This paper by Meera Rajah, a young volunteer helping out with case documentation and follow-up, provides a good summary of the issues that migrant workers commonly face. It is however, not just a descriptive summary, but delves into the reasons why things are as they are, putting the finger on the inequality of bargaining power. It draws on the experiences she has gained, and the reflections she had while with TWC2.
In this article, I will first briefly explore how migrant workers find their way to Singapore and the dynamics of the worker-employer relationship. I will then reflect on common problems that these workers face – namely, work injury cases, salary disputes and abuse – and their reluctance to report them, which in turn creates deeper social repercussions.
Abuses persist; some types even becomes widespread, because many of these migrant workers are reluctant to report abuse out of fear of losing their livelihood and having to leave Singapore. Their employment and immigration status is a contingent one, since their work permits can be revoked at any time, at their employer’s whim.
This is asymmetrical relationship is compounded by cultural ‘mismatch’.
When injured, workers can face particular difficulty in proving that their injury occurred at work, should they choose to seek compensation for their injury and/or medical leave wages under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA). It is not uncommon for employers to delay treatment, or to intimidate witnesses against testifying, she writes.
In salary disputes, proof that he has not been correctly paid can also be difficult for the worker to demonstrate, as the dispute often boils down to the worker’s word against his supervisor and/or employer’s, particularly when his pay-slip is withheld.
The abuse that migrant workers face may be physical or verbal. She notes that TWC2 encounters instances where migrant workers’ supervisors and/or employers may attempt to intimidate the workers, to deter them from reporting any dissatisfaction they suffer in the workplace. The situation is often amplified for domestic workers ‘captive’ in their employer’s residences.
The paper also discusses the inadequacies of the Ministry of Manpower’s dispute resolution process. The primary frustration that workers on a ‘Special Pass’ face lies within the fact that the pass expressly forbids them from finding work whilst waiting for their disputes to be resolved. They have no source of income, she points out. This is exacerbated by the long time that it often takes for their disputes to be resolved, driving workers to despair and desperation.
Foreign worker issues cannot be isolated from Singapore issues, she notes:
It is crucial to understand that their problems are not separate from ours; while they remain in Singapore, we all form part of the larger Singaporean eco-system. As Nobel laureate J. Stiglitz astutely remarked, “weakening social protection” – regardless for who – will “destabilise the economy by making wages more flexible” . This will make it all the more difficult to reintegrate locals back into the sectors now dominated by the foreign workforce.