The Straits Times carried an editorial on November 29, 2011, following the Court of Appeal’s decision in the case of Lee Chiang Theng vs Public Prosecutor, as reported here (Judge: Bosses who ill-treat workers will go to jail)..
This is the editorial in full:
Hit these labour abusers hard
MIGRANT workers performing hard labour in mainly the construction and marine industries do not lack advocates. Lobby groups like Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and feeding programmes for under-employed work permit holders have been doing heartening work in fighting to improve their welfare. At the apex, the Manpower Ministry’s enforcement division sees to it that derelictions of employer responsibilities brought to its attention are put right swiftly. But civil society advocacy and reactive actions by a bureaucracy have limitations in an area of labour relations where the balance of bargaining power is totally on the side of employers and recruitment agents. Their hired help land in Singapore heavily in debt to agents before they have done a stroke of work.
Abuses do not always come to light. They can be so unconscionable – such as badly injured workers being forcibly repatriated with the barest medical attention and recompense given – that suitable punishment meted out by the courts appeals to one’s sense of justice, even if teaching inhumane employers enlightenment is preferable.
It is therefore to be applauded that an appellate judge, Justice V.K. Rajah, sent an unequivocal message that employers who imagine these men to be chattels – ‘like slaves of less enlightened times’ – can expect to be sentenced to prison terms. It is tough. It should accord with the circumstances of each case, but it is wholly welcome in a climate where mistreatment of poorly-skilled and poorly-educated foreign workers continues to be an affront to common sensibilities. It cannot be tolerated. On imprisonment, the judge made specific reference in a case before him to the offences of withholding wages and housing workers in sub-human conditions. He also said the fines imposed for related work-permit offences were inadequate.
He refused an appeal for an employer’s four-week prison sentence for non-payment of wages to be set aside in favour of a fine, saying pointedly the sentence could have been higher. In remarks that one would expect were heard loud and clear by prosecutors and lower courts, he said $4,000 fines imposed on the man for housing offences would have been raised to a jail term, had prosecutors appealed. The judgment is a significant marker set, not only in sentencing philosophy, but also in the fair treatment of workers required of job-givers. The weaker workers are, the more egregious would be a calculated debasement of their rights. It is hoped the learning point the judge imparted – about commensurate punishment and the value of deterrence – will bring balance to relations between employers and imported labour.