UPDATE (4:15pm 18 Dec 2012. Corrects number of workers that have stopped working to about 20 from 40)
Some Indian construction workers in Yishun stopped working on Tuesday, joining colleagues from China who put down their tools a month ago to demand payment of their salaries.
Together there are about 20 workers of Sime Chong Construction Pte Ltd. who are refusing to work.
The Chinese workers have been working in Singapore for some four to five years, and this is the first time that they have taken things into their own hands.
Four of the 20-odd workers have decided to speak up. Each of them is owed a range of between S$2,400 to S$5,600 in salaries.
The men say they have been told by their employer that the company has no money and thus could not pay them. "But the construction project is still carrying on," one of the men says, pointing to the ongoing construction of some HDB flats in Yishun where they are located, and which the company is involved in.
They say they have also approached the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for help but to no avail so far. "The Manpower Ministry says if the company doesn't want to pay us, there is nothing it can do," one of the workers says. The rest nodded their heads in agreement.
The men have been given special passes (S-Pass) to stay in Singapore in order to resolve their pay dispute. However, the passes are valid only until the 26th of December.
When asked what they would do if their employer still refuses to pay up, the men kept silent, unsure of their options. They repeated that the MOM had told them even it would not be able to do anything. What they face would be repatriation, without having their owed salaries recovered, as has happened to other workers in the past.
The ministry's attitude, the men say, was also one of apparent disinterest. One of the men says there was no response to his phone call when he tried calling the ministry. Another time, one of the men tried calling the ministry again but the official seemed impatient and only said that MOM will speak to their employer and hung up the phone.
According to the men, they approached the ministry twice — the first time on the 7th of November and the second time on the 15th of November. The 26th of December, on which date their S-Pass would expire, is effectively the deadline which they have to recover their salaries. So, the men are desperate.
One of them says his wife has been quite ill back home in China and he has requested to go home. But so far, there has been no response from his employer. Another man has a medical condition which requires surgery but he too has had his pleas ignored by his employer.
The Indian workers have downed tools only Tuesday and are awaiting the employer's response in the evening. They have been told by him that he will pay them their salaries on the same day. The workers have been owed two months' worth of salaries.
Such salary disputes are not new, and workers downing tools or even going on strike are happening more frequently in Singapore in recent times. The recent SMRT strike, while not entirely similar to this one, nonetheless tells a story of inadequate channels for resolution of such disputes, the failure of these so-called "proper channels", and the apparent lackadaisical attitude of ministry officials towards such complaints by workers. But more importantly, the disempowerment of the workers who are not only left to the mercy of their employers but also at the hands of the MOM.
The Employment Act is unequivocal about the offence of late payment or non-payment of salaries.
21. —(1) Salary earned by an employee under a contract of service, other than additional payments for overtime work, shall be paid before the expiry of the 7th day after the last day of the salary period in respect of which the salary is payable.
(2) Additional payments for overtime work shall be paid not later than 14 days after the last day of the salary period during which the overtime work was performed.
Yet, while there are numerous cases of salary disputes reported to the MOM, only a few of such offenders are prosecuted. In 2010, for example, there were a reported 4,000 pay-related complaints by foreign workers lodged with the ministry, but only four employers were prosecuted for failure to pay salaries.
While the ministry drags its feet on enforcement to make sure employers adhere to the law, it is the workers who have to endure the situation the best they could. Without any salaries paid to them for months, these workers from Sime Chong have to depend on aid from a migrant workers NGO which gives each of them S$30 a week for sustenance, barely enough to keep their heads above water while they go through the prolonged and uncertain process of trying to recover what rightly belong to them.
It would be a shame if these workers, who have held up their side of the contract, are eventually forcefully repatriated without their salaries being recovered — and through no fault of their own. For they have gone through the "proper channels" which the Acting Minister for Manpower recently spoke of. They have even approached his ministry for help, in fact. But thus far, it doesn't look like MOM is taking the matter as seriously as it should.
Will these workers face the same fate as Nepalese worker Rana Kumar Rai did last year? Rana was owed months' worth of salaries as well and he had approached the MOM and even won a court order in his attempt to recover his salary from his employer. But these were all to no avail — and he was sent home empty-handed.
Let's not pay lip service to protecting migrant workers, or in enforcing the law. Indeed, the situation faced by these Chinese and Indian workers are not new, as Alex Au — a volunteer with migrant NGO TWC2 — wrote here last year: Neither law nor morality at Manpower ministry.
If we are so quick to lay down "zero tolerance" for actions taken by workers, as the MOM did recently with regards to the SMRT workers' actions, then perhaps we too should lay down in no uncertain terms a similar "zero tolerance" for employers who flout the law, and who so blatantly exploit their helpless workers. Failure to prosecute these recalcitrant employers will only embolden others to do the same.
But what is more important than prosecuting employers is to recover the salaries owed to the workers. They have put in their honest days of work, they deserve their rightful salaries. There is no use prosecuting employers if in the end the workers do not receive what is rightfully theirs and are sent home empty-handed. We — the government, the ministry and us — would be complicit in such blatant exploitation of helpless workers.
Anything less than a recovery of salaries for the workers would be an injustice, and a mockery of all that the ministry has been saying these last few weeks, following the SMRT strike. We would have learnt nothing.
Andrew helms publichouse.sg as Editor-in-Chief. His writings have been reproduced in other publications, including the Australian Housing Journal in 2010. He was nominated by Yahoo! Singapore as one of Singapore's most influential media persons in 2011.