December 1, 2011

For immediate release

Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) welcomes the sentencing guidelines laid out by Justice V K Rajah in his written decision issued last week in Lee Chiang Theng vs Public Prosecutor. Justice Rajah said that “employers who persistently fail to discharge their legal responsibilities towards foreign workers will ordinarily have custodial sentences imposed on them.”

In working with Work Permit holders, TWC2 unfortunately sees many cases of employer neglect. On an average day, five to ten new cases come to us for help. The legal responsibilities employers have failed to discharge span the gamut from salaries remaining unpaid for months on end, illegal deductions from salaries, calculation of overtime pay not in accordance with employment law, attempts to evade responsibility for workers’  injuries, and most egregious of all, attempts to deport workers against their will without settling their claims.

TWC2 brings many cases to the Ministry of Manpower, but our experience is that even there, the process is slow and operates against the worker.

Indeed, as Justice Rajah noted in his observation that had the prosecution in Lee Chiang Theng’s case appealed the lower court’s sentences, he would have increased them. Says TWC2 vice-president Dr Noorashikin Abdul Rahman: “Four weeks is a slap on the wrist.” It is not commensurate with the suffering caused to workers and wholly inadequate as a deterrent.

There is also the question of how consistently and comprehensively the executive branch of government deals with such cases. Asked Alex Au, TWC2 treasurer: “Of all the cases that come to light, how many are prosecuted? Or are they only the ones where workers have massed in front of the ministry building (as Lee Chiang Theng’s workers did) and otherwise gained media attention?”

In this January 2009 incident involving Lee’s workers, TWC2 played a role in drawing attention to it. TWC2 executive committee member Shelley Thio made a video interviewing the workers, which can still be found on Youtube ( She recalled: “The workers complained that the police had visited the dormitory several times but each time left with no further action. No help was rendered until one worker died of chicken pox, and several others infected.”

Justice Rajah’s written decision contained a discussion of the sums that Lee Chiang Theng expended to resolve the matter after it came to light. It came to $1.45 million, which may seem quite substantial. However, 618 workers were mistreated, some for as many as eight months. TWC2 notes that the amount averaged just $2,338 per worker. Considering that this amount includes a $500 ex-gratia payment and airfare home (about $800), it does not look as if the workers actually got very much by way of late salaries.

Many workers from Bangladesh (as these were) find themselves having to pay $4,000 to $7,000 as placement fee to obtain a job in Singapore. Says TWC2 executive member and immediate past president John Gee: “It appears that the average worker in that group ended up worse off than if they had never set their hopes on making decent earnings in Singapore for their families.”

With the help of AKM Mohsin, publisher of Banglar Kantha, TWC2 obtained a reaction by phone from one of the workers who suffered through the saga. Sattar, who is now back in Bangladesh, said:

“Even if they give (Paul Lee) 100,000 years in jail, it’s still not long enough. He destroyed the lives of thousands of people by what he did. Each man who came to Singapore to work for him was supporting a family of around 5 people at home. Without the salary they expected to earn, all those lives are lost.

“Punishment should be given not only to the boss Paul Lee, but also to the Bangladeshi agents involved in his business. It’s not Paul Lee who came to recruit us in Bangladesh, it’s the Bangladeshi men who still live in Singapore as permanent residents or travel here as tourists. These men are equally guilty.

“Now I have to work for other people on their land. I spent 400 lakh taka (more than S$6,500) for the job in Singapore. I got half that money from the sale of my land and half from the village loan sharks. I still haven’t paid back the money for the loan and I have to work for others and can barely feed my family.”

Instead of improving his life and that of his family, Sattar is now worse off.

In terms of managing foreign labour, Singapore’s policies contribute to the pain. Insisting that workers taken on by an employer who fails to provide appropriate work for them and violates employment law should be sent back to their home countries only augments their financial distress. TWC2 has long proposed that other employers should be encouraged to hire them, possibly by means of a temporary levy waiver and a tighter policy on bringing in yet more new workers.

Currently, instead of transfer, thousands of workers go back to their home countries with tales of mistreatment and injustice. It can only affect Singapore’s reputation. Singapore companies seeking in future to invest in these countries may find public opinion hostile.

While firm legal action against errant employers is a necessary route, greater attention should be paid to helping victims of these employers’ abuses obtain justice and the better life they had hoped for, but were dashed through no fault of their own.

Related items for background:
Jail for bosses who mistreat workers, says judge,
Straits Times editorial: Hit these labour abusers hard,
Four week prison sentence an inadequate penalty — Russell Heng,