General manager fined for wrongfully confining 3 errant workers

Migrant workers seen inside a formerly vacant HDB block at Redhill Close, which has been repurposed to accommodate healthy workers amid a spike in COVID-19 cases linked to foreign worker dormitories, on 10 April 2020. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)
Migrant workers seen inside a formerly vacant HDB block at Redhill Close, which has been repurposed to accommodate healthy workers amid a spike in COVID-19 cases linked to foreign worker dormitories, on 10 April 2020. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — A general manager decided to confine three errant construction workers within their company’s premises after they flouted safe distancing regulations during the circuit breaker period.

Shaun Pang Tong Heng first confined the three Indian nationals for three days after deeming them “troublemakers”. When two of the victims were filmed leaving the company’s premises during the circuit breaker period, Pang confined the trio for 39 more days.

All three were provided with beds, fans and a water cooler, meals and WiFi. They also had access to a toilet and their mobile phones.

The authorities had banned the movement of workers in and out of dormitories with effect from 21 April amid a spike of cases there.

Pang, general manager of Ad-Meth Mech Field, a firm which services industrial equipment, was fined $9,000 on Thursday (17 September).

The 41-year-old Singaporean pleaded guilty to one charge each of wrongfully confining Pandiyan Jayakanthan, 23, Ganesan Pandi, 24, and Muthuraj Thangaraj, 39, for 39 days at the company’s factory-converted dormitory at 75 Tuas South Street 5.

Three charges of wrongfully confining the trio for a period of three days were taken into consideration for sentencing.

Pandiyan and Ganesan had been terminated. Both were construction workers prior to being fired. Muthuraj was a construction supervisor until he was involved in a police investigation for a separate matter and was placed under work suspension.

On 12 May this year, more than one month into Singapore’s partial lockdown period, Pang was informed that Pandiyan and Ganesan were disturbing another worker. Muthuraj was being investigated by the police for a separate matter.

Pang then decided that all three men were troublemakers who should be locked up in a confined area at the back of the company’s premises. The area was a main room with a bathroom attached.

From 12 to 15 May, the trio were confined until they complained about the warm temperature and mosquitos. Pang then asked them to move into another room in the first floor, which was not locked. This room had three beds and air-conditioning.

On 18 May, Pang was shown a video clip showing Pandiyan and Ganesan leaving the company without permission. Thinking that the two men were unremorseful, Pang confined them and Muthuraj in the original room. He tasked an employee with locking the trio in the area.

Pang told them that he would call the police if they did not comply with his instructions.

The trio were brought back to the original room on 19 May at about 7.30am. The employee who led the men back then secured the metal fencing surrounding the area with a padlock, which curtailed their movement.

Between 19 May and 26 June, the trio were confined in the room. They were provided with meals and had access to their mobile phones, WiFi connection and the toilet.

One of the victims complained to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on 25 June using his mobile phone. The next day, MOM deployed a group of officers to the dormitory and discovered the trio were confined. Officers told Pang to release the victims immediately and he complied. An MOM officer lodged a police report on 29 June.

Pang later admitted that he should have called the police to handle the matter of his workers failing to comply with COVID-19 measures, instead of taking matters into his own hands.

In mitigation for Pang, his lawyer Md Noor E Adnaan said that the trio had been caught drinking on premises, which was not allowed. They were then confined for three days.

After their release, two of them left the dormitory at night by scaling a wall and bought alcohol. The trio were later found in the room smelling of alcohol. By then, the country was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and there were strict rules imposed on dormitory operators, said the lawyer.

There was a huge concern about the spread of the virus within dormitories, so Pang was faced with a predicament. After the two workers’ violation on 18 May, Pang reached out to MOM by email on 19 May. He informed MOM that the company could not be sure of the movements and behaviour of the two workers while outside the dormitory and was concerned that they could pose a risk of infection to other workers. There was a nearby site that was a COVID-19 cluster, said the lawyer.

While there could have been a better way to handle the situation, Pang was caught between “a rock and a hard place”, the lawyer added.

Pang had taken care of the trio during their confinement, including buying a new WiFi router for them and supplies as they needed. Other foreign workers had submitted testimonials in support of Pang.

Asked by District Judge Prem Raj why Pang did not simply go to the police, Noor said that Pang felt that MOM was the correct authority to deal with the workers. MOM has since revoked the work pass of Ganesan while the other two men were placed on a blacklist.

DJ Prem noted that while the men were confined for a prolonged period of 42 days, he accepted the circumstances under which they were confined. He said that Pang should have called the police after the workers continued to be difficult.

For wrongful confinement, Pang could have been jailed up three years, or fined, or both.

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