Below is the short talk TWC2 vice-president Alex Au (above, 2nd from left) gave at the Human Rights Day seminar organised by the Delegation of the European Union delegation to Singapore, 10 December 2013. The theme of the seminar was ‘Contemporary perspectives on economic & social rights’.


In the matter of employment, we would expect that

  • Contracts should be transparent, freely entered into, and honoured;
  • Working conditions should be safe, and certainly not degrading or inhuman;
  • Ancillary provisions such as housing, transport or medical care, where stipulated in contract or by law, should be promptly provided and of contracted-for or reasonable standard.

At Transient Workers Count Too, we regularly see violations of every one of these. There are countless ways by which migrant workers are badly treated, and their economic and social rights ignored.

But today I want to draw your attention to how maltreatment of migrant workers by private employers stems from misguided state policies.

More specifically, certain mindsets and attitudes among policymakers direct and inform a multitude of laws, rules, regulations, administrative policies and case-by-case responses to problems. These in turn shape the behaviour of employers and others with power over workers.

I’m not saying that the state has gone out of its way to create a framework for abusive treatment of migrant workers. However, in our view, it has not shown itself to be moved by or sufficiently concerned with the by-products of its policies and attitudes that lead to human rights violations.


I outline three overarching attitudes:

  • The prioritisation of profit
  • The privatisation of policing
  • The pretence of power symmetry

To illustrate how these manifest in injustice and human rights violations, I shall give you two brief examples for each line.

The prioritisation of profit

Recently, the Ministry of Manpower again refused to make payslips mandatory. Without itemised payslips, workers have no sure way of knowing whether they have been correctly paid. The ministry said that employers have objected to making payslips mandatory because it would raise their costs.

This is no more than an empty excuse. If retailers can be required to produce itemised receipts for sales as small as $7.00, what good reason is there to deny workers their right to itemised payslips for $700? By law, employers have to calculate salaries anyway (including overtime, etc). Providing employees with copies of the calculation is a negligible cost. Yet the ministry is paralysed once some employers somewhere raise the spectre of cost increase.

Turning to a second type of case, TWC2 regularly sees workers who have lodged complaints about salaries not being paid at all. Even when it is quite obvious that their complaints are genuine, and the claimed amounts correct, from our experience of cases we’ve seen, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) typically aims to settle the matter through compromise wherein the worker gets less than what he is owed.

securitybond_formIf the reason salaries are not paid is that the employer’s cash flow is poor, the ministry looks to the $5,000 security bond. There are several terms of the bond, but the very first is an undertaking to pay salaries promptly. Click thumbnail at left, imaged from this page on MOM’s website.

You would think that if the employer has failed to pay salaries promptly, the bond should be forfeited. Yet, MOM’s practice is to negotiate with the insurance company to give up a part of the bond value to partially pay the workers, instead of forfeiting the whole $5,000 in order to pay the workers in full, or at least up to the bond value of $5,000.

Our sense is that MOM considers it a job well done if a worker who is owed $3,500 in back pay is eventually paid $2,000 out of the security bond.

Why is MOM so lenient? I can only imagine that MOM is unwilling to damage the business viability of the insurer or even the employer by being too hard on them. But the nett effect is that it is the migrant worker’s hard-earned money that is forfeited instead.

The privatisation of policing

Subsidiary legislation unashamedly says, and I quote, “the employer shall control and supervise the foreign employee.” Together with a fear of losing the security bond, employers feel they have a state-given right to police and deny basic rights to their foreign employees.

Let me give you some common examples:

Firstly, for a long time, employers of domestic workers justified not giving them a weekly day off lest the worker, “do something illegal and get me into trouble”. Ten years after TWC2 first took up the day-off issue, the ministry has this year finally enacted a rule that they should get a weekly day off – though there are still problems in implementation, as I will discuss below.

Secondly, passports are routinely taken away from employees. Sometimes, educational certificates and medical documents are taken away from them too.

Thirdly, workers aren’t allowed to change jobs locally without getting consent or “release” from their bosses. This rule, tying a worker to just a single employer, gives an abusive boss great latitude to mistreat his worker.

Fourthly, thuggish repatriation agents are hired to kidnap and confine workers, in order to send them home without them having a chance to report to the authorities abuses such as salary non-payment or denial of medical treatment after an accident. Year after year, we hear of such incidents. There just isn’t enough will on the part of the ministry to punish employers for resorting to such illegal methods, so the problem persists.

The pretence of power symmetry

Many rules allow contractual relations to be varied by mutual agreement. But there’s the assumption that workers have equal agency. The reality is that other rules (e.g. cannot change jobs) undermine their freedom of manoeuvre and restrict their choices. The very high placement fees also make it hard to walk away from a job however abusive the employer is.

Even now when the law says domestic workers should get a weekly day off, there is the option of her continuing to work so long as she has agreed to do so and is paid extra. But this assumes that if she does not agree, she will be able to assert her right to a day off. The reality is this: Having to stay in her employer’s house, unable to change jobs without a “release”, how does anyone know if her so-called agreement is authentic?

Now, let me take a slightly more complex example, but one that may illustrate active state bias.

When employers apply for work permits, they have to declare to the ministry the salary and other details. Just as an example, let’s say he offers a basic monthly salary of $700. Then the ministry sends a copy of this application to the worker in the home country so that he knows what the job and salary is.

Yet, we regularly see employers make employees sign new contracts soon after arrival in Singapore. The document is often in English, which the workers may not be able to read, and it lays down lower salaries (e.g. $500) and poorer terms. Typically, employees are not provided a copy of whatever they are asked to sign, or even enough time to read, or find a friend to translate it, or seek a second opinion.

The workers all feel they have no choice but to sign immediately because they have paid thousands of dollars to employment agents to obtain these jobs, and bosses know that.

From many cases TWC2 has seen, we observe that the ministry recognises these new contracts as valid, when to any reasonable person, these were made under financial duress.

When workers complain about being disadvantaged by new contracts, MOM often dismisses their grievances, saying something along the lines of, “If you didn’t agree, why did you sign?” There is the fiction that workers have the autonomy not to sign.

There is a name for such a practice of making employees sign new, more adverse contracts when they clearly don’t have much option to refuse: ‘contract substitution’. It is one of the indicators of human trafficking.

On one occasion when TWC2 queried the ministry why they weren’t holding an employer to account for submitting one salary figure in the work permit application (“IPA”) and paying the worker a lower salary after he’s started work -– after all, providing false information in an online application is an offence — the ministry told us “According to the company, the IPA declared salary was an oversight/mistake.” This was said in the context of a proposed settlement wherein workers would be unsuccessful in securing what they were rightly owed. One gets the sense that MOM is prepared to grant employers an easy escape route.


I will stop here. I hope I have given you enough food for thought. To quickly recap, the point I wish to make today is that the state creates an environment where malpractices thrive, and solutions have to begin from there.