Government’s pledge to protect foreign workers’ rights should go beyond mere empty talk

Written by Ng E-Jay
16 Jan 2009

Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, Chairman of the Migrant Workers’ Forum (MWF) at the National Trades Union Congress, has pledged to improve the lot of foreign workers in Singapore by educating them on their rights, such as what to do when problems involving late salary payments or housing issues arise. Mr Yeo Guat Kwang is an MP at Aljunied GRC.

Mr Yeo also urged the Manpower Ministry (MOM) to step up enforcement and not give employers the impression that enforcement is “not thorough enough“.

In recent months, foreign workers have complained about being unpaid, unfed, poorly housed, and in some cases, even abandoned.

However, unless the Government is willing to take more concrete measures to address the root causes of foreign worker abuse in Singapore, its pledge to protect foreign workers’ rights will remain largely as empty talk.

The underlying reason why abuse and exploitation of foreign workers is flourishing are the overly liberal policies that the Government has adopted with regards to importing foreigners — policies that cater to the sheer greed of corporations without considering the need for stringent oversight to prevent abuse or the impact of such policies on the local resident population.

The “growth at all cost” policy of the Government has reared its ugly head in recent months with the surfacing of numerous stories of foreign workers being cheated by unscrupulous corporations which have exploited the various loopholes in our manpower policies.

First and foremost, the Government must address the irresponsible and indiscriminate import of foreign workers by tightening existing regulation and implementing more effective checks on companies, and making sure proper planning with regards to foreign worker accommodation is made in order to avoid inconveniencing the local population who should NOT have to shoulder the mess the Government throws at them from time to time.

Another root cause of foreign worker abuse in Singapore is the high fees charged by agents who import foreign workers from places like Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, which can range from $8,000 to $10,000 per worker, and the fat profits earned by various middlemen.

Importing foreign labour has become such a lucrative business that some corporations import them even when there is no clear need for such labour. For instance, it is believed that some employers, instead of directly hiring foreign workers themselves, use middlemen, and receive kickbacks in return for doing so, despite the authorities making kickbacks illegal since July 2008. One result of this illegal practice is oversupply as employers, seduced by the kickbacks, take on excess workers.

When these corporations are unable to provide jobs to their foreign workers due to oversupply, some of these workers end up being abandoned, as was the case in December last year with 179 foreign workers from Bangladesh who were supposed to be employed by Tipper Corporation. Tipper Corporation claimed that two subcontractors were responsible for the workers and that they were the ones who abandoned them. MOM has said that employers must pay their workers regardless of whether they have work, or cannot be deployed temporarily due to lack of skills or qualifications. (Straits Times, “No work? Workers must still be paid”, 12 Oct 2008)

If abandoned workers are sent back to their home countries, many of them and their families stand to be harassed by creditors from whom they borrowed money to pay the exorbitant agent fees, which can amount to several months’ worth of salary.

It is imperative therefore that MOM comes down hard on the illegal practice of employers receiving kickbacks by hiring foreign workers through middlemen. Agents and other middlemen involved in sourcing and importing foreign labour should also come under much stricter regulation.

While welfare provisions and minimum standards of employment are comprehensively laid out on paper, actual enforcement of these laws is a different thing altogether.

For example, it is often difficult for foreign workers to prove non-payment of salary in the Labour Court as the workers are frequently unable to produce documentary proof such as job contracts, salary vouchers or time cards, due to employers denying workers access to these documents. Aggrieved workers also find it hard to pursue claims as they often do not know who their main employers are.

This blatant lack of transparency and accountability is an obvious exploitation of lowly educated foreign workers who may not understand their rights or have difficulty articulating their needs. If this is allowed to continue unchecked, Singapore’s reputation as a first world globalized city will go down the drain.

Ms Braema Mathi, founder and former president of the advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) has also said that the work permit system makes it possible for dishonest employers to send their workers home without paying their wages. She urged MOM to conduct exit interviews or record their statements at the airport, before the workers return to their home countries. (Straits Times, “No wages, no work, poor living conditions”, 28 Dec 2008)

The abuse of the work permit system and apparent lack of regard for workers’ rights by the Government is highlighted in a case brought up by Yawning Bread. In November last year, a few China workers who were employed by Xuyi Building Engineering Co., which is a subcontractor at both the Marina Bay and Sentosa casino projects, lodged complaints with MOM about not receiving their due wages in spite of working every day, seven days a week, and often for a total of over 80 hours per week. Not only did MOM refuse to render any assistance to them, MOM compared them to eggs hitting a stone, and told them that that the casinos “are important projects, and if we let you quit whenever you want, we cannot complete them in time”. (See the Yawning Bread articles here and here.)

Eventually, some of the workers who gave up and accepted the company’s unfair and miserly terms were repatriated, and of those who hung on in Singapore, some were arrested and held by the police for overstaying without a shred of evidence that they were overstayers. Their work permits had earlier been cancelled by the employer when the dispute erupted, but apparently none of the employees were informed of it. The ICA then forced these workers to fund their own flights home, with or without being paid their wages, or risk being charged and caned for overstaying.

The blatant abuse of power by the authorities in this case is unmistakable and abhorrent.

Most recently, about 200 Chinese workers gathered outside the Manpower Ministry at Havelock Road to lodge complaints about their employers, who owed them up to four months of salary. They were eventually successful in getting MOM to render assistance to them. Of the 224 PRC workers who were employed by Zhonghe Huaxing Development Pte Ltd and China Nuclear Industry Huaxing Construction Co Ltd, 171 workers have accepted a settlement and have decided to continue working in Singapore, while the rest have decided to return to China. Two remaining workers, who declined to accept the settlement, would have their claims adjudicated by the Labour Court.

However Mr Yeo Guat Kwang said that workers should “avoid staging large gatherings or protests” as a means of dispute resolution.

I wonder if the 200 china nationals would have been offered any settlement if they had not gathered in front of MOM building to voice their displeasure and pressure the authorities to act.

Such a statement by Mr Yeo only attests to the lack of civil and political rights in Singapore, as well as the lack of workers’ rights due to the incestuous tripartite arrangement between trade unions, employer associations, and the Government.

In other countries, not only are outdoor demonstrations legal (and not just permitted in a small designation location), it is also legal for workers to go on strike if they feel they have been exploited, abused, or not given fair compensation.

Clearly the Government is afraid of both protests as well as workers’ strikes because they make publicly visible the human rights abuses that take place in our air-conditioned nation.

But until the Government re-tunes its overly liberal policies with regard to import of foreign labour and enforces existing regulation much more effectively, the seething discontent on the ground will only further undermine the social fabric of our society.

More to be done to help foreign workers

Straits Times, 16 Jan 2009
ST link

STEPS will be taken by the labour movement over the next few months to improve the lot of foreign workers.

The aim is to educate workers on their rights, so they know what to do when problems such as late salary payments or housing issues arise.

The chairman of the Migrant Workers’ Forum (MWF) at the National Trades Union Congress, Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, told The Straits Times last week that more details would be released ‘with the new budget’.

He said MWF, together with the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF), would ‘come up with more projects and find more ways to reach out to foreign workers to help them understand their rights better’.

Another possible way to improve conditions for foreign workers, he said, is to make the general public more aware of the rights of these workers and the legislation that is already in place.

Doing this, he added, would help Singaporeans become ‘our whistle blowers and help us because they are the most effective ears and eyes on the ground to throw up cases’.

He also urged the Manpower Ministry (MOM) to step up enforcement and not give employers the impression that enforcement is ‘not thorough enough’.

The SNEF, meanwhile, said it already holds two large briefings a year, and smaller monthly industry group meetings on foreign workers’ employment conditions. More of such meetings will be organised this year, it said.

Mr Yeo said there is an urgent need for such steps because he anticipates that the economic slowdown may bring about more problems.

In recent months, foreign workers have complained about being unpaid, unfed, poorly housed and, in some cases, even abandoned. Last month alone, there were at least five such reports.

Most recently, about 200 Chinese workers gathered outside the Manpower Ministry at Havelock Road to lodge complaints about their employers, who owed them up to four months of salary.

But Mr Yeo also had a word of advice for foreign workers who are planning to take similar action: Avoid staging large gatherings or protests.

He brought up an example of a previous case handled by MWF, in which a contractor with cashflow problems was trying to resolve the issue and eventually got a new investor. But a public protest over unpaid salaries by the disgruntled workers spooked the new investor, and he pulled out.

Asked what workers should do in such cases, Mr Yeo said they are each given a booklet in their native language when they receive their work permit. If there is a breach in the work permit conditions, they should call the MOM hotline listed in the booklet.

Another word of advice was to join a union for better protection. About 16 per cent of the over 530,000 unionised workers here are foreign work permit holders, Mr Yeo said.

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7 comments on Government’s pledge to protect foreign workers’ rights should go beyond mere empty talk

  1. iam staying in dra, 10 rowell road, singapore. but there is a problem in my company that ask me come to the hostel. why i have to go to the hostel? there don’t have any facilities like air con, not good the toilets and we cant sleep on the beds also because of there is a lot of bed boxes on the matress. why cant we live in a better lives?

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