At the United Nations’ 2019 General Assembly, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Philip Alston submitted a thematic report on digital technology, social protection and human rights. It was compiled from 50 reports sent in from around the world.
Transient Workers Count Too contributed a detailed report on how digitisation in Singapore, which the government promotes strongly, has knock-on effects that can undermine social protection for migrant workers, a large and vulnerable population.
When processes are digitised, members of the public will need sufficient digital literacy and appropriate devices to interact with the processes. Low-wage workers may not have the economic resources to acquire the necessary devices like scanners and computers. Nor do manual workers spend enough time with computers to acquire the necessary digital literacy. Low-wage migrant workers are further disadvantaged because many digital interfaces are in English, a foreign language with which they have low verbal fluency and even lower reading/writing skills.
Moreover, to interact with many processes, one must have an electronic identity (in Singapore, we call it the SingPass), without which you can’t even enter the digitised system. Work Permit holders are not issued SingPasses. And finally, some processes involve payment, and for that, one must have a credit card or at least a debit card. Having a bank account is still not universal for migrant workers. Even if they are keen on that, they cannot open an account unless their employer signs off on it — something required by many banks.
Our report examines six areas where digital technology has impacted foreign workers. In ascending order of seriousness of impact, they are:
Creating a risk of the worker unknowingly slipping into overstay status. TWC2 has seen many examples where the employer went online to cancel his employee’s Work Permit without informing the affected worker. The only way for a worker to find out (if at all he suspects his status has changed) is through digital technology. There is no low-tech way to do so.
Injured workers sometimes suspect that their employers have filed misleading or erroneous accident reports, thus jeopardising their right to injury compensation. There is no way to extract a copy of the incident report except through digital technology, and it even involves electronic payment via credit card. Low-wage migrant workers do not have credit cards and are thus disadvantaged in their injury claims process.
The process of applying for a Work Permit and receiving a genuine copy of the In-Principle Approval (IPA) for a Work Permit is entirely online, accessible by pre-qualified employers and employment agents. Migrant workers have no access, because they are not issued any electronic identity for this purpose. Consequently, the IPAs they receive would be what are passed to them by intermediaries, and TWC2 has encountered instances where intermediaries altered and falsified the information on the IPA documents before being passed to workers. Their victimisation springs from being shut out of the online system.
For transfer workers, TWC2 has seen many cases where IPAs are not even given to them. Unlike incoming workers from source countries, transfer workers do not have to pass through airport immigration, thus dispensing with the need to have IPAs in hand. Yet the IPAs are the documents that contain their salary information, etc. Since workers are already excluded from electronic access to the Work Permit application process and the IPAs so generated, when employers fail to pass printed IPAs to transfer workers, the workers don’t get to see their salary details at all.
Should a salary dispute be resolved through signing a Settlement Agreement between the employer and employee, protection of the worker’s rights requires the registration of the Settlement Agreement with the courts. There is only an online registration method. They used to be able to do it by handing a copy of the Agreement over a counter, but no more. Consequently, if workers are unable to navigate the online filing system, they may not register their Settlement Agreements at all.
Should mediation be unsuccessful and no settlement is reached, employees can take their claims to the Employment Claims Tribunal. The ECT only has electronic filing. It also requires all evidence documents to be scanned in. Very few migrant workers can do this on their own.
TWC2 made our submission to the Special Rapporteur in April 2019. The report can be downloaded by clicking the icon on the right.owever, clicking the icon at right will also download the PDF document in full.
The report is also available from the online list maintained by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). but because we submitted it via our regional network Migrant Forum Asia, it is thus listed under that name.