Below is the transcript from the Hansard of a parliamentary question asked by Mr Pritam Singh (Workers’ Party – Aljunied) on November 21, 2011. One employee of a repatriation company was jailed for voluntarily causing hurt in 2010, but from the absence of mention, it appears that no one has so far been prosecuted for wrongful confinement.

Mr Pritam Singh asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Manpower in light of reports on the wrongful restraint of foreign workers and their alleged forceful repatriation by foreign worker repatriation companies (a) whether these allegations have been investigated and, if so, what is the outcome of the investigations; and (b) whether the Government has any plans to regulate the activities of such repatriation companies.

Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam:

Employers are responsible for the repatriation of their work permit holders upon the completion or termination of the employment contract. Some employers use third parties such as repatriation companies to ensure the smooth and proper exit of their workers. Sometimes, employers also use repatriation companies to house workers in the interim while any claims are being resolved before they are repatriated back to their home countries.

Whether the employer or a third party repatriates the worker, the repatriation of foreign workers must be carried out in accordance with all our laws. That must be clear. Any act to wrongfully restrain or confine foreign workers is criminalised in the Penal Code. The Employment of Foreign Manpower regulations states that the employer shall ensure all outstanding salaries or moneys due to the foreign employee have to be paid before the foreign employee’s repatriation. This includes any work injury compensation that employers are required to pay under the Work Injury Compensation Act.

The government takes seriously all cases where members of the public, workers or NGOs claim that repatriation agents may have breached the law. If the worker is confined, MOM and the Police will ensure that the worker is not confined against his will and that his issues are addressed in a timely fashion. Possible labour or Penal Code offences are thoroughly investigated by MOM and Police respectively, against both the repatriation companies and the employers. As an additional safeguard, MOM has an arrangement with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) to surface complaints and refer departing foreign employees who express employment grievances at the immigration checkpoints. These employees will then be referred to MOM for investigations.

There are no plans at present to regulate repatriation companies. Potential abuse related to repatriation is already covered under existing legislation and applies to employers as well as third parties. In 2010, an employee from a repatriation company was prosecuted and sent to jail for voluntarily causing hurt to a foreign worker. The employers of the foreign worker were given a stern warning for abetment to wrongful restraint.

The number of complaints made against the handful of repatriation companies has also remained small over the years. Since 2010, MOM and MHA received seven complaints against three such companies, a fraction of the approximately 16,000 non-domestic work permit holders repatriated to their home countries in that time.

Notwithstanding the above, officers from the Ministry of Manpower, Singapore Police Force and Singapore Civil Defence Force have taken proactive enforcement action, jointly inspecting the premises of repatriation companies for breaches to ensure that repatriation companies comply with the law when carrying out their business.

The inspections are an initiative of the Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking-in-Persons, co-chaired by MOM and MHA, to ensure that foreign workers are not victims of labour trafficking being forcefully repatriated to prevent them from making valid claims or complaints against their employers.

While no infringements have yet been uncovered, and foreign workers were found to be allowed free movement in and out of the premises under escort, advisories have been issued to the companies reminding them to abide by the law and refer foreign workers to MOM if there are any outstanding salaries or injury claims owed to the worker.

The Ministry of Manpower recognises that no worker should be forcefully repatriated without his claims being settled. We will work with the Police to look into all such complaints and continue to maintain proactive checks against employers and repatriation companies to ensure they comply with our regulations.