already paid their agent in China and any unpaid fees should be recovered from their agent, and not their salaries. The trio want the $2,800 back.

In addition, by quitting a job they find “hard and unfair”, the workers prima facie breached their employment contract, and the company said that it would deduct a further $2,000 from their owed salary and a further $500 for their return airfare. This violates Singapore’s Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EMFA), which states that employers are to pay the full repatriation costs of workers. The trio said they signed a “one year plus one year contract” which allows them to extend their employment after one year only if they wished to. Their obligation was to serve a minimum of a year. Having fulfilled a year of the contract, they should no longer be liable for breach.

They have approached the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) several times, but no resolution was reached. There was also no timeline set for the resolution of the matter.

Yet, there is little the trio can do, considering they do not have the financial resources to find legal help and can only rely on limited pro bono aid. They also do not have the money to wait for the unpaid wages much longer. In desperation, the trio has been camping out at the Jiangsu Rundong office in the day, every day since they stopped work in November, in the hopes that they can recover what they are owed and return home. Often, they are ignored. However, on one particular occasion, a company representative was so annoyed to see them there, he kicked Mr. Kuang for ‘obstructing’ his office walkway and then called the police to ask the workers to remove themselves from the area.

Currently, the trio still stay at the company dormitories – an overcrowded shophouse – along with nearly four dozen other people.

“With Chinese New Year looming, we can only wait so long. And they know that, that’s why they are not doing anything. See how long we can wait. Because they know we have no money,” said Mr Gan, recounting what their employer had said to them.

Elsewhere in the Chinese construction worker migrant community, the picture is just as bleak.

Another worker from Xuyi Building Engineering Co has similar complaints on the unfair treatment by his employer.

He did not want to be named because clause 2.11 of his employment contract, as translated from Chinese,  states:

“Whilst in Singapore, the worker cannot make any public commentary that hurts the interests of the employer. He must not create trouble and tarnish the reputation of the employer by complaining to various departments and ministries of the Singapore government, failing which, the employer reserves the right to demand the worker to pay for any fees incurred by the employer, such as transportation fees (SGD$100 per trip) or for the attendance of meetings (SGD$300 per meeting) to address these complaints.”

But clipping his freedom of speech is only the tip of the iceberg.

He only just received his pay for last October and November this week – a mere $800 for two months of toil. The amount is only a fraction of his contracted remuneration (a guideline from the contract suggests he can expect $1,375 a month), and the missing salary remains unexplained by the firm.

His pay for December 2008 is still in arrears.

This same worker also paid $400 previously, for a scaffolding certification course that the company organized, but has yet to put any of the skills learnt to use.

“They said we can earn more money if we took the course. They said they would give us chances to use our skills, but when we requested for our skills to be used, they said there were no jobs available,” said the worker.

Further, according to his employment contract, the worker is forced to work overtime – or face a $50 fine.

“Not a single day is the clothes that we wear dry, it’s continuous working all the time. When a  couple of co-workers fainted, they were only told to have some rest before they had to work again,” he mused. They work seven days a week, building the high-profile Marina Bay Sands resort.

Perhaps it is time to remove this 19th Century page from our history books – which hopefully is still in its first draft.


Note: Pictures are of the dorm of the Xuyi workers accomodation, not the Jiangsu workers.

Read also:

“I hope Singapore government punish them” by Andrew Loh.

The Story of Delowar by Deborah Choo.

Mega Development projects and labour supply chains – who is responsible? by Stephanie Chok.

Sent home with $600 by Deborah Choo.


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