By: Desiree Leong
One hundred and sixty-eight hours. That’s how long Ziaul went not knowing where his next meal would come from—or when. For one long week, he and nine colleagues survived on tap water and plain bread, a few slices each.
The ten men had been working on Elias Park and Park View Primary Schools. Their employer’s declaration of their salary to MOM works out to $27.27 daily basic. But despite clocking in long hours of overtime, seven days a week, mostly they were paid only $20 per day. Having paid hefty recruitment fees (including $800 each to their boss himself) Ziaul and his colleagues had no choice but tolerate the short payment, at least until they could pay off the debts they had incurred to get their jobs.
But in August 2016, the boss stopped paying them altogether. With few real options besides hoping that they would be paid eventually, Ziaul and his colleagues continued working for another 3 months. Surviving on their meagre savings, they could no longer send money back to their families.
By late October, Ziaul and his friends had barely anything left to live on, let alone for transport fares between their Bartley accommodation and the Pasir Ris work sites. When they complained, the boss said they need not report to work until further notice. But he still did not pay them.
Desperate, Ziaul and his colleagues decided to seek help. This was a last resort because they knew they would not keep their jobs after going to MOM. They attended several mediations at MOM throughout November. At one session, their boss agreed to pay 7 of them an allowance (between $50—$100) for food and other necessities, but this was deducted from their yet-unpaid salaries. Apart from this, until the time of writing, they have received nothing of their rightful wages.
As expected, Ziaul’s boss terminated them after they went to MOM. Under the work permit terms and conditions, the employer continues to be responsible for the workers’ basic needs until their claims are resolved. This is a separate obligation from payment of wages. In early December, Ziaul’s boss abruptly moved them from Bartley to a dormitory in Tuas, which was not served by public transport. Far from affordable food facilities, and penniless after having gone unpaid for 4 months, the ten men were thrown upon their employer’s mercy. And he had none.
For two weeks, Ziaul and his colleagues, who are Muslims, had nothing to eat except non-halal food. When they complained to MOM, the boss cut off the food completely. For one nerve-wracking week, Ziaul and his friends had only water, bread and financial assistance from HOME. Even getting charity meals was very difficult because of the expense of travelling from their quarters in Tuas.
On the night of 20 December, the dormitory manager told Ziaul and his friends that they had to leave immediately because the employer had not paid at all for the 20 days they had stayed there. Shocked, they managed to persuade him to let them stay the night. They were evicted next morning.
Their salary claims proceeded to the Labour Court. The first hearing was 4 January 2017. But the attending Assistant Commissioner for Labour managed to hear the preliminary part of only two men’s claims, which illustrates the difficulty of scheduling all 10 of them to be heard at the same time slot by one officer. At this rate it will take a very long time for the claims to be resolved. Their last hearing was 3 days ago and another hearing has been scheduled in April.
When The Straits Times spoke to the company, the boss Mr Qian Yufei, a Chinese national in his 40s who is a Singapore permanent resident, claimed that he has a cash-flow problem because he has not been paid by two main contractors. “I would have paid them if I have the money,” he said. He also blamed the workers for being impatient and complaining to MOM without giving him a chance to pay them.
“I will be closing down the company soon and I will try to pay the workers in my personal capacity,” he said. “I have been working in Singapore for 16 years and I got my permanent residency in 2008. I won’t run away.”
The company, which has a paid-up capital of $100,000, does not have a physical office here. Letters to the firm are sent to a shell office at International Plaza.
The men are facing very real fears that even if they succeed on paper, they will never get their wages. Suman said, “I think boss close this company, make new company.” Such circumvention of enforcement mechanisms by recalcitrant employers is all too common. Meanwhile, getting from one day to the next as they prepare for the Labour Court hearings is all that Ziaul and his friends can do.