Sunday Times, 9 February 2014 carried a feature article by Radha Basu, leading with a figure that Bangladeshi worker Hussain Iqbal had given TWC2: $1.50.

That was the hourly rate that his employer paid him for nearly a year,  despite a document issued by the Ministry of Manpower confirming that his employer Woolim would pay him $800 a month (equivalent to $4.196 per hour).

The article in full can be found on the AsiaOne portal:

The article cited claims by the Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-jin that “migrant workers were generally treated well by employers, and a 2011 survey of 3,000 work permit holders showed that nine in 10 were satisfied.”

However, Radha pointed out that such numbers may not reflect the true picture on the ground.

While covering foreign worker issues, I have been told time and again by workers and their advocates that despite grave abuses, many workers will not complain so long as the power balance between employer and employee remains skewed in the employer’s favour. Some policies need tweaking to level the playing field.

The men do not complain readily because doing so can cost them their job.

The employer can unilaterally cancel the work permit and send the worker home once the complaint is resolved and dues are paid.

For workers who still have debts to repay, complaining is the last option.

The article mentioned TWC2’s position that a worker who leaves his job — whether he is sacked or resigns — should be allowed 60 days to remain in Singapore and find another. This way,

A worker who feels unfairly treated or abused will more readily speak up and complain, if he is assured that he is not at risk of being packed off home.

Such a move could also help raise workers’ wages and hurt the bad eggs, such as Mr Iqbel’s employer, who profit by undercutting more ethical competitors who know it is morally wrong to pay a manual worker $1.50 an hour.

She ends with a moral case for lifting wages.

The Ministry of Manpower responded to Radha Basu’s article in a letter published on 13 February 2014:

Regulations in place to protect foreign workers: MOM

We refer to senior correspondent Radha Basu’s commentary (“$1.50 an hour is just too little for anyone”; Sunday).

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) protects foreign workers against employers who unilaterally reduce their salaries from what were declared in the In-Principle Approval letters without first obtaining the workers’ express written consent and notifying the ministry of the reduction.

Such employers may be fined up to $10,000 per infringement under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act. We similarly prohibit Singapore employment agencies from overcharging.

The Employment Act gives freedom to employers and workers, whether local or foreign, to terminate their employment contracts. They may do so by serving notice or compensating the other party with salary in lieu of notice.

Foreign workers must be paid their outstanding salaries before they are sent home.

Also, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority refers workers, who alert its officers that they still have outstanding employment-related issues, to MOM for assistance. There were 23 such referrals from January to November last year, among the 7,000 foreign workers with difficulties we helped.

As your writer noted, the MOM allows foreign workers with employment-related claims a window to change employers on a case-by-case basis. We take into account factors such as the nature of the claims and duration of employment here.

If the worker had resigned of his own accord, is it reasonable to expect his employer to shoulder the upkeep and maintenance for 60 days? If not, should these costs then be borne by Singapore taxpayers?

Your writer is aware that the MOM had announced its intention to mandate itemised payslips in two years. To facilitate this, a set of tripartite guidelines for the issuance of itemised payslips has been developed and issued.

We have legislation backed by enforcement to protect the well-being of foreign workers here.

We urge the public and non-governmental organisations to bring to the MOM’s attention any errant employment practices, so that we can investigate and take action.

There is no doubt that abuses exist and there is always room for improvement. But many foreigners will not continue to want to come here to work if the allegations are as widespread as claimed.

Alvin Lim
Divisional Director
Workplace Policy and Strategy Division
Ministry of Manpower

More details about the Woolim case can be found at these links: