Three recent posts here at this site demonstrate that employers continue to try to forcibly repatriate foreign workers, despite workers having unresolved salary claims or untreated injuries. This practice inflicts a great injustice on them. The failure of the authorities to stop it can only lead to speculation about conscious neglect.

Mark Lamb has an eye-witness account of a TWC2 case-worker and volunteers rushing to the airport one evening when a worker phoned us from there. He was about to be sent home even though his injury claim had only just been lodged.

Jolovan Wham of HOME, another organisation helping foreign workers in Singapore, has also been running to the airport, and his social media posts about those incidents are archived here.

A recent story, Kamal climbs out of window, 12 floors up, to get help, shines a light on what happens in the hours before workers are taken to the airport: they are forcibly confined. In this particular case, the workers were held in a 12th-floor apartment, and one man climbed out of a window in order to escape and get help for his friends. If he had fallen — which must have been a very real risk — he would have lost his life.

Moreover, as illustrated by Kamal’s story, plans to forcibly repatriate workers are often executed with resort to physical assault and with the seizure and destruction of documents. Surely, the State should view such behaviour with utmost seriousness.

Despite regulations making it an offence to forcibly repatriate a worker who has a pending case, enforcement, by TWC2’s observation, is weak. TWC2 calls for greater vigilance on MOM’s part against employers resorting to such practice, coupled with imposition of severe penalties. Severe penalties would not be disproportionate to the possible loss of life. Moreover, these penalties, even if administrative ones, must be made public, so that other employers can see that forced repatriation is not something to be contemplated.


Fear negates workers’ right to company accommodation

Even if employers’ plans are not always carried through to fruition, all it takes is for a handful to “succeed” each year, for word to spread among the migrant worker communities. Fear of being the next target becomes very real and personal once a worker has been injured or has lodged a salary complaint. This fear, as mentioned in several stories at this website, leads them to quit company accommodation in the hope of reducing the risk of being seized, confined and sent home.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) tends to take the view that workers quit dorms chiefly because they want to work illegally in the shadow economy (which pays much better than legal jobs). The ministry’s position is often tied to a pretence that forced repatriation does not much happen, and that workers are just using this supposed fear as an excuse, to cover their ulterior motives. This view is shaped more by an institutional tendency to see foreign workers as unruly, uncivilised masses to be controlled, and who are always out to “game the system”, than by a dispassionate understanding of the situation on the ground and a clear-eyed reading of cause and effect. It is not unrelated to a common cognitive bias among the elite, seeing the poor as lazy, conniving and prone to crime, and thus undeserving of intervention.

TWC2 does not dispute that indeed some workers — but certainly not the badly injured ones — find employment underground, but such work is seldom regular and consequently not as lucrative as bureaucrats imagine when considered in terms of total monthly income. It also makes them vulnerable to extortion since working without a work permit is an offence.

More importantly, the arrow of cause and effect does not, in the general case, start with workers wanting to work illegally as MOM imagines. It starts with workers having to flee company accommodation because they fear forced repatriation. This fear reaches critical levels when employees have confronted their bosses over unpaid salaries and seen an ugly response from bosses, or when a worker has been injured and senses that the employer is unwilling to bear the cost of his treatment and recovery. So he moves out. But once he has moved out, he has to find money for rent, and that leads inexorably (unless he is badly injured) to seeking illegal employment.

This institutional attitude — assigning “blame” and ulterior motives to workers for moving out, and thereby dismissing their real fear of forced repatriation as a mere cover — also serves to excuse the authorities from their responsibility to take action against employers.

The ministry’s passivity then allows the practice to continue. Employers think they can attempt forced repatriation with impunity. It’s just a matter of time before there are dead bodies on the pavement or a fight breaks out at the airport, tarnishing Singapore’s image.


Tackle problem at its root

While imposing severe penalties on employers who try to forcibly repatriate workers would be an improvement, the analysis can be taken further. It is important to recognise that the idea of forced repatriation becomes attractive to an employer only when the cost of having the worker remain in Singapore rises high enough for the employer to resort to overstepping the law.

A worker with a salary claim for a large amount, e.g. because he had not been paid for five months or more, would be one such example. An employer calculates that the cost of forced repatriation, which is just the (low) risk of being held to account, might work out much cheaper than acceding to the salary claim.

Even if the claim is not that large, say, only about $2,000 for two or three months’ unpaid wages, the employer might calculate that if he acceded to one worker’s claim, he’d have to do likewise with claims by all his other employees. An employer is unlikely to have not paid only one worker out of his entire workforce. Typically, all the workers would be unpaid or shortpaid. In other words, the cost to the employer of acceding to a complaint is not the quantum of the solitary claim, but X number of workers multiplied by all their arrears.

What better way to avoid this, and instill fear and submission in his entire workforce, than to repatriate the first “trouble-maker” who springs up?

Foreign workers tend to continue at work for months and months despite not being paid. As a consequence, the accumulated unpaid salaries add up. They continue at work because MOM’s rules governing work permit holders bar them from seeking another job after quitting one. Hence, resigning after not receiving salary for one or two months is not an option. They are not allowed to look for alternative jobs without first going home (and facing social disgrace from going home broke). So, they stay on in the no-salary job for several months in the hope that the boss will soon find the cash or have a change of heart and pay them. Only when that hope finally vanishes do they lodge formal salary claims.

For several different reasons, including simply that of a human right, TWC2 has advocated for years the right of work permit holders to be able to quit a job and start on a new one without first going home. The term for this is ‘the right to job mobility’.

It so happens that this right will aid in reducing the chances that employers would resort to forced repatriation, thus tackling the problem at its root.

With job mobility, instead of toting up large salary claims after working for months without payment, workers will quickly resign and get into new jobs when they see an employer not paying them. A significant number of them would rather focus on doing well in the new job than going through the hassle of claiming backpay from the previous employer. In other words, they might choose to just write off their loss, when that loss is still relatively small, and when they are assured of a new income stream.

By lessening conflict, we reduce the instances when employers would want to resort to forced repatriation.


In the case of injured workers…

Job mobility will not be much of a solution to the question of forced repatriation of injured workers. These workers generally report to TWC2 that their employers had expressed unhappinness about having to bear the cost of medical treatment. This may factor in the calculation in employers’ minds: the cost of treatment being much higher than the cost of a forced repatriation, so why not resort to the latter?

It doesn’t actually make sense because with an insurance policy at hand, employers should be able to recover the cost of treatment or any disability compensation from the insurer. TWC2 suspects that resorting to forced repatriation isn’t always a rational calculation, but one largely motivated by a desire to reassert dominance over a workforce. It’s a form of punishment for a worker having the gall to lodge a claim.

Sending an injured worker home when he has not received adequate treatment and depriving him of the right to disability compensation — a right provided by law — is callous in the extreme.

Thus, it is still important for MOM to vigilantly police such action and impose severe penalties on employers resorting to this practice.