The United States’ Department of State has just released its 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which contains a chapter on Singapore.
Within the part about Singapore is this assessment of the situation with respect to forced or compulsory labour:
Section 7, subsection B: Prohibition of forced or compulsory labor
The law does not define “forced labor,” but the government has accepted as law the definition found in International Labor Organization Convention 29. Under the law, destitute persons can be compelled to work.
The government enforced the law, although it was more likely to prosecute employers for less serious charges than domestic servitude or bonded labor. Penalties included prison terms and fines, which were commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. The government increased investigations of forced labor allegations in 2019 and imposed fines on some employment agencies for illegal practices. In January the Ministry of Manpower charged the director of San Tong Engineering Pte Ltd for illegal employment of migrant workers and failing to pay salaries and other charges. In view of the number of low-paid foreign workers in the country, however, outside observers believed that many cases of abuse were undetected.
Practices indicative of forced labor, including withholding of wages and passports, occurred. Migrant workers in low-wage and unskilled sectors such as domestic work, hospitality, and construction were vulnerable to labor exploitation. Several NGOs reported that migrant workers did not receive their salary during the country’s COVID-19 lockdown in spite of government efforts to require construction sector employers to make monthly declarations on the payment of salaries to their foreign workers. The Ministry of Manpower acknowledged that some employers were unable to pay salaries owed due to financial difficulties but also indicated the ministry would work with them to provide for salary payment.
The law caps the fees payable by foreign domestic workers to employment agencies in the country at one month’s salary per year of the employment contract, not to exceed two months’ salary, irrespective of the duration of the contract. Observers noted that unscrupulous agencies in migrant workers’ countries of origin could charge exorbitant fees.
Some observers also noted that the country’s employer sponsorship system made legal migrant workers vulnerable to forced labor because there are limited circumstances in which they may change employers without the consent of their employer.
There is also this assessment of dispute handling and the situation for foreign workers through the Covid-19 crisis.
Section 7, subsection E: Acceptable conditions of work (lower portion)
The Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management, which includes the Ministry of Manpower, unions, and the employers’ federation, offers advice and mediation services to help employees and employers to manage employment disputes. The Alliance provided free advisory services to both foreign and local workers who experienced problems with employers; it provided mediation services for a fee. The ministry operated a hotline for foreign domestic workers.
Most foreign workers were concentrated in low-wage, low-skill jobs in construction, shipbuilding, services, and domestic work and were often required to work long hours. Living conditions for those workers were criticized after COVID-19 infections in purpose-built dormitories housing approximately 323,000 migrant workers accounted for more than 94 percent of the country’s total infections as of October 1. Public health experts and NGOs stated COVID-19 spread was accelerated by poor hygiene standards and the limited living space allocated to individuals in these dormitories. In response, the government used temporary COVID-19 legislation to declare dormitories with high infection rates as isolation areas, required workers to quarantine, and surged resources and support teams to dormitories. Freedom of movement for these migrant workers was restricted for more than six months during the pandemic and remained significantly more limited and controlled than for the rest of the population. In September the court fined Shaun Pang Tong Heng after he pleaded guilty to wrongful confinement of three of his Indian workers in an 11-foot by 14-foot room for 42 days during the country’s lockdown.
In June the Ministries of Manpower and National Development released a joint statement with short-, medium-, and long-term arrangements to improve living standards within dormitories and the Ministry of Manpower established a new division to support migrant workers and dormitory operations. NGOs advocated for structural changes to the work permit employment system in order to reduce the financial vulnerability and potential for exploitation of such workers.
Other notable statements
Other notable statements by the State Department in relation to migrant labour include:
Section 7, subsection A: Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining
Foreigners and those with criminal convictions generally may not hold union office or become employees of unions, but the ministry may grant exemptions.
Foreign workers constituted approximately 15 percent of union members. Labor NGOs also filled an important function by providing support for migrant workers, including legal aid and medical care, especially for those in the informal sector and during the COVID-19 outbreak in migrant workers’ dormitories.
Section 7, subsection D: Discrimination with respect to employment and occupaton:
The Fair Consideration Framework was updated in January further to prevent workplace discrimination. Personnel involved in making false declaration on fair hiring may now be prosecuted and penalties were increased. Companies found guilty of discrimination may not hire foreigners for at least 12 months, and also may not renew work passes of existing foreign workers. In March, for example, the Ministry of Manpower fined Ti2 Logistics Pte Ltd for making false declarations to hire a foreigner in preference to citizens. In June the Ministry of Manpower introduced new license conditions on all employment agencies requiring them to comply with the guidelines.
The government effectively enforced the guidelines. Penalties were not commensurate to those for other laws related to civil rights but had a deterrent effect.
In March the government barred five companies from hiring or renewing the work passes of foreign employees for age-related discriminatory hiring, the most common discrimination-based complaint received.
There were also some reports of discrimination based on disability, pregnancy, and sexual orientation or gender identity. Pregnancy is a breach of the standard work permit conditions for foreign workers, and the government cancels work permits and requires repatriation of foreign domestic workers who become pregnant.
Section 1, subsection D: Arbitrary arrest or detention
In November authorities detained a 26-year-old construction worker from Bangladesh under the [Internal Security Act] for suspected terrorism-related activities. The worker was reportedly radicalized by online ISIS propaganda, donated funds to a Syria-based organization, shared terrorist propaganda on social media, and intended to undertake armed violence once he returned to Bangladesh, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Early in the year, three Indonesian women held under ISA detention orders in September 2019 for activities in support of the Islamic State were convicted of terrorism financing in normal criminal proceedings. In February, Retno Hernayani and Turmini (one name only) were imprisoned for 18 months and three years and nine months, respectively, while Anindia Afiyantari was sentenced in March to two years in prison. They were the first foreign domestic workers to be detained under the ISA and the first jailed for terrorist financing.
Note: Although it is not stated in the report, the three Indonesian were foreign domestic workers. See this report in the Straits Times dated 12 February 2020.
Section 6, subsection “HIV and Aids social stigma”
HIV-positive foreigners, however, are barred from obtaining work permits, student visas, or immigrant visas.
Section 7, subsection E: Acceptable conditions of work
The majority of foreign domestic workers, mainly from the Philippines and Indonesia, worked under clearly outlined contracts. Any employer of a foreign domestic worker or a member of the employer’s family, if convicted of certain offenses against the worker, such as causing hurt or insulting the modesty of the worker, is liable to a maximum penalty of one and one-half times the mandated penalty when the victim is not a domestic worker. Nevertheless, there were reports of employers abusing or mistreating such workers (see section 7.b.). Throughout the year, the government investigated and sentenced several employers for abuse of their foreign domestic workers. In August a woman was sentenced to 21 months in jail and her husband to four months’ imprisonment for repeatedly abusing their domestic helper.
In September a court sentenced Tan Wee Meng and Lee Chung Ling to two and three months’ imprisonment, respectively, for negligence that endangered the safety of workers and resulted in the death of a Bangladeshi worker in 2017. The government also issued fines and penalties and closed businesses for noncompliance by employees with temporary COVID-19 safe distancing measures.