A raw deal

By Andrew Loh

workers

[Some of the workers crowding in TWC2 office on 20 November. The workers came in batches over several days due to space and manpower limitations in TWC2’s small office.]

Menton Technologies was in the news in July when the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) ordered it to pay more than $300,000 it owed to 112 of its workers after the company allegedly ran into financial trouble.

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Now, the sub-contractor of telecommunications firm, Ntegrator, one of SingTel’s key contractors for OpenNet, is again in the news for the same reason – failing to pay the salaries of at least 90 of its workers this time.

The workers had sought the help of non-governmental organisation, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), this past week, after they had informed MOM of their plight in early November.

Menton, whose contract is to lay fibre-optic cables in customers’ homes, is believed to have also failed to pay some S$200,000 in levy to the government, prompting the MOM to revoke the work permits of its workers.

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[A worker in TWC2 office calculating how much he is owed in backpay, following the formula taught by TWC2.]

Menton’s failure to pay the workers their salary and the MOM’s revocation of their work permit have precipitated a series of events which have put the workers at risks. For a start, without work and without money in hand, the workers were left to fend for themselves.

They are put up in dormitories in Jurong East and in Geylang. The workers housed in Geylang told The Online Citizen (TOC) that their boss had failed to pay the rental, resulting in them being threatened with eviction by the landlord. After TWC2 stepped in, the workers now say the rent is paid up and they are allowed to stay, but no one knows for how much longer. Meals too had to be fought for, after TWC2 informed the MOM that these needed to be catered for too – as the workers, in the meantime, sought resolution to their pay disputes.

The workers are also owed parts of salaries for up to 5 months last year, and for the last 2 to 3 months this year. A check with the workers showed that the average amount owed is about S$3,000 each.

The Bangladeshis also say the company does not provide proper pay slips to them, or a breakdown of their salaries, and that salaries are arbitrarily calculated. For example, the workers say deductions were made from their salaries for loans which the workers allegedly took from the company. The workers deny that they had taken such loans.

But their protestations are ignored and deductions are made accordingly.

Here are two typical “pay slips”, which are actually white envelopes which held the cash payment, which the workers showed TOC:

payslip

The “-100$” in the second piece of paper indicates the alleged loan amount deducted from the worker’s salary.

For 5 months last year, the workers say some of them, namely the newly-arrived ones, were only paid their basic pay, which for the average worker is about S$468; and that for the rest, their overtime pay was a standard S$3 per hour, regardless of whether they had worked weekends or holidays. $3 is lower than what they should be getting.

For the months of September, October and November this year, the workers say they have not been paid at all.

Their boss had also started to inform the workers, by pasting a list of their names at their dormitories, that some of them will be sent home. To date, some 50 names have been put on the list, according to a photo of the notice showed to TOC. They say the boss told them that he will pay them their owed salaries after they have returned to Bangladesh.

In their desperation, some of them approached MOM around the 8th of November. 10 days later, an MOM officer told a group of the workers that the boss of Menton Technologies had “no money” to pay them. He proposed that the “only way” for the workers to get their owed salaries back was for Menton’s insurer to step in and pay them. But this will only be done if, by the end of this month, Menton itself is unable to pay the salaries owed to the workers.

However, the workers say the officer told them the insurer may not pay them the full amount owed.

TOC understands that the officer would advise Menton to request the insurer to pay at least 70 per cent of the owed salaries.

The MOM officer also told the workers that the insurer will only pay them at the airport, and that if they do not agree to return to Bangladesh, the insurer will not pay them.

If the workers reject the insurer’s offer, the only option left for them would be to haul their employer to court in a civil suit – an option which is entirely unviable, given the financial circumstances of the workers.

The MOM officer also informed the workers that those who have worked for less than 6 months with Menton will be able to apply to be transferred to another employer, as per MOM rules. These workers, which are believed to number about 20 among the group of 90, will either have to look for the new employer themselves, or seek the help of Menton to do so.

For those who have worked for more than 6 months, they will have to return to their home country before coming back here. The MOM Officer told them that before they return home, they can look for a new employer first, or ask Menton to help them look for one.

While the workers were advised not to pay any further agent’s fees if they were to return to Singapore, it doesn’t mean that the new employer won’t ask for “transfer fee” or such payments. So each worker may still have to fork out $1,000 or more for the new job. A spokesman for TWC2 says this practice “is almost routine.” It is against the law but MOM’s enforcement of this provision “is virtually non-existent”, the spokesman says.

In any case, to say that the boss will help workers find a transfer job, or that MOM will allow a transfer, “is nicer than it sounds”, he says.

“It glosses over real difficulties such as how long will MOM allow workers to stay on in Singapore to look for a transfer job? In previous cases, MOM allowed just two weeks, after which, if the worker is unsuccessful, he must be repatriated.”

He added:

“Moreover, these potential transfer workers, who are valuable experienced workers, should not have to compete with more fresh workers coming in for jobs, and TWC2 has urged MOM to tighten up on allowing employers bringing in fresh inexperienced workers. Once again, we’ve seen no action from MOM on this front.”

“Moreover, where will these workers stay while looking for transfer jobs, and how are they to feed themselves especially if the boss still fails to pay arrears, leaving the workers with no money to fend for themselves? These are social support issues which MOM regularly fails to address even when they superficially boast about ‘solving’ workers’ problems.”

In any case, if the workers are unable to find new employers, they will have to return to Bangladesh for good.

This is the fear for many of the workers, especially those who have been here for only a short while.

One of them, Sahid (not his real name) has been here for 3 months. He had to take a S$10,000 loan from the bank back in Bangladesh to pay the agent’s fees for the opportunity to work here.

“I only here 3 months, now salary also never have pay,” he said. “If I go home, big problem.” He said the bank has been hounding his family to sell their house and their land to pay his debts. “Everyday, I think of this,” he said, as he lowered his head and wiped his eyes. It is a lifetime of debt he is facing if he is unable to continue to work here.

And he is not alone in this.

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Employers owing workers their salaries is not a new problem. Indeed, this is one of the most regular issues we have seen raised in Singapore, and especially when it comes to low-wage foreign workers.

There are a few things which the authorities should seriously consider.

One, it needs to be aware of the precipitous consequences of its actions. For example, cancelling the work permits of the workers in such arbitrary and sudden fashion. It puts them in a vulnerable position of not being able to work, which results in them not having income, which in turn leads to questions of daily survivability – where would they stay and how would they be able to buy food, for example. Indeed, the MOM officer had asked them the same question – how would they fend for themselves if they were to decide to take their employer to court.

If TWC2 had not stepped in, not a few of these workers would have ended up sleeping on our streets, literally. The NGO had to even top up their travel cards so that they could go to MOM to follow-up on their complaints.

What sort of social support does MOM provide for foreign workers in need? There is virtually none.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, there needs to be a better way for such workers to raise the red flag when it comes to such matters.

Too often, these workers feel disempowered, and they are reluctant to blow the whistle on their employer because they could be sent home – and be saddled with a lifetime of debts. So, they hold on and wait things out, hoping for the best, which results instead in the situation becoming worse.

But even when such complaints are raised, workers could still end up with nothing or with only partial compensation, if their employer goes bust.

What are needed are concrete, long-term strategies to nip such problems in the bud once and for all.

One suggestion which have been made is to set up a fund, call it the Foreign Workers Fund, with contribution from the levy collected.

In 2010, the total levy collected was S$1.9 billion.

In 2011, it was S$2.5 billion.

The Acting Manpower Minister explained in 2012 that “foreign worker levies are not ringfenced for any specific purposes.”

Why not use part of it to protect vulnerable workers?

With this latest Menton Techonlogies incident, involving a not insignificant 90 workers, perhaps it is time the Government considered using part of the levies collected to set up a fund which could pay out to workers who are owed salaries. This is not to say that the employer will get away with the offence, as MOM can still pursue the employer and recover whatever is owed, and prosecute the company to the full extent of the law.

What the fund will do is to rightly return what belongs to the workers – from the contribution employers make through paying the levy.

These workers are here and have been here to work, and they have not given us any problems at all. Their situation is not of their making – and they should be given what is rightfully theirs, their hard earned salaries for work done.

It is not charity which they deserve but what they have worked for legally.

Incidentally, OpenNet was fined S$750,000 by the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) on 20 November for “service breaches”.

That’s money which the workers of its sub-contractor, Menton Technologies, will never see.

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