Reading the Fine Print: How do you get paid?

April 28, 2015
Category: Strategic Research & Practical Guides

Many construction workers come to Singapore holding contracts that contain multiple payment provisions. These can include an hourly rate of pay, along with a piecework payment system. Often, they do not elaborate how and when an employer will choose either system of pay, causing headaches for workers who approach MOM or the labour courts with salary claims. Although these workers in practice are mostly paid by the higher system of pay, usually the piecework system, the ambiguous nature of the contracts can often lead to administrative tribunals enforcing the lower hourly rate system.

Complicating matters for MOM adjudicators and the civil courts, the law is not clear on the legal principles for evaluating these payment systems. This can lead to inconsistent outcomes for similar cases, and more importantly, workers being short-changed by unscrupulous employers. Our goal is to develop clear guidelines based on current contract law that can guide practitioners in helping migrant workers prepare their salary claims, and to aid courts and adjudicators in determining outcomes that penalize unscrupulous attempts to use such salary provisions against the worker.

In researching this critical issue, we have come to understand just how challenging such legal questions are. This semester, we explored the issue from many perspectives, talking to members of the faculty in NUS, researching relevant cases, contacting both local and overseas organizations, and directly analysing various contracts that contain such provisions. Perhaps the most challenging part is the newness of the topic; the courts in Singapore have not yet addressed this topic, nor are there many people who have legal knowledge on the issue.

That said, the more contracts we have seen, the more concerned we are as to how migrant workers can be so disadvantaged against the most exploitative employers. One thing we can say for sure, these bad actors have put a lot of effort into making contracts that aid their activities!

Given this critical gap, we intend to turn our research into an effective strategic document that help will strengthen the rule of law in this area, ensure workers are paid what they were promised, and help hold accountable those who seek to exploit both workers and Singapore’s employment system.

Cheryl LimNing Jie are Pro Bono Legal Fellows at JWB and
1st year law students at the National University of Singapore.

Reading the Fine Print is JWB’s new series covering our strategic legal research program. Our research helps address the gray areas in local law that can pose challenges for pro bono lawyers helping migrant workers to bring wage and other civil claims to court.

Also in the series — Reading the Fine Print: The “In-Principle Approval”