17 November 2014

The search for two men in Nepal - Members of the public assist in MOM’s quest for justice

17 November 2014

“I had lost all hope of getting back the money,” said Mr Jai Bahadur Rai in Hindi. “MOM gave me short term visas to continue working in Singapore, but I couldn’t find a suitable job. There was a lot of tension in my family and I was afraid of returning to Nepal due to the loans I had taken. It was frustrating.”

Foreign workers like Jai come to Singapore with the hopes of earning more than what they could get in their home country. After they arrive here, they work hard and most send home a large part of their salaries to their families and loved ones. It becomes a catastrophe when an errant employer decides not to pay them their dues.

Jai and fellow Nepali cook Mr Dipak walked in to MOM in August 2009 to report that their employer, Nachia Restaurant, owed them over $12,000 in unpaid wages accumulated since May 2009. The Foreign Manpower Management Division (FMMD) immediately began an investigation. The employer was subsequently prosecuted and ordered to pay their outstanding salaries by instalment in Dec 2010.

While waiting for their salary arrears, Jai and Dipak were placed on a Special Pass by FMMD to legalise their stay as they were no longer working for Nachia Restaurant. Although Jai and Dipak were allowed to find jobs, they were unable to secure any new employment. 

After some time, Jai and Dipak decided to head home to Nepal in Sep 2011. “MOM said that they would contact me and return the money to me when they get it,” recounts Jai.

Even though they had returned home, MOM continued to pursue their former employer for the unpaid salaries. In December 2012, Mr Shaik Dawood Kuthubudeen, the manager of Nachia Restaurant was arrested for defaulting on his payment plan. Shortly after, he was ordered to start paying the owed salaries, in installments. By January 2014, the outstanding salaries had been fully paid up to the Court. However, when MOM tried to contact the workers, the contact numbers they had provided were no longer valid. 

Subsequently, MOM contacted the Nepal Consulate in Singapore for assistance but they were unable to locate them. This did not stop MOM and other options were explored. Mrs Quek Siew Fong, a Senior Deputy Director from FMMD, approached her acquaintance, Ms Melissa Kwee, for assistance. 

Ms Melissa Kwee (right), chief executive of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre
“Siew Fong wrote me an email as we had met years before and she knew I used to live in Nepal and have looked out for migrant workers in Singapore,” shared Melissa, who is also the chief executive of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre's (NVPC) board, “I reached out and found a Singaporean pastor in Nepal who was willing to help. She asked me for details and Siew Fong quickly provided the requisite information. She handled the case personally and there were many late night exchanges over how we might coordinate to obtain enough information to make the search worthwhile.” 

Ms Penny Phua (far right), a Singaporean pastor in Nepal, with her assistants
Ms Penny Phua, the Singaporean Pastor, found a connection in Jai’s home district of Pathari-Sanischare Municipality, but records listed seven men by the name of Jai Bahadur Rai living in the district. 

“The names were common so we found many. We were glad that finally we got the right one,” said Penny. “Jai’s family actually sold some land to a church I was in contact with and someone in the church realised it was the Jai we were looking for. At first, Jai was suspicious of us but as we presented more information on the case, he realised that it was genuine.”

Through Jai, MOM was able to find Dipak as well. A Skype session was arranged between the two workers, Penny, and a few MOM officers. Through the video-conferencing session, MOM was able to authenticate the identities of Jai and Dipak. As the workers had no bank accounts, Penny stepped in again and agreed to pay the workers their salary arrears using her own personal funds so they could receive their money immediately. She was later reimbursed by MOM. 

Jai and Dipak receiving their salary arrears from Penny after their identities were authenticated by MOM officers over a Skype session
“I trust the Singapore government completely and it would be hard for the workers to sort out other means to get their money,” said Penny of her kind act. “Dipak was in a bad condition so the sooner he got the money the better. He was so thrilled that I was actually uncomfortable with all the hugs he gave me. However, the day he got the money, his phone rang in my presence several times from his relatives who were asking for money. The debt had accrued too much interest that the money returned was not sufficient to repay everything so Dipak said he would try to go overseas to work again to earn more before returning to repay it all.”

This case was successfully resolved, thanks to the dedicated MOM officers from various departments and members of the public who worked in close partnership to locate and hand over the monies to the workers. Although the case took seven years to be fully resolved, MOM never gives up in seeking justice for the worker, no matter how difficult the process. Learning from this experience, officers from the Transit Management Branch (TMB), which manages the Special Pass holders, now obtain the worker’s overseas contact details as well as the contact information of their next of kin. 

To improve the employment opportunities for the Special Pass holders, the TMB worked with employment agencies so that they would be able to better match the worker’s abilities with prospective employers.

Using half of the money he received from MOM, Jai managed to repay his loan. With the remainder of the money, he bought a fish farm. He is hoping that with the revenue generated, he would be able to put his son through school. In the case of Dipak, Penny had conveyed an offer of employment for him at her factory in Nepal through Jai.

Do you know someone who may need help in a case that MOM can assist with? Help them get in touch with MOM at +65 6438 5122 or through our Online Feedback Service.
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