November 14, 2011

For immediate release

Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) applauds Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-jin’s personal involvement in raids conducted against substandard accommodation for foreign workers (Straits Times, 11 November 2011: Minister leads checks on workers’ dorms, by Kezia Toh), as a welcome sign of greater governmental attention to the issue of how migrant workers are treated in Singapore.

TWC2 is also encouraged by the minister’s recognition that workers’ fears of losing their jobs and being sent home after having paid a large sum to secure placement is the lever some employers use to extract acquiescence from low-wage workers to inhuman conditions. This compelled acquiescence is not just over housing, but frequently over unpaid salaries, illegal deductions and working hours that stretch beyond the legal maximum.

While raids will make more employers take notice, TWC2 urges the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to address the root cause of the problem: that of giving employers total freedom to terminate Work Permits, ease of getting new Work Permits to replace those sent home, and the use of repatriation agents who often detain and confine workers against their will. Employers wielding the power of life and economic death over their workers will always be tempted to exploit. TWC2 has provided MOM with suggestions for a more equitable system. These include making transfer to other employers when their original employers say they have no work for them the default option, rather than sending them home. TWC2 will be happy to engage in further dialogue to refine proposals.

Said Russell Heng, President of TWC2: “I believe MOM will recognise that TWC2’s suggestions dovetail with over-arching national priorities that include investing in and upskilling migrant workers, and reducing social friction between Singaporeans and foreigners.”

Even as MOM accelerates the building of more dormitories that meet licence standards, TWC2 is concerned that these may not serve the needs of a significant minority of workers: those who are abandoned by or in dispute with their employers. Debbie Fordyce, executive committee member of TWC2 explains: “Once conflict has developed between employer and employee, it is in practice very difficult for the employee to continue staying in company dormitories, especially as burly repatriation agents can come for them in the middle of the night.

“The problem is especially acute for workers who are injured. They may have a problem negotiating the stairs, they may need help getting to the toilet, and they certainly need a hygienic environment so that their wounds do not get infected. Building dormitories for able-bodied workers in employment is important and appreciated, but there is an even more vulnerable group right here who need attention.”