In the wake of the sentencing of a construction company boss for demanding kickbacks from his employees (see news story in Today newspaper, thumbnail at right), the Straits Times had a story about his unsavoury practice on 13 April 2015.
The Straits Times noted that extortionate demands are typically made when the worker is most keen to get or renew his job. The paper said,
These extortions can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands, with some employers demanding upfront cash payments from workers to hire them, while others are forcing workers to pay when their work permits need to be renewed.
TWC2 executive committee member Debbie Fordyce told of workers who pay as much as $10,000 to secure a job here.
The Straits Times also quoted David Leong, managing director of recruitment firm PeopleWorldwide: “the pervasiveness of this practice is actually quite deep”. He added that recruiting agencies, both overseas and in Singapore, often collect kickbacks on behalf of employers in order to better compete for their business. “Some employers ask us to do this but we turn them down.”
But migrant worker groups said many cases go unreported as workers are unwilling to risk their jobs.
“When everyone does it, you’re socialised to think that you have to do it. It becomes the norm,” said Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics executive director Jolovan Wham.
Ms Fordyce said other foreign workers are sometimes complicit, helping their bosses to find workers and taking a cut from the kickbacks.
“It can be a very casual arrangement and hard to pin down.”
This circuitous routing and a lack of a paper trail makes it hard to prove, which may explain why MOM statistics are they way they are. As the newspaper pointed out, MOM received 740 complaints in 2013 and 2014 relating to employment kickbacks. Of these, 190 were found to have contravened the law, while the remaining complaints “were either not corroborated or not consistent with other evidence”, said an MOM spokesman.
The 190 corroborated complaints resulted in only seventeen convictions in 2013 and fifteen in 2014.
The newspaper met with a Bangladeshi construction worker, Sadon Sarkar. He told the reporter that he had to pay $4,000 to his employment agent back home in 2008 before he could land his 2008 job. Subsequently, the employer deducted $1,500 from his salary annually for three years, as renewal fees for his work permit. “If I didn’t pay, my boss would send me back. Of course I’m scared to go home. I need to stay in Singapore to earn money.”
Unsurprisingly, no receipt was given for any of his payments.
The full article can be seen by clicking on the thumbnail at left.
In response to this news story, Bernard Menon, Executive Director of Migrant Workers Centre (MWC), “urges all migrant workers to report any employer who demands kickbacks to us or to the authorities.” MWC says on its own website that it is a “bipartite initiative of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the Singapore National Employers’ Federation (SNEF).”
The contextual reality that workers face does not make this a meaningful solution. They do not have any real freedom to complain given the economic stranglehold they often find themselves in as a result of the recruitment and employment situation. As TWC2 pointed out in a separate letter to the Straits Times, published 17 April 2015, migrant workers lose their jobs the moment they lodge any complaint. Other than exceptional cases, they are generally denied the right to stay on in Singapore to look for alternative jobs. To complain therefore is to leap out of the frying pan into the fire. Job insecurity, imposed by MOM through their regulations, lies at the root of the problem. Employers take advantage of this to extort.
To “urge” workers to report kickbacks is just a paper-thin show of concern that deflects scrutiny away from the regulatory system and policy-makers.
TWC2’s letter (17 April) was actually about poor housing conditions suffered by workers. But the root cause is the same: the debt incurred by workers when securing the job (kickbacks included) and job insecurity. They disempower them, so they have little choice but to put up with abusive employers.
Below is MWC’s letter, followed by a rebuttal letter in the Straits Times by a reader named N Nagesh who argues that MWC’s suggestion is “unlikely to work”. (TWC2 does not know anyone by that name; he is unrelated to us, but as a man in the street, he seems better aware of the situation than MWC.)
ST print Forum, 16 April 2015
Workers urged to report bosses demanding kickbacks
The Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC) urges all migrant workers to report any employer who demands kickbacks to us or to the authorities (“Some who employ foreign workers still demand kickbacks”; Monday).
It is only with the help of victimised migrant workers that we will be able to expose the perpetrators and advocate stern action against them.
As the prospect of reporting such abuses to the authorities may cause anxiety among most migrant workers, we urge those who may have fallen victim to such malpractices to approach us.
We are prepared to take on the care and protection (including housing and subsistence) of any migrant worker complainant or witness.
Victimised migrant workers need not fear repatriation or sanctions from their employers.
Upon the initiation of investigation against errant employers for receiving kickbacks, complainants and witnesses will be offered temporary alternative employment.
The authorities are prepared to allow affected migrant workers to stay on in Singapore for a period of time to seek further work permit employment on a permanent basis with the conclusion of these cases.
We hope the authorities will continue to work closely with us to stamp out errant practices expeditiously and completely.
While errant employers should be subjected to swift and severe sanctions, the MWC also urges the authorities to consider ways to help victims who have been forced to pay kickbacks.
One way might be to allow the directing of court fines imposed upon conviction of accused parties towards compensating affected migrant workers.
We ask that the authorities openly and compassionately consider this and other possible solutions in reaching fair and equitable outcomes for all those affected, particularly the victims.
Migrant Workers’ Centre
ST Print forum, 17 April 2015
Kickbacks: Go after errant employment agents instead
The Migrant Workers’ Centre’s (MWC) suggestion is unlikely to work in practice (“Workers urged to report bosses demanding kickbacks”; yesterday).
Most workers are willing to pay kickbacks to get a job, so long as they get the expected salary regularly and can stay in employment.
Only when there is a serious dispute, like over the non-payment of salary or the likelihood of retrenchment, will workers try to seek redress and highlight the kickback issue. So, the workers are willing abettors, too.
The MWC’s other suggestion that fines collected from the convicted parties be paid to the workers is not a good idea, as the same can then be argued for every other court case, including where Singaporeans are involved.
The authorities should, instead, crack down on errant employment agents who adopt unscrupulous practices (“Some who employ foreign workers still demand kickbacks”; Monday).
Agents pay employers to hire the workers, so it is these agents who have tempted the employers to demand kickbacks.
In the marine industry, there have been cases of senior human resource managers receiving kickbacks from agents.
In the construction sector, where kickbacks are not uncommon, some companies register as construction firms but, in effect, are acting as recruitment agencies, as they do not do any construction work but supply manpower to bona fide construction firms instead.
Ultimately, it is vigilance on the part of the authorities, as well as rigorous enforcement, that can bring results in the effort to stamp out the practice of giving and receiving kickbacks.
A third letter was published on the newspaper’s web edition the same day.
ST online Forum, 17 April 2015
Do more to curb unethical workplace practices
What are the main underlying causes of workplace unhappiness? Is it just about kickbacks? (“Workers urged to report bosses demanding kickbacks”; yesterday).
There are all kinds of harassment and bullying at workplaces.
Some bosses ask for sexual favours; others ask for a regular cut of the pay, a pay rise or sales commission, when foreigners are employed.
Such practices will affect workplace morale and productivity.
I hope the Manpower Ministry will make it mandatory for all employment agencies and workplaces to display signs encouraging employees to provide feedback on malpractices.
We must make greater efforts to stamp out illegal workplace practices if we wish to improve our productivity.
Tan Kok Tim
N Nagesh and Tan Kok Tim are among many concerned Singaporeans who deplore the present situation. Coming up soon on this website is a story about a worker who, refusing to obey an order by his boss to carry out unsafe work, was assaulted. An engineer from another contracting firm at the same site video’d the assault and offered the video to the worker in support of his complaint.
The issue of kickbacks and abuses is one that troubles the general public. But why does it persist? As pointed out by TWC regularly, a large part of the answer lies in the regulatory system designed by the State that enhances rather than reduce workers’ vulnerability.