In response to the Ministry of Manpower’s call for public feedback on the “second phase” of proposed changes to the Employment Act (EA) and the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA), Transient Workers Count Too submitted a 39-page document on 30 October 2013 arguing for a long list of needed improvements. Some proposals urge amendments to laws, others to bylaws and a few proposals point out the need for administrative policy changes or stronger enforcement of existing provisions.

In its consultation call, MOM broached the subject of “whether written employment terms and electronic payment of workers’  salaries should be made mandatory” and “circumstances under which foreign workers should be allowed to change employers.”

With respect to the latter, TWC2 argued for the dismantling of the present system tying a work permit holder to an employer. TWC2 is of the view that work permit holders should be free to look for new jobs locally when they lose their existing jobs or resign. Many abuses stem from the fact that when the relationship between employer and employee deteriorates, the worker is left with two rotten choices: (a) submit to abuse in order to keep the job, or (b) lose the job and get sent home. To be sent home is distressing because he or she still has a family to feed and, quite typically, a huge investment in agent fees has yet to be fully recovered. To have to submit to abuse is an injustice that should disturb everyone’s conscience.

Unfortunately, in the knowledge that workers have only rotten choices, some employers are tempted to exploit their power position, e.g. denying medical treatment, arbitrarily reducing pay or imposing deductions, thus creating an unhappy workforce.

Moreover, with Singapore aiming to improve productivity, it is terribly wasteful to send experienced workers home and replace them with fresh inexperienced workers. Workers who get to stay longer in Singapore not only contribute more economically, they adjust to our social and cultural norms, reducing friction.

Other major proposals made by TWC2 in its submission include:

  • mandatory written employment contracts prescribing basic terms of employment;
  • mandatory pay slips with itemised calculations;
  • salary payment must be made directly into bank accounts, so that there is an auditable record;
  • loans and salary advances must be freely agreed to and properly documented, and transacted through the bank account;
  • provisions relating to wrongful detention of employees should be enhanced;
  • greater enforcement of prohibitions related to kickbacks;
  • comprehensive set of continuing employer (and former employer) obligations relating to accommodation, food, upkeep and maintenance, for workers under medical treatment or awaiting resolution of injury and salary claims;
  • workers should not need employer’s approval to change jobs;
  • a worker coming out of one job should be given up to 6o days on a new kind of Special Pass (“Job Search Special Pass”) during which he or she can look for a new job locally;
  • restrictions on bringing in fresh workers.

TWC2 repeats its long-held view that domestic workers should come within the ambit of the EA, and therefore, all the protections afforded by this law, as well as the proposals made in this submission, should benefit them as well.

Another significant proposal TWC2 makes is to set up a government-run Foreign Workers Assistance Fund (a kind of backstop fund) financed through the levy or some similar charge on employers hiring foreign workers. From time to time, TWC2 has seen cases of workers left high and dry because their employers have disappeared or gone bankrupt. Legal provisions saying that employers are responsible for this and that, including unpaid salaries, become extremely impractical in such circumstances. Hence, TWC2 proposes that the Fund should step in to provide for the workers so affected. Naturally, the Fund should have recourse to obtain reimbursement from the employers under the law, but the Fund would be in a better position to utilise judicial processes to obtain reimbursement than a single worker ever can.

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