TWC2 president Russell Heng spoke for the organisation at a public forum ‘Foreign workers, justice and fairness’, organised by human rights group Maruah on 23 December 2013. To the 100-strong audience, in which included reporters, he began by pointing out that there was not much that TWC2 knew about the recent Little India riot other than what we see in the media.”None of the workers logged by us are involved; we have no more knowledge of that event than people here.”
He hoped that the Commission of Inquiry “will take this opportunity to take a more wholistic approach, and not treat it as a purely law and order issue,” arguing that we should look at the working environment of foreign workers and try to discover what is in there that may lead to a tendency to outbursts from frustration.
He stressed that most foreign workers don’t have much of a problem, but a significant minority do. Moreover, “for all the cases lodged with MOM, out there will be more [hidden] cases.” This is because workers often find themselves trapped in no-win situations; even lodging a complaint with the authorities brings a heavy price to pay. In any case, even if a problem affacts only a minority, it is no reason to ignore it. After all, most drivers do not drink and drive, only a small fraction do. But “it is a serious issue we have to deal with.”
“By and large, Singaporeans do treat foreign workers okay, and foreign workers are okay with Singaporeans. Their complaints are not with Singapore society,” he pointed out. “What unhappiness there is is focussed on employer, agent or a civil servant who is unhelpful.”
Russell elaborated on how officialdom can be unhelpful. For example, without a minimum wage, employers can, at the point of applying for work permits to bring in workers, declare ridiculously low salaries — and “no law is broken.” But this essentially guarantees a problem ahead when the worker can’t live on such a salary. “The law condones a set-up that is exploitative, and also obstructs people who want to highlight” its inadequacies.
Another example is when the employee sees in the work permit documents a salary he is happy with, but after arriving in Singapore, his employer demands that he sign a new contract with a lower salary. This is contract substitution. “Foreign workers dare not complain because the employer can send him home. That guy has paid lots of money to come here, borrowing and pawning valuables. Therefore this guy takes the bullying for as along as he can.”
“The approach by MOM officers is highly discretionary [when faced with complaints of contract substitution]; and the law is inadequately enforced.”
Essentially, “we allow legal exploitation.”
Other speakers at the forum were Braema Mathi, the president of Maruah and Jolovan Wham of Workfair. Vincent Law read out a statement by his organisation. Siew Kum Hong, Maruah Vice-president, moderated.
Questions flowed fast and furious in the second hour of the forum. Among the key questions that Russell dealt with was one that echoed a view often heard in Singapore: In those countries, wages are extremely low, if jobs can be found at all. Even if Singapore pays them low wages — a pittance by Singapore standards — is it not better to be paid a pittance than not to have work at all?
Russell’s answer was that whoever is allowed to work in Singapore should be treated fairly. We should live up to basic decency and norms. Moreover, the way such a proposition is phrased puts it as a binary, either/or situation. We don’t have to argue for foreign workers to be treated exactly like Singaporeans to say that present treatment is unacceptable.
[TWC2’s position is that if workers freely agree to be paid low wages so be it, but we must ensure that it is informed consent. However, being promised one salary, and made to accept another when he is in no position to object, is not something that meets any standard of basic decency. Nor is a situation where a worker is injured and then denied prompt and proper medical treatment, or one where the employer has broken the law, but officialdom doesn’t enforce it.]