Former employees of Singapore River Explorer, which ran river taxi services until it ceased operations on Dec 31 last year, have found themselves in the middle of a dispute between its two co-owners.
Yesterday, dramatic scenes erupted in an office building in Tai Seng when more than 20 of them confronted a director over unpaid wages, and the police had to be called in.
All 75 staff of Singapore River Explorer, a joint venture between information directory company Global Yellow Pages (GYP) and travel company Leisure Empire, were let go when the company's three-year licence expired on Dec 31.
Mr Lim Siong Kheng, 61, their supervisor, claimed they were not paid termination fees, ranging from a week's to a month's wages, which had been due on Thursday.
Others were owed overtime pay and salaries for last month.
Several ex-employees became upset with Mr Nelson Goh, a director of Leisure Empire, accusing him of not signing their pay cheques and related documents. They left after Mr Goh's staff called the police. Sixteen of them, all Chinese nationals flying home this weekend after their work permits were cancelled, were paid their wages in cash a few hours later by Singapore River Explorer.
Troubles for the company began in July when Leisure Empire sued GYP and Singapore River Explorer for termination of a service agreement, among other things.
Early last month, GYP, which owned 50 per cent of Singapore River Explorer, announced it would not continue to run river taxi services when the licence expired. Later that month, it lodged a report with the Commercial Affairs Department about potentially irregular transactions in the subsidiary.
GYP says it is owed $5.9 million, and about $400,000 in interest by Singapore River Explorer.
Mr Goh told reporters GYP had withdrawn at least $750,000 from their joint bank account late last year without his company's knowledge. He said the bank had frozen the account in early December to conduct investigations, but said he did not know what these were.
A spokesman for GYP told The Straits Times it had handed the matter to its lawyers. "All payments to GYP are legitimate and properly due to GYP. We are not aware of any investigation by the bank as claimed by Mr Nelson Goh," he said.
In the meantime, boat operators like Mr Xu Yu Sen, 25, from Shandong, China, still need to repay money borrowed from relatives and friends to work here. He borrowed $8,000 to pay an agent who got him the job with the river taxi company.
"I came because I was told I can earn more here," said Mr Xu, who is flying home tomorrow after less than two months here. "Now I have to go back and work harder to repay my debt."
Singapore River Cruise is the only company operating river taxis now.
The Urban Redevelopment Authority called a tender for a new operator last month.