Letter to Straits Times: MOM’s advice out of step with reality

Posted by on August 23, 2017 in Media Coverage, News, Our Stand

Straits Times’ photo of the rented room in Geylang where the SJH workers are currently staying

On 13 August 2017, the Straits Times highlighted the case of over a dozen Bangladeshi workers from SJH Trading. They told the newspaper that they had not been paid their salaries.

Most are in their 40s, and had contracts stating they were to be paid a monthly salary of $1,600, excluding overtime pay.

Their main complaint was that they were underpaid salaries and their pay slips were falsified.

The workers claimed that soon after they arrived in Singapore, they were taken to Mr Shah Jahan’s office in Jalan Sultan and asked to stamp their fingerprint in ink on blank salary vouchers.

Those who initially refused to do so said they were threatened with cancellation of their work permits, and told they would be sent home.

This was not an option for many of them, who took loans of around $7,000 to come to Singapore.

— Straits Times, 13 August 2017, Cannot work here, cannot go home, Link.

In response to the story, the Ministry of Manpower wrote to the newspaper. Their printed letter (19 August 2017, Link) is as follows:

Foreign workers should lodge complaints without delay

What the workers have had to go through, according to the report “Cannot work here, cannot go home” (Aug 13), is painful.

SJH Trading is being investigated for multiple offences and will be prosecuted accordingly.

We urge workers to come forward to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) as early as possible not only to protect themselves but also to prevent their employer from causing further harm to other workers.

As an illustration, the MOM would have taken action against the employer, had the workers come forward immediately with their allegation that the employer had asked them to sign on blank salary vouchers or had threatened them with the cancellation of their work permits.

During the time when claims are being looked into, the law requires the employer to continue to pay for the workers’ upkeep and maintenance.

Should the employer fail to do so, the MOM, through the Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC), will step in to provide for their welfare, and punish the employer.

The workers would also have been offered the chance to find other employers and avoid the plight of having to continue working without pay.

Six of the workers came forward to the MOM in July for salary arrears of about three months. Their claims were not disputed by the employer, and the MOM will see to it that their salaries are paid in full this week.

The remaining 19 workers came forward only between June and August, after salary arrears had accumulated for as long as 12 months.

Due to the long delay, these claims were disputed by the employer, and investigations are ongoing.

The report’s headline also seemed to suggest that the workers were disallowed from continuing to work in Singapore or prevented from going home. This is untrue.

Once the MOM had established the validity of their claims, the workers were allowed to remain in Singapore till the claims were resolved, or return home. As they chose to remain in Singapore, the MOM referred them to the MWC to assist them with their job search.

Workers with salary or well-being issues should contact the MOM on 6438-5122 or www.mom.gov.sg/eservices

Tan Fang Qun
Director
Joint Operations Division
Ministry of Manpower

It sounds like a template reply, featuring the often-resorted-to homily: “We urge workers to come forward to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) as early as possible not only to protect themselves…” But didn’t the Straits Times story clearly say that many of the workers had taken loans of $7,000 to get those jobs and could not afford to jeopardise their chances of earning it back by walking off the job?

TWC2 wrote to the newspaper. Our letter was printed on 23 August 2017, Link:

MOM’s advice out of step with reality

Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) agrees with the Ministry of Manpower that workers should come forward and report salary abuses as early as possible (Foreign workers should lodge complaints without delay; Aug 19).

However, the reality is that the workers are not always able to do this.

Almost all work permit holders would have paid thousands of dollars to get their jobs.

To lodge a report with the MOM would mean writing off this sunk cost.

For a worker, the more rational thing to do is continue working, in the hope that the company’s fortunes improve and he is subsequently paid.

The ministry needs to get serious and crack down on high recruitment costs, whether incurred in Singapore or abroad. This may involve redesigning the entire recruitment system to cut out middlemen.

So long as recruitment costs are not addressed, saying that the ministry would have taken action against the employer had the workers come forward immediately is akin to blaming the victim for the ministry’s inaction.

The MOM’s statement that workers in salary dispute cases would have been offered the chance to find other employers is also meaningless.

The reality is that only a tiny fraction of these workers actually manage to find new jobs.

This is largely because it is much more profitable for employers and their agents to recruit directly from the source countries than to take workers already in Singapore. This, again, is tied to the issue of high recruitment fees.

TWC2 urges the MOM to monitor the pool of foreign workers already in Singapore and looking for jobs, and restrict hiring from abroad until this pool has shrunk to a certain size.

Doing so helps retain experience and skills within the country rather than open the door wide to inexperienced new workers.

Alex Au
Treasurer
Transient Workers Count Too

On hindsight, we should also have mentioned in our letter that even when MOM grants a worker the opportunity to look for a new job without being repatriated, MOM typically gives the worker only two weeks to do so. That said, most of the time, when an NGO such as TWC2 appeals on behalf of the worker, it is extended another two weeks.

Even so, four weeks is too short for any job-hunting success short of fantastic luck. Singapore citizens too would find it very hard to land a new job — in their own country — within this short window. What more a foreign worker disadvantaged in innumerable ways.

The exchange of letters continued. The next two letters can be seen at http://twc2.org.sg/2017/08/30/letter-to-straits-times-set-up-portal-for-employers-to-hire-foreign-workers/

TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our
means.

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