It certainly sounds like it is. International diplomatic language is known for its stylistic conventions where even the strongest feelings are expressed in relatively mild words. Look at this statement on a webpage of the International labour Organisation (accessed 1 June 2023):

Direct Request on submission to competent authorities (CEACR) – adopted 2021, published 110th ILC session (2022)

Submission. The Committee notes with regret that the Government has yet again not replied to its previous comments. It recalls that the constitutional obligation of submission is of the highest importance and is a fundamental element of the standards system of the ILO. The Committee therefore once again reiterates its request that the Government provide information on the submission to Parliament of the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, and the Forced Labour (Supplementary Measures) Recommendation, 2014 (No. 203), adopted by the Conference at its 103rd Session, the Employment and Decent Work for Peace and Resilience Recommendation, 2017 (No. 205), adopted by the Conference at its 106th Session, as well as the Violence and Harassment Convention (No. 190) and Recommendation (No. 206), 2019, adopted by the Conference at its 108th Session.

(The words in bold were bold in the ILO text; not made so by TWC2.)

This “comment” by ILO seems to be saying that Singapore has not confirmed to the international body whether the named protocols have been submitted to Parliament. We’re not quite sure what “submission” to parliament means, but it seems to suggest incorporation into national law, thereby making it binding on all government agencies.

Action required

What catches our eye is the mention of the 2014 Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention (1930) and the Forced Labour (Supplementary Measures) Recommendation, 2014 (No. 203).

(Below, key phrases have been made red by TWC2 for emphasis.)

A quick look at the 2014 Protocol of the Forced Labour Convention (1930) reveals these clauses:

Article 1, Section 2: Each Member shall develop a national policy and plan of action for the effective and sustained suppression of forced or compulsory labour in consultation with employers’ and workers’ organizations, which shall involve systematic action by the competent authorities and, as appropriate, in coordination with employers’ and workers’ organizations, as well as with other groups concerned.

Article 2(d): protecting persons, particularly migrant workers, from possible abusive and fraudulent practices during the recruitment and placement process;

Article 2(f): addressing the root causes and factors that heighten the risks of forced or compulsory labour.

R203 – Forced Labour (Supplementary Measures) Recommendation, 2014 (No. 203) contains these additional measures:

8: Members should take measures to eliminate abuses and fraudulent practices by labour recruiters and employment agencies, such as:
(a) eliminating the charging of recruitment fees to workers;
(b) requiring transparent contracts that clearly explain terms of employment and conditions of work;
(c) establishing adequate and accessible complaint mechanisms;
(d) imposing adequate penalties; and
(e) regulating or licensing these services.

“Forced labour” is defined by the ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) (Article 2). It covers a wide variety of coercive labour practices where work is extracted from individuals under the threat of penalty. Those subject to forced labour are not free to leave their work and do not offer their labour voluntarily. The ILO has identified 11 core indicators of forced labour, which include withholding of wages and the burden of debt that reduces the freedom to leave exploitative situations.

Forced labour:

A variety of coercive labour practices where work is extracted from individuals under the threat of penalty…. [where workers] are not free to leave their work and do not offer their labour voluntarily.

The penalty

Too many workers in Singapore have to pay high recruitment fees for their jobs. Once paid, often through loans taken out, losing the job becomes a financial disaster. Knowing this, employers are then able to wield the threat of termination to demand acquiescence to unreasonable demands including long hours, working on rest days, and remaining in the job even when salaries are badly delayed or incorrectly paid.

The penalty is augmented by Singapore’s laws that generally require workers whose Work Permits have been cancelled to be repatriated; migrant workers are not normally allowed to go into another job by means of transfer unless their current employer or MOM itself deigns to give them permission to do so. But once repatriated, they may have to rely on intermediaries to find them new jobs, intermediaries who will charge them large sums again. Thus, in a nutshell, the penalty that puts many workers at risk of forced labour springs from:

  1.  High recruitment costs paid by migrant workers;
  2.  Severe restrictions against switching employers.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) may protest that they have laws that control recruitment costs. But these only apply to licensed agencies in Singapore. They tend to take a completely hands-off attitude to charges demanded by overseas intermediaries, even when these overseas intermediaries collect their cut via Singapore parties. MOM also adopts a purely reactive approach, mounting an investigation only when a formal complaint is filed. This approach completely ignores the reality that the cost to the worker of filing a complaint is often prohibitive: loss of his job; no guarantee of a new one via transfer; and the likelihood of having to pay recruiters for any new job.

These are massive reasons why workers would be inhibited from filing complaints, thus for MOM to adopt of policy of only acting on complaints is to consign their regulatory role to near-irrelevance. Such an approach is incongruent with ILO’s call for systemic solutions.

Even when complaints are filed by workers, the outcomes may be far from satisfactory. We have documented at this site cases where investigations have led nowhere, or where MOM itself acted in such a lenient fashion towards employers that for all practical purposes, the message is ‘Go ahead, these abuses are not unacceptable to us.’ (see examples in the minister’s parliamentary reply regarding rest day pay and the series of articles about John Peter’s case, starting from Part 1.)

If we gave workers the freedom to quit and go into a new job without first having to go home and if we facilitated the job switch with a transparent jobs portal, the barriers to reporting employer coercion would be lowered. Workers would feel a wee bit more confident that even if they still had a debt to pay off, they could do so through continued employment in the new job. This is where Singapore’s state-mandated policy refusing to give migrant workers the freedom to change jobs reinforce the evil of high recruitment fees.

It can therefore be argued that far from being merely a situation of neglect, the forced labour risks in Singapore are a product of active government policy.

Singapore wants to be respected as a responsible member of the international community. But Singapore is also addicted to cheap foreign labour and has developed a web of laws, labour practices and administrative “turn-a-blind-eye” habits that ensure migrant workers remain exploited and cheap. We wonder if, indirectly perhaps, ILO may at last be calling Singapore out.