The following is a letter sent to the Straits Times by Ms Stephanie Chok, a volunteer providing help to migrant workers. It is in response to the Ministry of Manpower’s Deputy Director, Ms Julia Ng’s letter to the Straits Times forum. (See below)

The Straits Times has rejected Ms Chok’s letter for publication.

Dear ST Forum,

Ms Ng’s letter aims to counter a remark in an earlier Straits Times article in which Jolovan Wham, Executive Director of H.O.M.E., was quoted as saying ‘foreign workers here are given little real protection’.

Ms Ng stated that foreign workers wage claims are usually resolved before they return home except in exceptional circumstances. The veracity of this statement depends on what Ms Ng means by ‘resolved’. Workers may have accepted settlement terms and agreed to return home, but whether or not the settlement terms equal a fair and just outcome is a different matter. In the past few months, many foreign workers from Bangladesh and China have been repatriated and statements from MOM often claim their cases have been ‘resolved’. Yet it is not always the case that these workers are paid fully what they are owed nor are mediation processes necessarily fair.

While a salary case is pending, workers are generally unable to work and cannot afford to stay in Singapore for too long. When cases drag on, workers tend to grow desperate and, under pressure, agree to ‘settle’ for whatever is given. The alternative, of prolonging their stay with no guarantee of a higher settlement, weighs mediation outcomes heavily towards employers’ interests.

Furthermore, it is not unreasonable to expect workers to be compensated for breach of contracts. Citing ‘impracticality’ and an economic downturn is questionable. A bad economy does not excuse unethical business practices nor flexibility in upholding the law. It must also be pointed out that there have been many cases in which construction workers from China have been fined hefty ‘breach of contract’ fees despite the fact that their contracts have terms less favorable than the Employment Act and should be void. Companies then deduct large sums of money from the workers’ unpaid salaries, citing ‘breach of contract fees’, before repatriating them. In the past few months, MOM has allowed these ‘breach of contract fees’ to be deducted from workers salaries during mediation meetings.. How is it that this is not considered ‘impractical’ in an economic downturn?

It is encouraging to know that the MOM is taking the recent media coverage seriously and is acting to ensure employers uphold the Employment Act. We look forward to greater enforcement of existing laws and prosecution of errant employers so that all workers will be protected. After all, it is not the mere existence of laws that provide protection but its active and consistent enforcement.

Ms. Stephanie Chok Juin Mei


ST Forum, 20 January 2009

Help with foreign workers’ wage claims

I REFER to last Wednesday’s report, ’55 foreign workers get the boot’, in which Jolovan Wham, a migrant worker activist, was quoted as saying that Singapore’s labour laws offer little real protection to foreign workers. He implied that they are unable to seek redress once the workers’ work permits are cancelled.

This is inaccurate. Wage claims of foreign workers are usually resolved before they return to their home countries, except in certain situations such as when the company is being placed under liquidation. In those circumstances, it would take longer to pursue the workers’ wage claims. Nevertheless, as long as foreign workers have lodged their claims with the Ministry of Manpower, their cases will be investigated and pursued, even if they have returned to their home countries. Any money recovered will be remitted to them.

Mr Wham also called for foreign workers to be compensated for the remaining period of their work permits when their employment is terminated. This is impractical as we cannot ignore the reality that in an economic downturn, the demand for workers will fall. This will impact both local and foreign workers.

When employers and workers are unable to settle employment disputes on their own, they should approach the ministry for advice and assistance in seeking a resolution. If workers have wage claims or other complaints, they should report to the ministry early for help to recover their entitlements. Separately, the ministry has stepped up its enforcement action to ensure that employers pay their workers in accordance with their employment contracts and the Employment Act. Employers who have violated the law may face prosecution and debarment from employing foreign workers.

Julia Ng (Ms) 
Deputy Director, Corporate Communications 
for Permanent Secretary 
Ministry of Manpower


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