This is a continuation of an exchange of letters between the Ministry of Manpower and TWC2, published in the Straits Times. The earlier part of the exchange can be seen here.

Responding to TWC2’s letter published 23 August 2017, MOM’s was published on 26 August 2017:

MOM: Early reporting of errant employers sees better outcomes

We thank Mr Alex Au of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) for his letter (MOM’s advice out of step with reality; Aug 23).

Foreign workers who delay the reporting of unpaid salaries face higher risks of not recovering the money from their errant employers.

Last year, more than 4,500 foreign workers approached the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for help with their salary claims

Of those who did so within three months of non-payment, more than 90 per cent were able to fully recover their unpaid salaries following mediation or adjudication.

In contrast, less than 20 per cent of those who waited close to a year to make their reports succeeded in recovering their salaries in full.

The delay caused the amounts owed by the employers to snowball, and made the workers’ situation more dire.

Although such workers constitute a small minority, we urge organisations such as TWC2 to encourage them to come forward sooner rather than later.

Mr Au has called on the MOM to “crack down on high recruitment costs” to reduce the barrier against early reporting.

Our laws already cap the amount of agency fees which a Singapore employment agency can collect from foreign workers.

We also do not permit parties in Singapore to collect kickbacks.

Just last week, a company’s director was charged with 21 counts of collecting kickbacks from six of his foreign workers, and faces a fine of up to $30,000 and/or two years’ imprisonment per offence if convicted.

However, what happens in their home countries is beyond our jurisdiction. Even so, the MOM continues to engage their embassies and our counterparts when we are made aware of malpractices in their home countries.

Mr Au further suggested that the MOM disallow employers from considering other foreign workers until the pool of workers already here awaiting resolution of their salary claims has been reduced.

This proposal is impractical, given the diverse needs of employers and the varying readiness of the workers to be re-deployed.

Instead, we continue to work with organisations such as the Singapore Contractors Association Limited (SCAL) and Migrant Workers’ Centre to improve employment facilitation.

For example, SCAL has introduced the Foreign Workers Directory System that seeks to put employers in touch with available workers.

Tan Fang Qun
Director, Joint Operations Division
Ministry of Manpower

In our earlier letter, we had urged MOM to consider “redesigning the entire recruitment system to cut out middlemen”. Their response — “what happens in their home countries is beyond our jurisdiction” — is essentially predicated on the existing model, where prospective workers go through brokers in their home countries. There is not even the first attempt to imagine a redesign.

Secondly, the part of the response about working with SCAL and the Migrant Workers’ Centre is in effect an enumeration of gestures made. It tells us nothing about the effectiveness of these measures.

The third interesting element of the reply addresses the point made in our 23 August letter that

“TWC2 urges the MOM to monitor the pool of foreign workers already in Singapore and looking for jobs, and restrict hiring from abroad until this pool has shrunk to a certain size. Doing so helps retain experience and skills within the country rather than open the door wide to inexperienced new workers.”

In response, MOM rejects the idea. Their reply speaks about how they should give leeway to employers to hire fresh workers from source countries, “given the diverse needs of employers”. Closer examination will reveal how flawed this reasoning is.

If an employer is looking for workers with general or basic industry skills, such workers would be available in the pool of unemployed foreign workers already in Singapore; it is thus a weak argument for keeping a wide open door to sourcing from home countries. If the employer is looking for highly specialised skills, it is unlikely to be found at the work permit salary level, even if scouring in source countries. The employer should be identifying someone with sufficient basic skills and the right aptitude and then invest in training up this employee. Again, this is a weak argument for opening the door wide to sourcing from home countries. One can hire someone already here and looking for work and train him up.

More generally, all employers hire from limited polls of labour. Those without access to foreign worker quotas simply have to hire from among Singapore citizens and Permanent Residents. If they need “diverse” skills (at work permit salary levels) that are not easily found in the domestic labour market, they simply have to train up the person(s) they hire. Note that in this case, “diverse needs” is not an argument for allowing these employers to access foreign worker quotas to hire from anywhere around the world. Then why should employers with quota to be so free to hire from abroad when foreign workers can be found locally?

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Anyway, here is TWC2’s letter in response to MOM’s above. Our letter was published in the Straits Times on 30 August 2017.

Set up portal for employers to hire foreign workers

While laws capping fees that locally-licensed agents can charge are good, employers of non-domestic foreign workers typically circumvent this by not using Singapore-licensed agents (MOM: Early reporting of errant employers sees better outcomes, by the Ministry of Manpower; Aug 26).

Instead, workers are hired through foreign brokers, who charge recruitment fees that equal as much as two years’ salary.
Many workers inform us that a portion of those fees ultimately flow to their employers.

Kickbacks remain common. While we commend the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for taking to task those who have been caught so far, there are many more cases that are hard to prove.

It is not necessary for MOM to interfere in other countries’ jurisdiction to tackle this problem. The Internet can offer a solution.

All employers of non-domestic work permit holders can be required to advertise vacancies on a central, non-profit portal, with terms of employment clearly stated.

Allowing prospective workers the opportunity to directly submit their applications will eliminate the need for middlemen.
Requiring all hiring to be done through the portal shuts the door to circumventing the system.

If any employer demands payment from the prospective worker for the privilege of a job, we can deem that demand to have been made within Singapore’s jurisdiction, since it would have been in conjunction with a job advertised on a Singapore-based portal.

As for salary-unpaid workers getting a chance at a new job, the MOM’s reply describes the moves it has made, namely referrals to the Singapore Contractors Association and Migrant Workers’ Centre.

However, it does not address the question of effectiveness.

Transient Workers Count Too’s observation is that very few of these workers succeed in landing new jobs, which suggests that these measures are not working.

The MOM, citing the “diverse needs of employers”, wants to keep the door open to hiring fresh new faces.
But all employers have to hire from limited pools. There is no need to let contractors and other employers choose from the hundreds of millions in India, China or Bangladesh when there are unemployed foreign workers right here in Singapore.

Alex Au
Transient Workers Count Too