by: Jamie Tan, Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME)
Wu Jianhua first came to Singapore to work in 2008, from his hometown Taizhou in Jiangsu Province in China. In March 2015, he took on a new job at a local construction company, laying tiles in HDB flats. He soon realized that his new company’s salary payment schedule was erratic and workers often received their salaries late. The company also had other questionable financial practices: it had deducted $10,000 from workers’ salaries, including Wu’s, to apply for their work permits.
Wage related disputes are very common. In a report we released last month, out of the 2009 workers who approached HOME in the past two years for help, more than half did not receive their salaries and 37% were not paid overtime, public holiday or rest day pay in accordance with labour laws. Up to 90% were not sure if they were paid properly at all.
In September 2015, the company clerk asked Wu to sign the payment vouchers for his August salary, which he had not received. She said he would receive payment later but he needed to sign the vouchers first. Wu was very reluctant to do so, but he did not know what else to do. He also saw that other workers were asked to do the same, and that it seemed to be company practice. In the end, he signed the vouchers, but did not receive his salary.
The same thing happened the next month. Wu did not want to sign the September salary vouchers since he had not received his August salary. The clerk told him he would receive both months’ salaries if he signed the vouchers. Seeing no alternative, and in urgent need of his salary, he complied.
“My passport was at the company, and I couldn’t get my salary. I really had no choice, I had to do whatever the boss said,” said Wu.
That same month, Wu’s grandmother in China fell ill. Wu told his employer that he would stop work at the end of October because he wanted to go back to see her, and asked for his outstanding salary. The employer asked him to sign payment vouchers for his October salary, and said that he would be paid at the airport when he was leaving Singapore.
Aware that there was no guarantee that his employer would show up at the airport to pay him, Wu refused to sign, and did not agree to being paid only at the airport. He was not paid.
In November, at his wits’ end, Wu approached HOME for help. He was not confident he had a viable case against his employer. He said, “Because I had signed the payment slips, complaining to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) wouldn’t be any use.”
HOME advised him to gather evidence for his case, and assisted him to do so. He returned to his company and recorded a conversation between himself and the company clerk, where she admitted that the company owed him his salary from August to October.
Wu produced the recording as evidence at MOM but the MOM officers he spoke to did not want to listen to him and said that he had insufficient evidence. Wu said, “Even after I recorded the conversation, they still didn’t believe me. They said, ‘Why did you sign the slips if they didn’t pay you? Are you dumb? Did they know you were recording what they said?’”
Wu soldiered on and his case was brought to the Labour Court. The Labour Court judge decided that the recording, which showed Wu had not been paid, outweighed the evidence of the salary vouchers, which the employer had relied on to prove that he had been paid. The Court therefore gave judgment in favour of Wu and ordered his employer to pay him $13,300.
The employer refused to pay and appealed to the High Court. HOME then helped Wu find a pro bono lawyer from TSMP law corporation to represent him in the High Court. After some delay, the matter came before the High Court in November 2016. The employer’s lawyer argued that the signed August and September salary vouchers proved that Wu had been paid. He argued that Wu had unfairly tricked or pressurised the clerk while recording her, so the Court should disregard Wu’s evidence.
Wu’s lawyer argued that Wu’s recorded evidence was reliable and there was no reason it should be ignored. He also argued that it would be very unfair for the Court to allow employers to force workers to sign vouchers for unpaid salary, then claim that the vouchers proved the payment. When the judge delivered his decision, he dismissed the employer’s appeal and, in addition, ordered the employer to pay Wu’s lawyer costs of $3,000.
Initially Wu did not want to pursue his case because he did not think he stood a chance. It had seemed to him that the power was all in his employer’s hands and that, as a foreign worker, he very often “had no choice” but to do what he was told. Indeed, without free legal aid from NGOs such as HOME, this outcome would not have been possible. Migrant workers and other foreigners are excluded from free legal aid programmes, other than the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, which only provides assistance to those accused of crimes. Wu said he was very grateful to the staff and volunteers at HOME, who supported him and gave him the resources to be fairly heard. “I must thank this organization,” he said.
This article was first published at HOME’s blog