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Labour Court and MOM useless in worker’s predicament – time to enhance the law

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By: Andrew Loh

Employer fails to pay worker. Worker seeks help from the authorities. Case goes to Labour Court. Court orders employer to pay up. Employer still refuses to pay worker. Worker goes back to authorities for help. Authorities tell him to go sort it out himself at the State Court.

That, in gist, is what happened to Bangladeshi construction worker, 42-year old Ismail Rafiqul.

According to a report in the Straits Times (ST), Mr Ismail is owed some 9 months’ worth of salaries by his employer, one Md Shamsuzzaman, sole proprietor of Geosray Engineering and Services.

Mr Ismail’s basic salary was S$700, and with overtime it came to S$1,000.

He started working for the company in February 2015.

From October the same year to June 2016, his employer failed to pay him.

According to the ST, Mr Ismail complained to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in September last year. The ministry issued him a special pass which he needs to remain in Singapore to sort out his claims against his employer which would take some time.

In the meantime, he is forbidden by law to seek alternative work.

On 29 December, the case went to the Labour Court, which ordered his employer to pay up the S$7,363 owed to Mr Ismail by 12 January 2017.

However, the employer failed to do so.

The Straits Times reports what happened next:

Mr Islam met MOM officials again on Jan 13 and was told, in writing, to go to the State Courts himself to apply for a court bailiff to seize the employer’s assets and auction them off to recover the unpaid wages.

He was given a letter that said the court action will cost him more than $1,000 which includes a $300 deposit, about $400 in legal fees, $50 an hour to hire a bailiff and fees to the court and auctioneer. MOM said that he had to take this route because salary recovery matters are “civil claims”.

Naturally, Mr Ismail, who has two children aged five and 10, expressed dismay at the turn of events.

“I have not sent money home for many months,” he says.

Sadly, Mr Ismail’s story is not new.

Such cases have been reported regularly both by the mainstream media and the alternative media for many years.

The authorities, for unknown or unspecified reasons, seem disinterested to nip such exploitative practices by employers in the bud with, for example, substantive enhancement to the laws and stricter enforcement.

Instead, as we see in Mr Ismail’s case, the Labour Court’s orders are basically useless; and the MOM a toothless agency in such instance. All it could do was to hold a “mediation” between Mr Ismail and his employer, and when that failed to resolve the problem, to issue the former with a special pass so he could sort out the problem – by himself.

In short, the courts and MOM are completely helpless in the face of recalcitrant employers who refuse to pay their workers.

It is indeed ridiculous that a decent, honest worker can be denied his rightful dues for such a long time – 9 months – and the authorities can do nothing about it.

What gives?

Is the Government so pro-business that it is ready and willing to turn a blind eye to the open disregard for even a court’s orders?

Why then have the courts issue judgement when it is, basically, completely useless?

Is making the interested parties going to court nothing more than a show? (And a complete waste of everyone’s time.)

And what about the MOM? Is mediating all it can do? Surely, being a ministry with such depths of resources, it can do more?

The bottomline is that employers continue to disregard the courts, the ministries and their own employee because they know they can get away with it.

And yes, they can and they do, because the authorities are either neutered or do not care.

All the employer has to do is to wait it out – the worker gets homesick or exhausts all means of recourse and has to go back home to his country, empty-handed.

In the end, the employer gets away with free labour rendered, and the authorities get to cover their own backside by saying well, we have tried to help him (by telling the employer to pay up, nothing more, as if that is really all that is needed to force the employer to do so).

Why not make it a criminal offence for employers to not pay their workers, especially after being ordered by the courts to do so?

You will see employers taking such things more seriously then.

But alas, before this happens, the authorities themselves need to take things seriously.

The fact that such stories continue to emerge shows that they don’t, and they really ought to be ashamed of themselves because no worker who comes from such faraway lands to earn a living for themselves and their families should be so blatantly exploited.

Just earlier this month, at the turn of the year, the Prime Minister himself waxed lyrical about the contribution of our foreign worker population here.

“As we enjoy the festive days with friends and family, let us spare a thought for the foreign workers who have left their families behind to work in a distant land,” he wrote.

He added that “they slog and save to support loved ones.”

Indeed they do, but such rhetoric must be met with genuine and substantive actions.

A good place to start is the law – beef it up to truly hold employers to account if and when they exploit or abuse their employees.

And oh, how do the authorities expect Mr Ismail (and those like him in the same predicament) to fend for himself while he sorts out his case if he is banned in the meantime from seeking alternative work which would pay him a salary?

Do they expect him to depend on handouts from others, or to live on empty air and free grass?

Let’s do right by Mr Ismail and his colleagues.

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