Statement to the media by Transient Workers Count Too
8 February 2012

For immediate release

The recently reported strike by about 200 foreign workers at a worksite in Tampines over unpaid salaries once again highlights the inadequacy of existing systems for preventing such exploitation of labour by employers. (Straits Times, 7 Feb 2012, Wage dispute resolved after 200 workers stage protest, by Jessica Lim and Elizabeth Soh). The Straits Times report also mentions that workers had suffered deductions of $1,500 purportedly for future renewal of their work permits. Such deductions are illegal and yet are extremely common. But why is this illegal practice so widespread? Why do we regularly hear of unpaid salaries?

During a current research project being undertaken by TWC2, a majority of Bangladeshi workers interviewed at Changi airport before their return home reported either having paid to renew their contracts or in a few cases, had to forego renewal of their contracts because they refused to pay the money demanded.

The Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) essentially reactive approach to such problems is far from satisfactory. Moreover, MOM’s reliance on whistle-blowers (except in cases of mass protests) from among aggrieved employees before the ministry would start an investigation is unrealistic, especially as the ministry does nothing to protect whistle blowers from retribution by employers.

MOM calls on workers to make formal complaints if they have not been paid. Such calls ignore the reality that (a) the employee seldom has documentary proof of his complaint and thus runs the risk that after exposing himself, his complaint is not taken seriously, (b) the employer typically terminates the complainant’s employment and tries to repatriate him as soon as possible.

Given such a high risk to undertake and such a high price to pay (losing one’s job for which a workers would typically have paid thousands of dollars to secure), it is hardly any wonder that workers seldom respond to MOM’s call for early reporting of employer abuses.

The result is a festering of grievances until enough workers are prepared to down tools. Mass action and safety in numbers provide workers protection from an employer’s wrath and retribution when MOM does not provide the same to a single, isolated complainant.

To address these weaknesses in policy, TWC2 has proposed a few simple changes to the regulatory framework.

  1. It should be made mandatory for employers of foreign workers to provide a pay slip to each employee monthly showing detailed calculations of pay, overtime, allowances and deductions. This arms the employee with documentary proof as to whether he has been paid correctly, and whether illegal deductions have been levied.
  2. It should be made mandatory for salaries to be paid through a bank account. This provides an audit trail as to how much was paid and when.
  3. Employers should be penalised for premature termination of work permits. (Specific ideas were provided to MOM.)
  4. Employers should be incentivised to draw workers from a pool of transferable workers who are already in Singapore rather than bring in new workers. (Specific ideas were also provided to MOM.)

Proposals (1) and (2) help address the issue of empowerment of the worker when he has a legitimate complaint, thus making whistle-blowing more effective. Proposals (3) and (4) provide workers with a little job security, so that the price they have to pay for making legitimate complaints against errant employers is not as high as at present. Such an improved framework would make it more likely that salary abuses are reported early and action taken.

TWC2 put these proposals to the Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-jin more than a month ago. We have not so far received any response.

It is also important to enforce whatever laws we have. Too often, when employers fail to pay workers or make illegal deductions from salaries, MOM treats the matter as one of civil dispute, when the fact is that one side has clearly broken the law. This case at Tampines, involving Sunway Concrete Products and Techcom Construction & Trading (as reported by the Straits Times), calls for prosecution and deterrent sentencing. TWC2 hopes MOM presses for that. It would send a wrong signal of impunity if such an outcome did not result.