The photo is of an illuminated billboard along Bukit Batok West Avenue 3. It seeks to inform workers of their employment rights, and is sponsored by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) the Central Provident Fund and TAFEP (Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices).

The smaller words in the poster say:

  • Get paid for overtime work,
  • Get paid on time for your salary,
  • Get one rest day a week,
  • Get CPF contributions on time and correctly,
  • Get paid public holidays, annual and sick leave

It is a common belief that if workers knew their rights, they’d be able to protect themselves from abuses. TWC2 staff and volunteers feel frustrated each time we encounter such a message.

Knowing your rights is one thing, being able to obtain them is quite another. Nearly every worker who comes to us knows at least the first three rights, and if he doesn’t, we will carefully explain all his rights to him. Yet, the flow of workers coming to us complaining about not being paid or not getting a weekly rest day is unabated. Despite all efforts, many still do not get restitution. The thousands and thousands of data points we have from years of helping already-informed workers disprove the assumption that just “empowering” workers with knowledge will offer them protection.

Migrant workers face innumerable hurdles in seeking redress. They may know what they are entitled to, but because of these hurdles, they just can’t access the avenues theoretically open to them. Some of these hurdles arise from their personal circumstances (e.g. poor education) but, frustratingly, many of the hurdles are systemic. The roadblocks are created by forces outside their control.

They who control the records have the power

One of the common reasons why the worker is disadvantaged in obtaining redress is the fact that many employment-related records are in the possession of the employer. The worker may claim, for example, that he was not paid for his overtime work, but the time cards that he may need to prove his case are kept by the employer and he has no right to them. If that is not bad enough, in the intervening period between his filing a claim and MOM asking the employer to produce the time cards, there is opportunity to alter them or to make forgeries. When the latter happens and the worker alleges that what the employer has produced are fake, the onus is on the employee to prove forgery. That is something that requires forensics. The service costs well over a thousand dollars — money the worker may not have — and sometimes investigations are inconclusive. Typically, as seen from our cases, the worker is unable to prove his allegation and the employer’s (falsified) records are accepted as true. Deprived of his overtime pay, the worker is now deprived too of his right to the truth.

The systemic disadvantage that a worker faces in the above example is his lack of access to employment records. In these days of technology, there must surely be a way to maintain contemporaneous records of working hours that are resistant to doctoring. Why is this not a priority for people in charge of designing employment rules and dispute resolution systems?

Too much tech

On the other hand, sometimes we go overboard with technology. Filing a claim with the Employment Claims Tribunal has recently been made inordinately difficult for migrant workers. In Singapore’s ambition to promote online services, claims can only be filed online. You cannot file it in person. The salary claimant must have an email address to which court correspondence (in English) is sent and all supporting documents must be scanned and sent electronically. Consider a low-wage local employee or a migrant worker: does he have access to the internet? Even if he has a smart phone, can a low-wage migrant worker afford a data plan to stay connected? Does this individual have a scanner to scan documents? Does he understand the English-language correspondence sent to him?

To make things worse, the online claim form requires the worker to input exactly how much he is claiming under each provision of the Employment Act. He is expected to be familiar with the various clauses and definitions in the legislation. Even the average middle-class Singaporean will struggle to do this, let alone a migrant worker. This ridiculously difficult requirement acts as a bar to seeking redress. The worker may know his rights, but if he cannot recite the Employment Act chapter and verse, and thus cannot fill out that form, he won’t get satisfaction.

Instead of spending money putting up illuminated billboards, what is really needed is a redesign of employment rules and dispute resolution processes to ensure that avenues of redress are accessible and effective. Otherwise any campaign to “inform workers of their rights” risks being mere excuses for people in charge to wash their hands of the problem. By reinforcing the assumption that knowledge alone will empower workers to enjoy their rights, it absolves decision-makers from their responsibility to reify those rights. Once absolved of responsibility, there is an even greater danger of blaming the workers (the victims of abuses) for the trouble they are in — “since you knew all your rights, it must be your own fault why your wages are stolen every month and you can’t recover them.”