Jolovan Wham (right), writing in his personal capacity, sent an open letter to Tan Chuan-Jin, acting minister for Manpower on 7 January 2013. The opening paragraph references a defamation suit that the minister is threatening Vincent Wijeysingha of the Singapore Democratic Party with, over a previous Facebook post by the latter. Vincent was previously the Executive Director of TWC2, but left in 2011. Jolovan works for the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economcis (HOME).

The bulk of Jolovan’s letter discusses at length the unsatisfactory ways by which the ministry goes about its business, towards migrant workers. For this reason, it is worth archiving here:


Politics of a bygone era: An Open letter to Mr Tan Chuan Jin, Acting Minister for Manpower

by Jolovan Whamon Monday, January 7, 2013 at 2:04am on Facebook.

Dear Minister,

I am disappointed that you have decided to sue Dr Vincent Wijeysingha for exposing the limitations of your Ministry and its inability to effectively tackle the problems that migrant workers face. Regrettably, you have chosen to hide behind a defamation suit instead of engaging him in a debate. It is regrettable that politicians like you still engage in out of date knuckleduster politics.

The problems that migrant workers face are not new to your Ministry since NGOs such as HOME, TWC2 and Healthserve have written reports and communicated their concerns on numerous occasions to your officers.

Laws and regulations are only meaningful and effective if they are enforced properly. This is not the case from the hundreds of workers that have approached the migrant worker NGOs for assistance. For example, in the highly publicised case involving twenty workers who went on strike at a Yishun work site because they had not been paid, four of them had approached MOM for assistance more than a month ago. Despite repeated phone calls by the workers to the employer and the MOM officer in charge of the case, their pleas were not taken seriously. However, when their story appeared in the media on 18 December, which ironically, was International Migrants’ Day the workers got their salaries and went home within two days. Our mainstream media played up your Ministry’s and the Migrant Workers Centre’s roles in resolving the dispute, while conveniently leaving out the fact that the workers were frustrated with your Ministry for its inability to resolve their difficulties the month before.

Companies that blatantly flout our labour laws are often allowed to get away with it because your Ministry’s approach to labour disputes, especially those involving salary matters is to conciliate between the employer and the worker, and let the matter rest after it has concluded. Numerous workers have complained about how your officers often conciliate against the standards established in our labour laws, and how some of your officers are either rude or indifferent to their plight.

Despite countless dialogues, and thousands of complaints lodged, there have been few substantial changes and many of the problems we have highlighted remain. For example, the salaries of migrant workers are often withheld by their employers as a form of collateral for ‘good behaviour’ and to penalise them should they terminate their contracts prematurely. Even though this is a widespread practice in the construction and marine industries, your Ministry chooses to turn a blind eye to it and deterrent measures to prevent such malpractices from happening are either non-existent or weak. There seems to be no follow up action to prosecute or to penalise these employers, as evidenced by the fact that workers from the same companies keep coming to my colleagues in civil society for assistance despite the fact that numerous complaints have been made against these same companies. In instances where the dispute is brought before the labour court and a judgment is issued in the worker’s favour, employers who do not abide by the orders still get away scot free and there is little the worker can do to address it.

See this story:

Earlier this year, several contracts with exploitative terms and conditions were submitted for your Ministry to investigate. However, it seems that the only follow up action was the issuance of a letter reminding employers about their obligations to adhere to our laws. See here:

In 2009 even though your Ministry received approximately 3770 complaints about salary related issues from foreign workers, only 4 employers were prosecuted for failure to pay salaries in that year. Even so, your Ministry issues hollow statements like the ones below:

“MOM takes a serious view of employers who do not comply with our employment laws. It is an offence under the Employment Act not to pay their workers. If convicted, they could be jailed up to 6 months and/or fined up to $5,000.”

“MOM will not hesitate to take action against employers who fail to pay their workers on time. The Ministry takes a serious view of employers who do not comply with our employment laws. Companies who contravene the Employment Act and/or the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act may also be barred from hiring foreign workers in future.”

“All employers have the responsibility to ensure that workers’ salaries are paid on time. It is an employer’s legal and moral obligation to pay their workers as they have put in their time and effort to help the business. Employers are also responsible for ensuring that workers are not subject to detrimental working conditions. While we continue with our strong tripartite efforts to help employers improve their employment practices, MOM would not hesitate to take stern actions against errant employers and contractors that flout or disregard our employment laws.”

I do not believe the number of employers who were prosecuted by your Ministry have changed significantly since 2009. Where prosecutions happen, it is often widely publicised through the mainstream media. However, unless detailed, disaggregated data about the number of claims filed and the number of prosecutions are made available, progress cannot be measured. Otherwise, these assertions about ‘stern actions’ and taking a ‘serious view’ of errant employers are meaningless.

You told us that as part of your Ministry’s efforts to regulate excessive agent fees, the Employment Agencies Act was amended. You said:

“The amended Act also caps agency fees payable by the worker to a local employment agent at 1 month per year of the duration of the worker’s pass, capped at a maximum of 2 months. Local employment agencies must also refund at least 50% of the fees collected from workers who are prematurely terminated within the first 6 months of employment. However, we do not have jurisdiction over the employment agency fees paid by workers in their home country.”

However, the latest amendments with regard to placement fees are actually a regression from the previous regulations. Before the revisions were made, an employment agency was only allowed to charge 10 percent of the employee’s first month’s salary as placement fees. Now, it has been increased to a maximum of two months of the worker’s salary. Since the amendments last year, migrant workers still pay up to $9000 in recruitment fees and the debts that domestic workers are saddled with remain staggeringly high at 6 to 8 months of their total pay. The situation has not improved at all.

Even though your Ministry says that it has no jurisdiction over employment agency fees paid by workers in their home countries, it often ignores the fact that a substantial amount of this money is remitted to Singaporean recruiters and employers. We cannot absolve ourselves and say that it has nothing to do with us. Workers and even agents from origin countries have shown us these remittance slips as evidence. Another example of poor enforcement in the area of placement fees was when workers from a Panasonic factory plant showed the MOM video evidence that the local agent had received fees that were more than what was legal. Yet, the agent was only prosecuted for not issuing receipts.

Your assertion in your International Migrants’ Day Facebook note that the Ministry is neither pro worker nor pro employer is wrong. Your Ministry’s policies have resulted in serious human rights violations of migrant workers including:

1)      The exclusion of migrant domestic workers from the Employment Act, such that all the labour rights that all workers take for granted, are denied to them.

2)     The policy of deportation for pregnant work permit holders and those who are HIV positive.

3)      The security bond policy which results in workers’ movements being restricted and their passports being confiscated.

4)     Inadequate wage protection which lead to workers earning as little as $1.40 per hour.

5)     A work pass system which gives wide and arbitrary powers to revoke permits, with no avenues for appeals and representation, the starkest example being the 29 SMRT bus drivers who had their work permits revoked without a proper independent hearing and inquiry to determine if such an action was justifiable.

6)     A health insurance policy for workers which they cannot use as long as doctors certify them fit for travel.

7)     Wrongful dismissals for which there are limited mechanisms for redress.

8)    Lack of adequate social support for workers who are pursuing statutory claims with the Ministry.

Even though we have again and again surfaced issues that have been prominently reported in the news in the past month to your Ministry, the same old problems continue to fester, and your Ministry continues to issue platitudes to project a good but ultimately empty image of itself.

I am disappointed that your Ministry chooses to pressurise NGOs and that you would personally sue a politician for speaking up publicly for workers, rather than engaging your dissenters in the spirit of democratic debate. The petty politics of defamation suits and bankruptcies belong to a bygone era. Civil society is not demanding that you agree with us. But the least you could do is not harass us when we speak up. Our society would be much richer for it.

Yours sincerely,

Jolovan Wham