Four first-year law students were attached to Transient Workers Count Too for three weeks in December 2013. The project we designed for them involved interviewing as many workers as they could on themes of their choice. However, these themes had to be drawn from the submission that TWC2 made to the Ministry of Manpower on 30 October 2013 proposing improvements to legislation, by-laws, administrative policies and practices.
The brief given to the students was to provide an independent, empirical-based re-assessment of the submissions that TWC2 had made. How important to workers themselves were these issues that TWC2 highlighted in its submission? Would the proposed improvements address workers’ real needs? Are there other issues that TWC2 overlooked but which are relatively top-of-mind to foreign workers?
The four students — Ashley Loh, Charmaine Yap, Nicholas Kam and Sanjana Jayaraman — chose four themes:
- Informed consent to terms of employment
- Salaries — calculation, payment, transparency
- Kickbacks and deductions
- Termination experiences and possibility of transfer to new jobs without having to go home
These, they argued, would provide snapshots of various stages of the employment experience from beginning to end.
They spent about ten evenings each doing street interviews in Little India (Lembu Road, Veerasamy Road and Hindoo Road) and Geylang (close to Aljunied MRT station), speaking with working workers. They also interviewed some workers who had salary disputes or injury claims; these were mostly done at TWC2’s Cuff Road Project. Altogether 95 interviews were conducted, each lasting 20 to 40 minutes.
In the area of informed consent, they found that many workers did not receive the native-language version of the In-principle Approval that the Ministry of Manpower sends out prior to their coming to Singapore. Consequently, they could only glean the barest minimum of information about their terms of employment from the English-language version which they could not quite read. Another common problem was that workers generally did not know what were legitimate deductions and what were not. They suggest that IPAs contain more information on this.
In the area of salaries, they observed that many workers didn’t know how their salaries were calculated, or how they ought to be calculated. The lack of documentation given to workers is a serious drawback, making it hard for them to prove underpayment and other discrepancies. Many workers also spoke about the importance of payment into a bank account. The team also suggested that detailed itemised payslips should be bilingual.
On kickbacks, their independent interviews discovered the same issues that TWC2 has long highlighted. Workers reported various salary deductions and payments for permit renewal. They also expressed their suspicion that a part of their “agent fee” went to their employer. One area the students highlighted as missing from TWC2’s submission is some way to stop employers, even after paying salaries directly into employees’ bank accounts, from demanding that cash be withdrawn from the paid salaries and handed back to the boss.
On termination, the team argued that written grounds be given, so that unfair, unreasonable termination can be challenged. They also pointed out that the law seems silent on what might constitute unreasonable/unfair grounds for termination. They found that most workers didn’t believe transfer was possible: asking for a “release” from their current employers was not only considered unrealistic, but likely to provoke immediate termination and repatriation. They mapped out a widespread sense of disempowerment, even fear. Even if, as TWC2 had suggested, workers should be free to look for transfer jobs without needing to obtain a “release” from their current employers, there may be practical difficulties for some workers in looking for alternative jobs. Their access to job information is limited; this may need to be addressed.
From their interviews the team discovered a fear of prosecution for “providing false information” should workers make complaints to MOM that they later cannot substantiate. Workers are disadvantaged because proof in the form of documentation are often within the control of their employers. Another issue that surfaced was that of annual leave. They found workers telling them that employers frowned on them taking leave even when the law provides for it.
The four students also spent two hours on Sunday, 8 December 2013 near Boon Lay MRT Station doing outreach. They distributed a few hundred flyers (in several languages) to workers at leisure and collected 60 responses for TWC2’s ongoing salary survey. These 60 survey responses are separate from the 95 in-depth interviews done for this report.