By TWC2 vice-president Alex Au
On Friday 29 August 2014, the Ministry of Manpower said that my letter published in the Straits Times forum 25 August 2014 (Salary non-payment a big issue for migrant workers) “paints an inaccurate picture”. MOM’s reply was published in the newspaper on Friday 29 August. The headline of MOM’s letter said our claims were ‘baseless’, though it is not clear whether this particular word came from MOM or the newspaper subeditor.
I responded promptly, emailing a reply to Straits Times later the same day. It’s been more than a week since and it is obvious — no surprise to us at TWC2 — that Straits Times does not intend to publish the reply. The effect is thus to let the government have the last word.
It is nonetheless important for us to re-state our position. It is also useful to deconstruct MOM’s reply.
First, for the record, this is the published response from MOM, by Divisional Director, Then Yee Thoong:
Straits Times,, 29 August 2014:
Baseless claim about non-payment of foreign worker salaries
Mr Alex Au’s letter (“Salary non-payment a big issue for migrant workers”; Monday) paints an inaccurate picture.
Through our outreach efforts, we encourage workers with salary claims to come forward to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Last year, the ministry received about 3,000 salary claims involving foreign workers. This is less than 0.5 per cent of work permit holders here.
Independent research companies, using professionally accepted methodologies, have corroborated our view that migrant workers feel they are generally well treated here. Interim findings of a survey conducted by Nexus Link showed that 90 per cent of foreign workers are satisfied working here.
We are therefore curious as to how Mr Au could make the sweeping statement that around 130,000 foreign workers may be either partially or not paid salaries at all. We trust he realises that it is not appropriate to listen only to the employees’ side of the story to bolster his claim of widespread non-payment of salaries.
In adjudicating a salary claim, MOM listens to both sides in the dispute. Should an employer be found to be errant, we will take tough action, such as debarment from employing foreign workers. Where the offence is particularly egregious, they may also be prosecuted.
Other than enforcement, MOM also helps affected workers to recover their salaries. For the majority of substantiated claims that the employer is in a position to pay, MOM has ensured that the foreign workers receive their claims in full.
If the employer is facing financial difficulties and cannot pay, foreign workers may choose to seek adjudication with MOM, or settle the claim through conciliation. Some workers have chosen the latter, because they were aware their employers were just not able to make full payment.
At no point is the worker pressured into accepting a settlement. It is unbecoming of Mr Au to cast aspersions on MOM officers who work tirelessly to help all employees, including foreign workers, resolve their salary claims.
MOM is and remains committed to protecting and upholding all workers’ rights and interests. This includes allowing victimised workers to change employers and continue working in Singapore while their cases are being investigated.
We also earlier announced the mandatory issuance of itemised payslips within two years. Employers of work permit holders are already required to pay their workers’ salaries through direct transfers into their bank accounts if workers request it.
Then Yee Thoong
Labour Relations and Workplaces Division
Ministry of Manpower
Extent of salary abuses
MOM’s citation of the figure of “about 3,000 salary claims involving foreign workers” in 2013 is not a good measure of the extent of salary abuses. The present regulatory system contains strong disincentives for workers lodging formal complaints. For instance:
- the worker knows he will be terminated from his job as soon as he lodges a complaint with MOM;
- because his stay in Singapore is at either his employer’s or MOM’s discretion, he has no control over how long he can stay and fight for his rights;
- he has no assurance that he can work elsewhere while fighting for his salary and he may fear remaining unemployed for a length of time if the employer drags out the case;
- he fears he will be banned from coming back to work in Singapore, since the work visa process is opaque to him and bosses regularly tell their workers that they (bosses) can arrange for MOM to ban any worker they dislike.
Given the high perceived cost of complaining, a typical worker would calculate that unless the salary non-payment or shortfall was very serious, it might be less disadvantageous to suffer an incorrect salary than complain and find himself with no salary at all. Citing 3,000 formal complaints received in 2013 is not a direct answer to our survey results that showed salary injustice affecting about one in three workers.
It is for this reason that my letter (25 August) focussed on the circumstances that disempower workers. I wrote: “Their negotiating position is undermined by MOM policy that prohibits them from looking for new jobs. Remaining jobless makes it very hard for workers to hold out and assert their right to salary arrears.” Saying that MOM received (only) 3,000 salary complaints does not rebut my point; in fact it reinforces it by showing how disempowered workers are.
MOM wrote: “Interim findings of a survey conducted by Nexus Link showed that 90 per cent of foreign workers are satisfied working here.” As far as I know, this survey has not been published in detail. It is therefore impossible to know the significance of its findings or if any inherent bias was created by the survey method. In any case, asking workers if they are “satisfied” is so vague, it can hardly be taken as a meaningful counter to our data that show a substantial of minority of them being paid less than what they are due. Our survey is detailed here: One third of male migrant workers aren’t paid what they’re due. Additionally, a subsequent survey (see: 26 to 40 percent of male workers suffer illegal ‘savings money’ deduction) validated a major part of the first survey’s findings.
MOM wrote that “In adjudicating a salary claim, MOM listens to both sides in the dispute.” Indeed, this is right way to proceed. Nonetheless, this statement bears closer examination, and here again, the deficiencies of the regulatory system are surfaced through examination:
- By not mandating detailed itemised pay slips, or payment through electronic channels with audit trails, workers may find themselves with no documentary evidence to back up their claims, and are thus at a much higher risk of having their claims dismissed;
- Employers have been known to present forged documents when asked by MOM to support their claim that salaries have been correctly paid. Yet when workers cry forgery, MOM routinely tells workers that they (workers) have to prove that the documents presented by employers are forgeries. This is an impossibly heavy burden. The workers go to the police, but the police are often not interested in carrying out an investigation. Interestingly, TWC2 has not heard of any case where MOM asks employers to prove that the documents they presented are genuine. Why the asymmetry?
(see a rare case which turned out happily for the worker, but only after struggling more than twelve months: The sweets were delicious.)
It is TWC2’s contention that the system is stacked against workers.
What about the security bond?
MOM wrote: “For the majority of substantiated claims that the employer is in a position to pay, MOM has ensured that the foreign workers receive their claims in full.” Of course, if the employer is financially able to pay, he should. This however does not address the point I made in my letter, which was this:
One of the conditions of the $5,000 security bond is that employers must pay salaries on time. Even when MOM threatens to forfeit the bond, MOM policy is to obtain only about $2,000 of it to pay the affected worker, despite him being owed $7,000 or $10,000. Why not give all $5,000 to the worker?
MOM’s reply does not address this question. Even the $2,000 mentioned in my letter may be on the optimistic side. A large group of workers came to TWC2 last month. The offer to them, ex-insurance payout, was $1,000 or $1,200 — well below half of what they were owed by their employers.
The right to change jobs and continue working
I raised the important issue of untying workers from their employers. TWC2 has on many occasions proposed that workers should be free to resign and stay on in Singapore to change employers. That way, bad employers are put on notice that their workers will vote with their feet if their employees are unfairly treated. In my letter, I wrote that workers’ “negotiating position is undermined by MOM policy that prohibits them from looking for new jobs.”
MOM’s reply is that the ministry allows “victimised workers to change employers and continue working in Singapore while their cases are being investigated.” (Emphases mine). These two qualifiers severely limit the remedy the ministry says it has. It is entirely discretionary on the ministry to decide who is victimised, and whether to investigate, and TWC2’s observation is that such discretion is not liberally applied.
When a remedy is discretionary and short-term, it is insufficient assurance for the worker to rely on them to protect his interests. It is no wonder that the structural disadvantage he faces (disallowed from employment when he lodges a complaint) remains unmitigated. My letter spoke of the general case where a worker with a salary injustice has to compound his suffering just by lodging a complaint. That the ministry’s description of its remedy is narrowly scoped to two discretionary conditions, and then says nothing about cases that fall outside those conditions, indicates that my description of the general case stands uncontested.
Additionally, when MOM says it is “allowing victimised workers to change employers”, it usually means less than what a layman would understand it to mean. In many cases, MOM allows the worker to take on only a restricted range of menial jobs, typically a “landscaping” job (i.e. trimming bushes, harvesting hydroponic vegetables) or as a cleaner in workers’ dormitories. Many workers that TWC2 have come across, offered this ‘privilege’ of continuing to work while their salary claims are looked into, find these offers completely below their skill levels.
Pay slips, payment through bank
MOM’s letter reiterates a point the ministry has made before — that pay slips will become mandatory in two years’ time. It is good to hear this confirmed again. However, TWC2 has argued that it should be mandatory for employers to pay through electronic means too, so that an audit trail demonstrating what was actually paid is available, a point I reiterated in my letter. To this, MOM replied that “Employers of work permit holders are already required to pay their workers’ salaries through direct transfers into their bank accounts if workers request it.”
This theoretical right is hollowed out by the reality that employers are given total freedom to fire their employees at any time and cancel their work permits. It does not require much imagination to see that nearly all workers would know that this right (to request payment through bank) cannot realistically be exercised. They would risk losing their jobs if they had the temerity to request direct transfer of salaries into bank accounts if the employer was not minded to do it. In any case, MOM does not frown on the widespread practice of employers retaining workers’ passports, but passports have to be presented in order to open a bank account. It is mysterious how MOM can cite this “right” as sufficient rebuttal to the point I made.
In conclusion, on every point that I raised in my letter, MOM’s reply fails to provide a convincing counter. At several places, what it says even lends support to the points I made. While MOM is entitled to defend its policies and legacy record, it should be careful not to ignore the realities faced by workers on the ground and always be prepared to review existing policies for shortcomings.