A full-page feature in the Sunday Times, 12 August 2012, on the plight of foreign workers was timed to precede the first reading of amendments to the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act in Parliament the Monday after. Much of the feature revolved around a study conducted by Transient Workers Count Too on payments and returns as experienced by male Bangladeshi construction workers (link to research findings).

Reporter Radha Basu wrote:

Many employers of foreign construction workers are still collecting illegal payments from those who want to continue working here, a migrant workers’ group has charged… Two-thirds of 100 workers who had renewed contracts said they had paid “renewal fees” to their employers. The average kickback: $1,081.

— Sunday Times, 12 August 2012, Bosses exploit foreign workers, by Radha Basu

Citing TWC2 executive committee member John Gee, who led the research, the news story pointed out that such practices

…worsen “worker churn” in the industry as those who are unwilling to pay kickbacks are sent home, only to be replaced by inexperienced new workers.

The Sunday Times found its own interviewees, among whom was:

Construction worker M. A. Wahed, 31, for instance, claimed his employer asked him for $2,000 to renew his contract a month before it was due to expire early last year. He refused.

“It did not matter to my boss that months before he had given me a best employee certificate or that he had sent me for training,” said the worker, who was sent home and is now back, in another job.

Some workers, like Mr Wahed, are expected to pay their employer directly. Others pay to individuals such as the agent who got the worker the job.

Employers The Sunday Times spoke to acknowledged that kickbacks continued to be a problem for Bangladeshis, though overall numbers might be lower than during the 2008-2009 recession.

One employer that Sunday Times spoke to, while denying that her company took kickbacks, suggested that other employers might be keen on them to cover the rising levy charges.

“With levies being increased, these small employers may be looking to pass on the higher costs of employing workers to the employees themselves,” she said.

The newspaper noted from TWC2’s research report that while the survey of workers focused on construction, the problems of kickbacks and high recruitment fees are known to plague foreign workers in shipyards and the cleaning industry as well.

A vague response was provided by the Ministry of Manpower, saying that

… the majority of employers abided by the law and the ministry was committed to ensuring that the employment rights and well-being of all workers were protected.

The Sunday Times gave John Gee the last word, pointing out that the weak link is not so much the absence of laws, but the absence of enforcement:

While tightening the laws is a good step, activists like Mr Gee would also like to see more enforcement.

Some employers are so brazen that they take kickbacks through salary deductions, he said. However, many workers still get no pay slips, so it is difficult to prove the charges.

“Making it mandatory for employers to issue payslips and to itemise all deductions could help improve enforcement,” he said.

One of three sidebar articles pointed out that with high placement fees and a shortening of the work permit period to one year, many workers fail to recover their sunk costs — a finding from TWC2’s study.

It also noted from a different survey — of 3,000 work permit holders last year by MOM and the Migrant Workers’ Centre — which showed that

… nearly 30 per cent said they would not recommend Singapore as a place of work, citing high employment agency fees and low pay as the key reasons. The survey covered workers of all nationalities from all sectors, excluding maids.

TWC2 and the Bangladesh High Commission both believe that ensuring more contracts are given out for two years may give more workers a chance to recover their debts.

The other two sidebar articles profiled two workers who had been waiting a very long time for settlement of salary arrears: Asaduzzaman Dulal Amzad Hossain and Shahin Alom Muminul Hoque.

The feature generated two letters published in the Sunday Times a week later:

Sunday Times, 19 Aug 2012:

Your Letters
Foreign workers: Ways to deter exploitation

I congratulate Senior Correspondent Radha Basu for exposing the exploitation of Bangladeshi workers (“Bosses exploit foreign workers”; last Sunday).

I appeal to the Ministry Of Manpower to introduce immediate reforms that include these measures:

Host a website similar to JobStreet.com to create a direct link between applicants and Singapore employers, or support non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Transient Workers Count Too to host such a site. This will go a long way in eliminating unscrupulous agents.

Work with the Bangladesh Consulate to facilitate visa, work permit and travel arrangements for successful applicants.

Make it mandatory for employers to make salary payments by cheque or bank transfer, and to issue payslips. Also, employers should be required to file periodical returns for salary, deductions, changes to employment contracts and explanation for any early termination of contracts.

Have an efficient system to investigate all complaints lodged by workers, a law to punish errant employers and the imposition of a fine on workers who lodge false complaints.

Encourage NGO activities to support the cause of Bangladeshi and other foreign workers, and make them aware of their rights.

Such reforms will go a long way in stabilising the recruitment process and protecting vulnerable workers from being exploited by agents.

Atanu Roy

Sunday Times, 19 Aug 2012:

Your letters
Are we a country without a heart?

I applaud Transient Workers Count Too’s efforts in drawing attention to the illegal practice of some employers collecting so-called renewal fees, in addition to the hefty recruitment fees collected initially (“Bosses exploit foreign workers”; last Sunday).

It is surprising that these employers have got away with the practice for this long, and even more surprising that the relevant authorities had not addressed the problem seriously to nip it in the bud.

We strive for Singapore to be “Home with a heart” but how close are we in becoming a country without a heart by shattering the dreams of these poor workers who land on our shores to earn a decent living?

Padmini Kesavapany (Mrs)