6 foreign workers stranded in Little India over salary dispute

Home for them is a dusty alley in Little India's Cuff Road.

This has been the situation since early July for these six construction workers from India after being told to leave their dormitory at Kranji Link.

They claim that their employer, Kim Hup Chor (KHC) Construction, evicted them after they lodged complaints with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in mid-June.

The men allege that they are each owed between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half months' pay.

The workers also allege that the company deducted between $200 and $300 from their salaries, supposedly for their work permit renewals. According to the MOM website, the renewal fee for work permits is $30.

Mr Lim Beng Hua, one of KHC's directors, told The New Paper in Mandarin: "In June, when there were discussions, the workers asked for money and threatened to go to MOM.

"I told them to go. Their demands are too much - I can't give in to them. So just ask MOM to give its verdict."

Mr Lim's younger brother, Mr Lim Beng Kiat, who is also a KHC director, told TNP that the six workers had asked for "extras" on top of their salaries. TNP understands that these involve disagreements over weekend and overtime payments.

Mr Lim Beng Hua expects trouble from some of its 180 workers.

"This is what the workers want," he said. "They think they can copy the Bangladeshis and threaten me. Now the other Bangladeshis are also making noise."

He was referring to a salary dispute between KHC and 29 Bangladeshi workers, which TNP had reported about in May.

The Bangladeshi workers had complained to MOM that they were owed more than two months' pay.

They had also complained about illegal deductions from their salaries and poor living conditions.

MOM said it had settled the salary and accommodation issues lodged by the Bangladeshi workers in May against their employer KHC. Its spokesman told TNP: "We have taken action against the firm for salary offences, and the dormitory operator for poorly maintained accommodation that had compromised the workers' well-being and safety."

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MOM, however, declined to comment on the cases involving the six Indian workers from KHC.

The Indian workers said that on July 22, they had a meeting with the Lim brothers. They claimed that the brothers threatened them at the meeting.

When asked, Mr Lim Beng Hua denied he had threatened the workers.

Mr B. Marimuthu, 30, one of the workers, told TNP: "I have been patient with my boss.

"But after ignoring my requests to settle, I decided to see MOM. We're not asking for anything extra. All we ask is what is owed to us."

Mr Marimuthu, a site engineer who has been working here for eight years, said his wife had scolded him for not sending money home.

He and the other five men who work as welders, forklift operators and panel fitters, earn between $1,100 and $2,500 a month each.

Mr S. Tharmaraj, 43, who has worked in Singapore for the last 11 years, said: "I'm the breadwinner but my family is now forced to borrow money back home."

Some of their compatriots have lent the workers money while others like Mr Innasi Muthu Anthony, the owner of Indiano's Spicy House, has been supplying them lunch.

The 43-year-old said: "I help because I pity them. I tell them to pay me only when they have money."

There are programmes to help foreign workers who have been left in the lurch.

One of the 29 Bangladeshis involved in the earlier dispute told TNP last month that thanks to MOM, they have received most of the salaries owed to them by KHC.

But the worker, who gave his name only as Mr Rana, said his overtime pay issues were still outstanding even after he was given about $12,000 out of the $14,000 he had sought.

KHC was awarded a Distinguished Award at the 2011 SME One Asia Awards.

The award is given to businesses that have "established themselves as the exemplar model for successful small and medium-sized businesses in the country", said the SME One Asia Awards website. It also said KHC "regularly scheduled its staff and foreign workers for upgrading courses".

Workers scolded at meeting

The six Indian workers said they met two of the directors from Kim Hup Chor Construction - brothers Lim Beng Kiat and Lim Beng Hua - on July 22 to discuss their salary matters.

One worker secretly recorded the conversation on his mobile phone.

In the 23-minute audio clip, which was given to The New Paper, the foreign workers are heard receiving a tongue lashing for reporting the matter to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

It is unclear which of the two directors are talking at any one time.

A director is heard saying: "You work here so many f****** years. You want to play around, I can play around. No problem. You want to f*** around, we can f*** around. Okay? You ask MOM to write to me."

One director also adds: "If you want to go by MOM law, you're welcome.

"Then we wait. Then we wait for MOM to say 'what, what, what'... I see you can tahan (endure in Malay) how long."

In that recording, the workers are also offered "options": Either settle the matter privately or via MOM.

When they are asked who among them had initiated the complaints to MOM, a worker replies that they had gone to MOM separately.

Itemised payslips by next year

Last year, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) helped 4,500 foreign workers with salary matters, 900 more than in 2013.

By next year, it will become mandatory for employers to issue itemised payslips.

But while payslips give a breakdown of the workers' salaries, they do not show if the workers have been paid, said Ms Debbie Fordyce, executive committee member of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).

Itemised salary slips should go hand-in-hand with electronic transfers, said TWC2.

Said Ms Fordyce: "MOM still hasn't agreed on electronic transfers because they say a lot of people like to be paid in cash.

"And it's true, I think, for those people who know they'll be paid regularly. We still feel that there has to be a way of ensuring that everyone gets paid."

Each year, TWC2 sees salary dispute cases in the hundreds.

In most of these cases, the workers are told their salary before they arrive in Singapore, but are shown another amount in the In-Principle Approval letter when they are here.

Added Ms Fordyce: "And they would have had to reluctantly agree to that because at that point, they've already borrowed sums of money. Many of them are forced to sign a paper when they arrive (in Singapore), which might indicate they have agreed to yet an even lower salary."

Non-governmental organisations like TWC2 and Home (Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics) have programmes to support foreign workers left in the lurch by irresponsible employers.

TWC2 provides free meals while Home conducts workshops for foreign workers about their rights and the law here. Home also runs a shelter for foreign workers.


This article was first published on Sept 3, 2015.
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