By Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics
Lured by the promise of more pay in Singapore to support their child and ailing parents, Chinese couple Wang Chao and Li Ting Ting borrowed 50,000 RMB (approximately SGD10,000) in response to an advertisement that they would each earn approximately $1500 a month for a two year contract. The husband, Wang Chao was told he would work as a cook and his wife would be a waitress for the same restaurant.
However, Wang Chao was not aware that his employer had applied an Employment Pass for him with a declared salary of $4100 per month even though he did not qualify, and was only to be paid $1200 each month.
Upon his arrival in Singapore, Wang was told to sign 24 documents which were written in English. He later found out they were blank salary vouchers. Workers who are underpaid by their employers are typically told to sign such documents so that in the event of a salary dispute, the employer would be able to fill in any amount he or she likes on the voucher as proof that the worker was paid the correct amount.
To show further that he was in compliance with the law, Wang’s employer set up a bank account under Wang’s name where $4100 was deposited every month. But Wang was not allowed possession of his ATM card, the password or the bank passbook. This ruse allows the employer to escape detection of not paying the declared amount to MOM. In the event that an investigation is launched, the employer can show that the declared amount had been deposited into the account and the worker had been paid.
12 to 14 hour work days with 2 days off a month were the norm for the couple even though such exploitative conditions were not what they were promised. The restaurant was also often short of staff and there were days that they had to serve customers entirely on their own. When they complained of tiredness and fatigue, they were threatened with repatriation. They gritted their teeth and endured the punishing hours because the exorbitant agency fees of $10,000 had to be paid off. The couple finally threw in the towel when the company did not pay them for two months, and they filed a complaint at the Ministry of Manpower.
Bangladeshi worker Rasel Mohammad also found himself in a similar predicament. He was promised a construction job where his duties included site supervision and making estimations and measurements of materials. He was led to believe workdays would be from 8am to 5pm with one hour lunch break and paid overtime. All arrangements would cost S$12000; part of this sum was borrowed from the bank, and the rest from money lenders and relatives. In October 2014, before he arrived in Singapore, Rasel received a letter from the Ministry of Manpower stating “assembly engineer” as his occupation and “S$ 2600” as his fixed monthly salary on an S Pass.
When he arrived in Singapore in November, he was also pressured to sign several sheets of blank salary vouchers. As he was new to the country and the job, he did not know what to do but follow his employer’s instructions. His employer also appeared well meaning and Rasel trusted him. But the job was not what Rasel expected, as he found out in the days and weeks to come; he had to check on fire extinguishers and clean them out instead of supervising on a construction site.
His hours were from 8 am to 9 pm, without his promised one-hour lunch break. He usually only got 15 minutes for each meal to grab a quick bite, before resuming his duties. He worked for 4 months and 16 days with only three full rest days during the entire period. When he injured his thumb, his employer insisted he continue work, or be sacked. The verbal abuse and threats against him started to escalate. He was also paid less than promised: in the first month it was slightly more than $700; in the second it was S$ 650, in the third he got S$ 600, and in the fourth S$ 525. This is despite the fact that the employer was required by S Pass regulations to pay him at least $2200.
In February this year, Rasel’s employer opened a bank account for him where money in excess of $2000 was deposited and he had to withdraw more than half of it to return to the employer. As happened to Wang Chao, this allows the employer to escape detection from the authorities that he has underpaid his employee.
With HOME’s assistance, he managed to gather sufficient evidence against his employer that he was underpaid, and a complaint was filed at the Ministry of Manpower early this year.
In 2009, the Economic Review Committee recommended increasing foreign worker levies and limiting the quotas by which employers can hire foreigners to reduce reliance on migrant labour and increase productivity. Since then, the government has incrementally imposed stricter quota restrictions and higher levies.
However, this policy has resulted in other forms of abuse as the cases of Rasel Mohammad and Wang Chao have shown. The tightening of restrictions on foreign labour without a corresponding increase in protection has resulted in many migrant workers being unwitting victims of unscrupulous employers who, unable to attract locals to perform these jobs, have resorted to circumventing quota and work pass restrictions by making false work pass declarations, submitting fake education certificates, in addition to pressurising and deceiving workers to be complicit in such arrangements. HOME has seen cases where workers themselves were prosecuted for such ‘complicity’ even though they were not aware that such arrangements were made, or were only aware after they arrived in Singapore and had incurred huge recruitment debts.
Many had to sign vouchers indicating that they had received the declared sum even though they did not. Most had to work punishing hours, lived in decrepit conditions, and were threatened with repatriation or denunciation to the authorities for being complicit in the employer’s false declarations. Some, like Rasel Mohammad are possible victims of human trafficking.
Both Rasel Mohammad and Wang Chao have been waiting for a resolution to their cases. It is still not certain if their employers will be prosecuted as such information is not revealed to the workers or to HOME. In the meantime, HOME is providing financial assistance and social support to the workers.
Worker’s names have been changed to protect their identities
Research for the story contributed by Wong Kwang Lin and Gavin Ezra Teo. This article was first published at HOME’s website.