Journalist Toh Yong Chuan had a short op-ed on page 2 of the Straits Times 24 Jan 2017 following his two reports of workers who could not collect on their Labour Court awards. See these stories on Islam Rafiqul and Sujan Ahmed.
He argued that it was important to plug the gap in the law, not just because foreign workers are important to the economy — being two in five of our workforce — but also the system is the same for local workers. Defects in the system affect the low-wage earners among them too.
One way MOM can help foreign workers is to pay what the Labour Court has ordered first, and recover the payment from the employers later. This will ensure that unpaid workers receive their salaries and injured ones are compensated without delay. The ministry can also work with non-governmental organisations to identify and help vulnerable workers early, especially in clear-cut cases where the employers have withheld salaries or compensation payments.
— Straits Times, 24 Jan 2017, Gap in law to protect workers
Transient Workers Count Too had proposed something similar for years. Each time we have submitted comments on proposed legislation or rule changes, we have argued that a back-stop fund be created. The fund can either be funded through a tiny portion of government levies, or a special insurance premium be charged to employers of Work Permit and S-Pass holders.
The concept is simple: That if after a Labour Court order or Employment Tribunal Order remains unpaid after a certain period, say, 30 days after due date, the fund will pay out to the workers concerned, but will also assume the legal right to recover these amounts from the employers. That way, workers do not suffer unnecessarily, yet we do not absolve employers of their responsibility. The fund would have the legal resources to collect where workers individually do not.
TWC2 has also argued that greater punitive measures must be in place against employers who so brazenly flout court or tribunal awards. It should not only be a criminal offence to do so, but the corporate veil should also be lifted. After all, a decision not to pay was consciously taken by one or more persons, even if they were acting within a company. That decision would also, unless proven otherwise, have the implicit endorsement of the board of directors, whose jobs would be to ensure the proper operation of a company. It is not morally wrong to hold these persons to account. Quite the opposite — it is morally wrong to let them off the hook.
Unless these measures are taken and actual persons face the prospect of jail time, the most vulnerable of workers will continue to suffer.