This statement clarifies the stand of Transient Workers Count Too with respect to the provision of accommodation to workers who have been placed on Special Passes, as a consequence of a salary dispute, illness or injury. Specifically, the reference is to workers who had once been on Work Permits, or had been in line for one as evidenced by an In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit.

Workers are placed on Special Passes by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) when their Work Permits are cancelled. This cancellation is either initiated by the employer, or by MOM — most likely because the employer has infringed governing conditions. TWC2’s understanding is that a Special Pass is granted when the ministry assesses that a worker has a legitimate reason to stay on in Singapore to resolve a dispute or claim against the employer, or to obtain medical treatment and complete the work injury compensation process. In these conditions, TWC2’s stand is that employers should remain responsible for housing workers until the dispute or claim is resolved.

housing_special_passes_scopeboxIn a separate paper, TWC2 makes a proposal that workers should have a right to seek a new job locally after exiting an old job for whatever reason. Where a worker has no outstanding salary or medical treatment claim, and is fit to work, he should be placed on a  new type of Special Pass, therein called, for convenience, “30-day job search Special Pass”, to enable him to look for a new job (with a further 30 days’ extension upon request). This is the one exception where it is not entirely fair to expect employers to continue providing accommodation, unless the worker was thrown out of a job suddenly. And this is the one circumstance that is outside the scope of this paper.

The rest of this paper refers to workers who have been placed on Special Passes as a consequence of a salary dispute, illness or injury.


1. Subsidiary legislation

TWC2 notes that in the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations, Part IV, paragraph 1 (page 32) says (inter alia):

The employer shall be responsible for and bear the costs of the foreign employee’s upkeep (excluding the provision of food) and maintenance in Singapore.

and in paragraph 2 (page 33), says (inter alia):

The employer shall also ensure the foreign employee has acceptable accommodation. Such accommodation must be consistent with any written law, directive, guideline, circular or other similar instrument issued by any competent authority. . .

(both citations accessed on 4 October 2013).

For better clarity, there is, still in Part IV but under the subheader “Cancellation of work permit and visit pass and duties before or upon repatriation of foreign employee”, paragraph 11B (page 35), which says:

The employer shall ensure that the foreign employee has acceptable accommodation in Singapore. Such accommodation must be in accordance with the requirements in any written law, directive, guideline, circular or other similar instrument issued by any competent authority.

(accessed 4 October 2013).

The effect of the above — even if not in the clearest of language — is to hold the employer or ex-employer responsible for providing accommodation until repatriation. It would have been better if paragraph 11B

1.01   included the term “former employer” to remove any doubt about its intent, and

1.02   included a requirement to provide meals of sufficient nutritional standard commensurate with good health and in keeping with the worker’s dietary custom.

(The reason is that many large dormitories are located in out-of-the-way places such Tuas or the industrial parts of Woodlands, where no food is available except when delivered by caterers under contract.)

However, as discussed below, there are many related issues that need to be resolved before the intention of having workers stay on in employer-provided housing can be implemented.

Except for these caveats, TWC2 agrees with the general thrust of the  subsidiary legislation as exists.


2. Actual operation and proposed remedy

Drawing on TWC2’s extensive interactions with workers on Special Passes, we can assert that the reality is vastly different from that intended by law. Very few workers on Special Passes stay on in accommodation provided by employers. In a recent survey, only one respondent out of 163 continued to stay in his employer’s accommodation — but without the boss’ knowledge. He sneaks in to sleep there because, after injury, he has nowhere else to go.

TWC2 has come across reports from workers that

2.01   The employer has actively told them to leave; or

2.02   They have been seized by repatriation agents hired by the employer, in an attempt to forcibly deport the workers without resolving claims;

However, even when a worker has not experienced either of the foregoing, the reality is such that it is impossible for the worker to continue staying in company accommodation. Reasons include:

2.03   Agents of the employer, such as supervisors and foremen, have hinted that the employer would prefer them to leave, with hints delivered in a way that implied adverse treatment should they not comply;

2.04   An experience of being harshly scolded or physically beaten by company superiors while staying in the dormitory, typically subsequent to lodging a salary claim or injury report, and (as read by the worker) in an attempt to penalise the worker for making such a claim or report, or to intimidate him to withdraw it.

2.05   A climate of fear consequent from a perceived risk of 2.02 and 2.04 happening at any time, with this fear often having a basis from experiences of other workers before him.

In a nutshell, workers rarely stay on in employer-provided accommodation because they have either been consciously evicted, or pressure has been applied on them to move out, or — most often — due to a deep fear for personal safety.

MOM should recognise this reality and act on it. Without active measures to counter workers’ sense of insecurity, the subsidiary legislation mandating that employers provide accommodation to Special Pass holders is meaningless. Suggested measures are:

2.06   Strongly notifying all employers whose workers have been placed on Special Passes that any word or act applying pressure or inducing fear in workers would be dealt with harshly;

2.07   Examples must be made of employers who flout 2.06 above through deterrent penalties, including prosecution of any employer whose employee or ex-employee is seized or confined against his will for any time;

2.08   Taking seriously any complaints from workers or their NGO representatives about maltreatment along the lines enumerated in 2.01 to 2.05, and having a 24-hour hotline and a quick response team in place.

And where an employer has violated these rules before,

2.09   Applying the power vested through paragraph 11B to issue directives, MOM should direct the employer to house the employee in a separate location, where no company official except those whom the worker explicitly permits, has access.

The aim of these proposed remedies is to stop employers from making threats, explicit and implicit, against workers, and to address workers’ fears for their personal safety and right to due process. Unless this is done, mandating employer-provided accommodation will be seen by workers as MOM taking employers’ side, delivering them into adversaries’ hands.


3. Right to find own accommodation

TWC2 is troubled by a few accounts from injured workers who report that their MOM case officers have been applying pressure on them to return to their employers’ dormitory. We know of one case where a worker was told that his Special Pass would not be renewed — and that he would have to return home — unless he did so.  This threat was in fact carried out and he has left Singapore before his work injury compensation case was resolved.

In our opinion, such pressure would be unlawful. Work Pass Regulations, Fourth Schedule, Part VI, paragraph 3 (page 43) says:

Except for a foreign employee whose occupation as stated in the work permit is that of a “domestic worker”, the foreign employee shall reside at the address indicated by the employer to the foreign employee upon the commencement of employment of the foreign employee and shall inform the employer about any subsequent self-initiated change in residential address.

(accessed 6 October 2013)

It is evident from the above that a non-domestic work permit holder is free to self-initiate a change in residential address. For an officer of MOM to say he must not do so, and penalise him should he do so, is wrong.

Moreover, should MOM compel a worker to live at employer-provided premises against a worker’s will, and the worker then suffers assault or other injury as a result, the ministry’s action can be considered a tort. In common law jurisdictions such as Singapore, a tort is a civil wrong which unfairly causes someone else to suffer loss or harm resulting in legal liability for the person who commits the tortious act.


4. Important additional considerations on the matter of housing Special Pass workers

Since the great majority of commercial dormitories are located in distant parts of Singapore with poor transport linkages and few amenities, housing Special Pass workers in these locations bring in train additional considerations that have to be taken seriously and addressed.

The unique circumstances of workers with injury or salary claims cannot be ignored:

4.01   Income much reduced or non-existent;

4.02  Yet they are required to make visits to MOM, hospitals, etc — long journeys away;

4.03  They may need or wish to consult non-government organisations or lawyers for advice;

4.04  They need to keep in contact with family and friends for their emotional well-being; telephone cards need to be available to them and paid for;

4.05  Their working co-workers typically get lunch (or even dinner) delivered to the worksite, not the dormitory; how does the lonely injured worker get meals in an isolated part of Singapore?

Issues 4.01 to 4.04 are rooted in the problem of income. For workers whose injuries occurred at work and who were given certified medical leave by doctors, and whose accident occurred less than twelve months prior, they are supposed to benefit from a monthly stipend in the form of Temporary Incapacity Compensation (also known as “medical leave wages”) as per clauses 14A(1) and 14A(2) of the Work Injury Compensation Act. The reality however is that employers do not pay medical leave wages on time. Many ignore their obligations for months. MOM case officers do not always insist that employers live up to this obligation promptly.

Therefore, in order to make it practical and humane to implement the legislated provision of employers providing accommodation until repatriation, the question of medical leave wages should be addressed by MOM with utmost diligence. Employers delinquent in paying such monies should be prosecuted in order to make an example of them, since failure to pay on time causes very real suffering.

More seriously, the eligibility to get medical leave wages does not apply to all injured workers. Situations such as 4.06 and 4.07 need to be considered:

4.06   Worker has been downgraded from medical leave to “light duties”, or not on any medical status, but nonetheless has since been terminated from his job and put on a Special Pass, and he has no job to return to;

4.07  Worker is still on certified medical leave, but more than twelve months have elapsed from the date of the accident. The Third Schedule to the Work Injury Compensation Act, paragraph 4(1) and a booklet published by MOM (page 6) indicates that the employer’s obligation to pay medical leave wages ceases at the anniversary. How then does a still-injured worker survive? TWC2 has seen many examples of injuries taking longer than a year to heal. In a recent survey, 20.3 percent of 153 survey respondents reported that their accident was more than twelve months ago.

TWC2 proposes that

4.08   Workers caught in the situations described in 4.06 and 4.07, ineligible for medical leave wages, should receive a monthly “maintenance and upkeep” subvention equivalent to two-thirds of Average Monthly Earnings.

The question of providing meals to an injured worker when housed in employer-provided accommodation needs to be addressed. Good nutrition is a necessary aid to recovery. Expecting injured workers to cook their own meals is impractical — some do not know how to cook, all would have difficulty purchasing supplies, and those who are post-operative, or with mobility, limb or eye injuries, are just not able to do so.

Employers should be required to provide meals to injured and Special Pass employees they house, and these meals must meet reasonable nutritional standards and accord with workers’ dietary custom.


5. Post-operative and seriously injured workers

None of the above truly suits situations faced by post-operative and seriously-injured workers, e.g those with mobility difficulties, head injuries or needing regular nursing attention. Ideally, doctors and MOM should insist that such cases be placed in nursing homes at employers’ cost until they are well enough to transfer to a dormitory.

TWC2 however recognises that nursing home beds are in short supply in Singapore, and the cost can be prohibitive for small employers (though changes to insurance requirements can address the latter).

TWC2’s proposal is to have dedicated sections on the ground floor of commercial dormitories for the seriously injured. 

5.01   Every licensed commercial dormitory should be required by law or licence conditions to set aside one percent of all beds — and these should be in ground floor rooms, enabling ease of access for those with mobility difficulties — for the seriously injured, and equip such rooms with grab bars and other necessary conveniences;

5.02   All these beds should be single-level beds, not double- or triple-decker beds since seriously injured workers will have difficulty getting into higher beds;

5.03   Such beds must be made available, pro bono, to cases of injured workers recommended by any registered charity working with migrant workers, subject to a maximum stay of two months per injured worker;

5.04  The dormitory shall accord full access to the worker, all the way to his bedspace, to authorised persons from the recommending charity so that these persons and the charity can provide such care and support as the worker may need through his recovery and claim process.


6. Protecting freedom of movement

One side effect of requiring that employers should be held responsible for the accommodation of Special Pass workers until repatriation, TWC2 anticipates, is that some employers may take this to mean that they should exercise control over the movements of workers.

It is important to make explicit a provision that employers

6.01   shall not impede the right of workers to exit and re-enter the place of accommodation;

6.02   shall not seize or exercise control over the workers’ possessions;

6.03   shall not violate the confidentiality of their documents;

6.04   or limit their choice of whom to communicate with.

Unless these rights are forcefully protected, workers will once again feel that living in employers’ accommodation is a security threat to themselves, or that it jeopardises their right to social contacts and case advice.


7. A holistic framework

Present housing arrangements for workers on Special Passes are patchwork and disjointed, with huge gaps that many workers fall through. Some of these gaps can be traced to inadequate legislation and policy silence; others are due to poor enforcement of existing provisions. Nonetheless, with nearly 100 percent of workers in Special Passes seen by TWC2 reporting that they have fled employer accommodation, it is obvious that whatever the existing framework may be, it is not effective.

The above proposals attempt to put together some key principles that can extend across all foreseeable situations; more importantly, they keep the focus on addressing workers’ real fears of abusive treatment by their employers — the chief reason for their fleeing company accommodation. These key principles make clear employers’ responsibility for shelter, food, and a basic income stream so that workers can purchase the bare necessities of modern life, including transport and telecommunication.

In the far fewer cases of severe injuries, we propose an arrangement where multiple parties chip in, including commercial dormitories providing beds pro bono, and NGOs providing visits and care.