Media Release
13 January 2012
For immediate release

Minister for National Development Mr Khaw Boon Wan told Parliament, in response to a question from a member of parliament on 9 December 2012, that with the Housing and Development Board (HDB) accelerating its building programme, the number of construction workers involved in HDB projects is expected to increase from last year’s 18,000 to about 30,000 this year. There may be further increases to 45,000 beyond 2012.

Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) is concerned that systems are not in place to effectively handle the migrant worker problems that are likely to be a side effect of such a rise in numbers. Even at 2011’s level of workers, we saw each month 100 – 200 workers coming to us with complaints about mistreatment of various kinds. They ranged from workplace injuries to unpaid salaries, to unjust deductions, illegal deployment and job placement scams. Workers are left to languish for several months, sometimes over a year, while their cases wend their slow way through the bureaucracy.

Typically, the men would have been terminated from their jobs because employers do not want to continue paying the levy, and yet the men are not allowed to engage in alternative work. They are left destitute and often homeless, depending on charity.

TWC2 has on many occasions pointed out to the Ministry of Manpower that the root of the difficulty in coping with even the present number of workers lies in these broad failings:

1. Current laws give too much leeway to employers or have many loopholes. These disadvantage and disempower foreign workers, and encourage employers to cheat or mistreat, and then abandon them.

2. What laws that do exist are oftentimes not enforced. Given this track record, employers have reason to believe that they will succeed when they try to escape their legal obligations to their workers.

3. Many administrative polices also make the problem worse. TWC2, for example, have strongly argued against the present preference for repatriation instead of retention and transfer of workers. Labour churn may line the pockets of employment agents, but they hurt everybody else’s interests. There should be strong incentives to retain workers and stronger disincentives to terminate and repatriate them. Upskilling programmes will be defeated if workers are sent home too quickly, only to be replaced by a fresh batch. Yet, without upskilling, Singapore will always rely on large numbers of low-skilled labour, with its attendant social friction.

TWC2 has also been vocal about the need for the police to be more vigilant about repatriation agents’ strong-arm tactics on behalf of employers, and about the growing number of scams where workers are brought in on promises of non-existent jobs. We are especially concerned that news of a likely increase in the need for workers for HDB projects will tempt more scammers to expand their operations.

If even the same percentage of workers are injured or mistreated when the number hits 45,000 as in 2011 when the number was 18,000, there will be a significant increase in caseload.

In anticipation of the HDB’s expanded projects, we urge the Ministry of Manpower and other departments to take a critical look at the inadequacies of the present system for dealing with injuries, employer-employee disputes and job scams. We urge various government agencies and members of parliament to dialogue intensively with non-government organisations like TWC2 who have the knowledge from working hands-on at the frontline of the issues, with the aim of quickly doing what is needed to prevent a tsunami of migrant worker cases.