Bread. 5 December 2008
Muddy Singapore swallows China workers
Wanting to press for a resolution of his dispute with his employer, Xue Hanming, a construction worker originally from Jiangsu, China, called the Ministry of Manpower on 3 December 2008. "Ms Foo [Kim Hui] told me to go down to the ministry the next day," he told me.
On the 4th, he arrived and asked the reception clerk to inform Ms Foo of his presence. He was asked to sit in the waiting area.
After a long while with no sign of Foo, Xue began to wonder if something else was up. Fresh in his mind was the case of a fellow worker, Xue Chengming (no relation), who had been seized by security agents hired by their employer on 2 Dec. More on Xue Chengming's seizure below.
Fearing a similar fate, Xue decided to leave. Moments after stepping out, he saw his manager and a couple of security guards enter the Manpower ministry building. It was a near miss.
The coincidences scream at you. Who would have alerted the employer that Xue Hanming was in the ministry building? Why did Foo never come down to meet someone with whom she herself had asked to come to the ministry, giving the impression that she was prepared to discuss the matter with the complainant? Are government offices meant to be places for resolving problems in good faith and according to the law, or locations for entrapment?
But let's start from the beginning.
* * * * *
Xuyi is a subcontractor at both the Marina Bay and Sentosa casino projects. I am told that Xuyi is a subcontractor for multinational construction company Ssangyong at these sites.
This was not the first time that Xuyi faced unhappy workers. There was at least one earlier batch who had lodged complaints against the company -- a fact that the Ministry of Manpower acknowledged to Xue and his colleagues. More on that batch's story in the box at right.
Xue Hanming spoke on behalf of five other men, whose names are in the photo caption below. Two of them had been seized by the employer's security agents before the interview and handed over to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA).
Before coming here, they had signed employment contracts with a labour agency in China -– whom they later discovered was set up by the spouse of the boss of Singapore Xuyi -– which contained a paragraph on expected remuneration. It is not an altogether clear clause, but it may be common in China. Essentially, it says that the monthly salary will be in the range of "S$1,250 to S$1,500 (subject to satisfactory diligence)". It also specified that if they worked every day of a month, they would get an extra S$1 per day, i.e. S$30 for a 30-day month.
They even had difficulty at that stage. Xue wanted the complaint form to say that he wanted three months of salary arrears to be paid, but the supervisor or manager insisted on rewriting it to say "Salary too little, not in keeping with contract obligation". As you can imagine, the rewrite would conceal the fact that the company had broken Singapore law by not paying its workers on time; the rewrite cast5 it as a dispute about interpretation of contractual terms.
In response, the company produced a schedule listing what the men were owed. In Xue's case, the schedule showed that his gross salary in June and July was over S$1,400 monthly, but for August, September and October, his gross decreased to S$1,300 and S$1,200.
It was similar for the others in the batch.
Xue asked his management: "Is the gross salary for the last three months lowered because I filed a complaint and indicated I wanted to go back?"
He was not given much of an answer. "It's like that," was what the company representative told him.
Xue was prepared to accept the slightly reduced amounts, but then the company produced a list of deductions that whittled the gross salaries of August, September and October down to a nett S$1,400 or so. For all three months.
Others had it worse,
"In my case," said Liu Xiaoping, "my nett after deductions was just about S$500 for those three months!" As was the case for Chen Yuguang -– one of two guys currently in ICA detention.
In their case, they had been working every day, seven days a week. They often worked more than 80 hours a week. This only fueled their anger.
On 6 November 2008, they filed a complaint with the Ministry of Manpower, meeting the above-mentioned Ms Foo and an officer whose surname in hanyu pinyin was Chen.
Xue recounted that Chen waxed lyrical with three allegorical tales.
"His first story was from Lu Xun, about a patriot and revolutionary named Ah Q, who ended up being executed, because he was illiterate. He signed a confession without understanding it.
"I told him in response, 'The era of Ah Q is over'." Refusing to be compared to an illiterate, Xue pointed to the Zaobao article that had informed him of his rights. The article had said that it is illegal for an employer to make deductions from workers' pay. Even if an agreement had been signed, the agreement would not be valid, Xue summarised the news story.
Chen then spoke of the Yellow River, saying that at its source the water is clear, but in the lower reaches, it is yellow and muddy. "Frankly," noted Xue, "I don't understand what he was trying to say. Was he saying that Singapore is muddy?"
The Manpower official then launched into his third allegory. "Rub two stones and you get a spark," Xue recalled Chen saying. "But if you have an egg and a stone.... You workers are the eggs."
"He said this in front of more than 20 workers as well as company representative Tang Xuan," reported Xue. "And the meeting ended like that with no conclusion."
Along the way, the workers learnt that the same company had had a similar case just weeks before. Twelve workers, originally from Henan, had meetings with the Manpower ministry in October and were eventually sent home to China in early November. Workers in that batch were upset about the same things, and demanded to be released from their contracts and repatriated. To close that case, the company deducted S$100 for each month in the contract not worked. There were also deductions for rent and utilities.
The current batch said that if the company would use the same formula, they would accept the settlement. But this time, the company refused, while the ministry officials said, "We can't tell your employer what to pay you."
The mediation session of 19 November was likewise fruitless. The employer stood firm, saying something to this effect: These projects (the casinos) are important projects, and if we let you quit whenever you want, we cannot complete them in time.
The third meeting was not held at the ministry, but at the worksite. Inside information told Yawning Bread that the ministry was seeing more and more workers showing up and making complaints, and they did not want the public to see how many unhappy workers were descending on their premises.
Held on 26 November, the officer Chen circumlocuted again. He spoke of a wolf, goat and grass wanting a boatman's services to cross a river. The problem was that if the boatman did so, with the three of them ending up on the same bank, they would devour each other. According to Xue, the ministry saw itself as the boatman. The wolf represented what he called third parties, (which could be the NGOs and outsiders getting involved), the goat the company, and the workers the lowly grass.
Soon after making this nebulous comparison, Chen told the company's representative, Tang Xuan, something to this effect: "Go and settle this properly. I have to go now because I have an exam to take tomorrow."
And with that, the meeting broke up.
Facing total intransigence on the employer's part, the workers thought about hiring a lawyer, but they had no money. Eventually they turned to an NGO, TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too), who are now trying to help them though they too have very limited influence and resources.
Snatching and robbing
Along the way, some of the workers in the group gave up and accepted the company's unfair and miserly terms, and were repatriated –- or at least that was the impression that Yawning Bread got. Six held on. But for these six, things got nastier.
Tuesday, 2 December: Four or five security agents hired by the employer, and led by the company representative Tang Xuan, went to Xue Chengming's dormitory between 10 and 11 in the morning and took him away under coercion. One co-worker witnessed it and informed Xue Hanming. Shortly after, agents from another security company took Chen Yuguang away from his dormitory, which was at a different location. To Yawning Bread, the two instances sound awfully like kidnapping.
Friends tried to call Xue Chengming on his two mobile phone numbers, but these were switched off. Nor could friends reach Chen Yuguang.
In the latter's case, the security agency which snatched him was identified as a company with a name like "UTR". It was traced, and TWC2 rang them to enquire if Chen was there. It was established that he was. Yang Zhiqiang, Xue Hanming, Sha Najak from TWC2, together with Stephanie Chok -– a Singaporean who helps workers in her personal capacity -– went there and had a chance to speak with him.
Chen told them that his handphone had been taken from him by the security agents. One could assume that Xue Chengming too had been relieved of his two phones by the security agents who seized him.
Yawning Bread asked the men at the interview: Who owned the phones? They said the men did. They were the personal property of Xue and Chen. Well, dear readers, doesn't that amount to robbery? And wouldn't keeping people incommunicado reinforce the justification for calling this kidnap?
Wednesday, 3 December: Around midnight Tuesday/Wednesday, police arrived at UTR -- almost surely a result of a phone call from the employer Xuyi to the police -- and took Chen Yuguang to Central Police Station.
When Stephanie went there Wednesday afternoon, she also enquired with the police about Xue Chengming. She told them that no one had been able to contact him since the day before and people needed to know his whereabouts and if he was safe. After some pleading, the police checked their database and found him as being in custody at Bedok Police Station. His status was that he had been "arrested" for overstaying.
Were they overstayers? This could not be so, because Xue Chengming, for one, had a letter from the Ministry of Manpower setting an appointment date of 4 December, and it was only 2 or 3 December when the police took him in.
The way things are supposed to work in Singapore is that when employees are in a dispute with en employer, the Ministry of Manpower issues them with special passes so that they can remain in Singapore until the issues have been resolved. Having a letter from the Ministry of Manpower setting up an appointment is a good sign that these people had been put on special passes.
Moreover, a certain Nigel, an officer with the Ministry of Manpower, would later confirm to TWC2 that these men had been issued with special passes, but he also said that these passes were handed over to the employer at the time of issuance. However, Nigel added that the "passes had expired because the employer neglected to renew them" according to an email Stephanie received from TWC2.
This does not make any sense, so the above information may be wrong. How can Manpower entrust the special passes to the employer when the employer and workers are locked in a dispute? How can the employer have the discretion to "renew" or not, the special passes, when the employer would have an interest in throwing the workers out of the country?
Whatever it is, it's quite evident that the men are not overstayers -– and based on usual procedure, they would not be -– but the police seemed to think he was. It is believed that like Chen Yuguang's case, Xuyi called the police after their security agents had seized Xue Chengming, with Xuyi telling the police that Xue was an overstayer. The police appeared to be uninterested in checking their information. Effectively, therefore, the police were holding people unlawfully.
Thursday, 4 December: Xue Hanming had his near miss with security agents in the lobby of the Ministry of Manpower, as described at the start of this story.
Police said, "Don't come."
That (Thursday) afternoon at 15:08h, Xue Hanming got a phone call from a police officer named Ye, who told him that his employer had made a police report that he (Xue Hanming) had gone missing. The employer must have called the police right after they failed to nab him at the ministry lobby.
"I am not missing," Xue replied. "Shall I come to the police station? I would be happy to do that, so that you can protect me from my employer.
"Mr Ye then said, 'No, no. Don't come'," Xue recalled with a laugh.
The police officer then suggested that Xue seek help from the Chinese embassy. Xue said he had tried that but the embassy told him it was a domestic Singapore matter.
Halfway through Yawning Bread's interview, Xue Hanming received a call from Chen Yuguang on his handphone. Chen and Xue Chengming had by then been dumped by the police onto the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA). Chen was calling from an ICA landline (his cellphone having been seized). He was under pressure from the ICA to find the money to buy his air ticket home, and was appealing to his friends for help.
Why was Chen Yuguang and Xue Chengming looking to buy their own air tickets home? you should ask. After all, the rule is that employers are responsible for paying for that. All workers in Singapore know that.
My guess is that the ICA were threatening them with imprisonment and caning -– these being the penalties for illegal overstaying -– and pressuring him to accept an injustice.
* * * * *
The police held people for overstaying without a shred of evidence that they were overstayers.
The ICA held people in an armlock, getting them to fund their own flight home, with or without being paid their wages.
They all just want to get rid of the problem with no regard for justice, law or rights. The source of the problem is the employer, but by action or inaction, our government is abetting all these abuses, ranging from cheating people of their wages, to robbery of their handphones, to kidnap.
It's not just bad officers. It is the system. There are many things wrong with the foreign worker work permit system, as illustrated by this case, which I will point out in a follow-up article.
But meanwhile, I hope you feel as angry as I do.
© Yawning Bread
9 December 2008 - See the follow-up