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Dr Vincent Wijeysingha responds to BG (NS) Tan Chuan Jin

On 13 July 2011, Brigadier-General (NS) Tan Chuan Jin posted 'Protecting Workers' on his Facebook page. The following is a response from Dr Vincent Wijeysingha, Executive Director of migrant workers NGO Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).

We at Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a charity working with low-waged migrant workers, welcome the comments of Ministry of Manpower (MOM) Minister of State Tan Chuan Jin and the commitment to “look after all workers and this includes Foreign Workers (FW)”.

The state of labour laws improved tremendously with the enactment of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act in 1990 (EFMA), largely in response to the large numbers of Foreign Domestic Workers (FDW) immigrating to Singapore when the government began encouraging Singapore women into the workforce commensurate with its 2nd Industrial Revolution policy in 1983. Since then, there have been further amendments to this statute, the Employment Act, Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) and other statutes that cover workers.

Prior to that, employment law was contained in the Employment Act of 1968 (EA). There are several deficiencies in that Act, including the lack of a proper process of re-training and mentoring before an employer can arbitrarily sack an employee, and the fact that this Act does not cover domestic workers (whether foreign or local) or seafarers. FDWs are covered by the EFMA whose provisions are less extensive than those of the EA. Hence FDWs are not protected by overtime payments, mandatory rest periods, notice periods, and other basic labour amenities. Furthermore, they are not covered by the protections of the WICA and are dependent on very limited insurance coverage.

Seafarers (ie trawler fishermen and the like), on the other hand, are not covered by any legislation, and at TWC2 we have worked with seafarers who experience extreme deprivations of timely salary payments; basic needs such as food, adequate rest or proper accommodation; or the right to terminate a contract midway.

Nevertheless, the state of the law has improved significantly in the last 20 years. Despite this, the quality of service provided to aggrieved, cheated, exploited or abused foreign workers is far from adequate. While MOM officers seek to fulfill their duties, their grasp of the legislation is inadequate for the vast range of exploitative methods employers use to cheat their employees. The limited number of officers deployed at MOM means that each officer is manifestly snowed under with cases and can only provide the most cursory attention to individual complainants.

This is not particular to foreign workers as local workers also complain of poor service at MOM counters, but foreign workers have the added indignity of being routinely shouted at, turned away despite having a legitimate claim, and given the wrong advice, which is then overturned when an appeal is made to a higher officer. Unfortunately, for these resource reasons, MOM officers do not, as the Minister understands, “pay close attention to every case they receive”. I have been advised by MOM’s Service Quality Manager that MOM is facing a staffing shortage, hence resulting in the lack of a timely and adequate service.

It is helpful that Minister Tan has given us some statistics of his ministry’s performance. MOM consistently refuses to publish data on the number of complaints it receives from foreign workers; complaints broken down by sector, gender, nationality and age; as well as overall figures on the number of foreign workers in Singapore similarly broken down.

It would be helpful for his ministry to clarify exactly how much is meant by “Most FWs will have their cases attended to within 2 weeks of case registration”. Furthermore, case registration often does not occur when the foreign worker first presents at MOM – we have assisted on many cases where the worker is initially turned away with manifestly wrong advice on whether the worker has a claim or whether what the employer did was illegal, and the case is only formally opened when a formal appeal is made to a higher officer of at least Deputy Director level.

I would also like to request Minister Tan to clarify what percentage of the “90% of employment disputes lodged by all workers were resolved through mediation within 6 weeks upon the Ministry’s intervention” involved foreign workers versus local workers. It is not clear why, in a note dealing with foreign workers, Minister Tan gives us the percentage of mediation success for all rather than only foreign workers. Could it be because the figure for foreign workers alone would be of a far higher percentage than the overall figure?

Unfortunately, I would also query whether the Migrant Workers Centre (MWC) is as effective in providing “humanitarian assistance such as food and lodging to those who require it” as he asserts. In every single case that TWC2 has referred to MWC, accommodation has not been provided to the worker. Usually MWC would simply contact the employer and request him to continue providing accommodation to the worker, even though the worker has a well-founded fear of returning to the employer because the employer has previously threatened him with assault or with the use of a repatriation company to forcibly repatriate him so that he cannot prosecute his claim.

In fact, in one case which TWC2 rendered assistance, MWC insisted on sending the worker back to his employer even though we warned that a repatriation company would be deployed: in the event a repatriation company was used to lock the worker up so he would be prevented from lodging his case. It pains me to say this because MWC staff, while hardworking and dedicated, are hampered by departmental policy, but in every single case where a worker had contacted MWC prior to contacting us, their impression of MWC was uniformly negative.

I welcome Minister Tan’s account of the raiding of the dormitory in Woodlands Industrial Part E1. The Straits Times recently reported on 2 employers who were fined heavily for not ensuring the quality of dormitory accommodation they had rented from a third party. These initiatives are to be strongly welcomed and they represent a start to addressing the problems. However, while the “article circulating on repatriation companies that ‘lock up’ workers” may well “reflect an incident in Jan 2009”, I can categorically tell the Minister that repatriation companies continue to operate widely with the police regularly declining to investigate the complaint of wrongful restraint and wrongful confinement under Sections 339 and 340 of the Penal Code. In fact in the last 3 weeks alone, I worked on a case where three Bangladeshi workers were threatened with the use of a repatriation company (after they had been assaulted with metal chains by their employer) and in a case 2 weekends ago, 2 workers were forcibly send to the airport by a repatriation company.

In this regard, I would also note that the police have shown a less than enthusiastic willingness to investigate criminal complaints brought by foreign workers. In another case that I personally worked on 2 weeks ago, a foreign domestic worker who had been threatened with the most horrific threats of abduction, confinement, rape, and assaults of her and her family, was told by the police that these did not constitute criminal intimidation under Section 503 of the Penal Code. I would request Minister Tan to identify the case where a repatriation company has been investigated and prosecuted; it is not within my knowledge that any have been, but I would welcome being proved wrong.

It is furthermore incorrect to say that “we have given HOME/TWC2 the contact numbers of our staff”. It would be more accurate to say that numbers have been exchanged after some several years of painstaking relationship building by the NGOs. It is true that MOM responded to two cases involving a repatriation company last year but while no complaints have been received this year, this is not indicative of their non-use but more that the NGOs have managed to intervene and obtain the release of the worker.

It is heartening too that in 2010, a staff member of a repatriation company was jailed for causing hurt. However, one staff member out of a total of at least 5 repatriation companies known to still operate after many years feedback from the NGOs to MHA and MOM is not an admirable record. The NGOs have repeatedly called for the repatriation companies to be closed down because they serve no purpose than to forcibly send workers out of Singapore who have a legitimate claim against their employer.

While it is to be welcomed that MOM, in the person of its Minister of State, is reiterating its commitment to the welfare of workers, I must request Minister Tan to inquire further into the processes of his departments. We have worked on numerous cases where the worker was given 24 hours notice of both termination and repatriation and upon complaint to MOM, the officer found this to be in order and advised the worker to go home, even when the worker claimed that an existing salary dispute was in existence. In recent days, I also worked on a case where a worker was offered less than half of what was owed to him and his MOM officer during the mediation session advised him to accept this since recourse to the Commissioner for Labour would take two long.

Minister Tan is correct when he says that workers who complain of an abuse at the airport are directed to MOM. This is an example of very good inter-departmental collaboration which I have personally experienced when dealing with casework. It reduces the occurrence of NGO social workers, as well as migrant workers, being threatened and abused at the airport. However, Minister Tan neglects to mention that this is an outcome not only of his ministry’s work but also after long persuasion from the NGOs and initial great reluctance on the part of the MOM and MHA to intervene.

I welcome Minister Tan’s final statement that “MOM is committed to seek a fair resolution to these issues.” However, as my comments identify, there are many challenges yet besetting our labour migration policy and I would welcome, as a starting point, the following:

1. An inter-ministry standing committee of decision-making capability consisting of MOM, MHA, MCYS, MOH and MFA to study the problems of labour migration and offer solutions.
2. Bringing all workers under the protections of the Employment Act and the Work Injury Compensation Act.
3. Increasing the staffing at MOM to ensure that officers are not overworked and can provide an adequate service to all complainants.
4. Outlaw all repatriation companies.
5. Produce a more detailed pamphlet on labour legal rights in all labour sending country languages to be distributed to every migrant worker who arrives in Singapore.
6. Establish an information desk staffed by social work-trained personnel at all ports to enable workers to raise their concerns when leaving.
7. Establish mandatory welfare inspection of all companies and individuals employing foreign workers with private access by the welfare inspectors to the workers.