By: Kumaran Pillai, Terry Xu & Leo Khaw -
Chen (not her real name) paid S$3600 of her savings to an agent in promise of more money, better life and to escape from the communist regime of China. But now, she has found herself only the short end of the stick. She works for a meagre S$500 a month as a factory hand in Panasonic Singapore which is located in suburban Bedok. There seems to be an awful regret that she has spent her money on a lousy deal. She has learnt the hard way that her life isn’t any better in democratic Singapore either.
Similar to those in the bottom 20% of our general population here, her life in Singapore is down to mere subsistence levels. Her income of S$500 is insufficient to meet her monthly expenditure. She has worked out a frugal budget though, of $300 for food, $250 for rent and S$60 for transportation, which is $110 more than her wage. To supplement her income, her employer has “generously” given out, in the past, additional allowance of S$150 for housing and S$30 for transportation. With a stipend of S$680, her head is just barely above water.
She works hard for the money
Chen has a three year old child and her two elderly parents to support back at home. The $60 surplus is inadequate to meet her total financial needs. She needs to work overtime.
And so, she works up to 100 hours in overtime in order to make about S$1200 a month. This is on top of the 44 hour work week, and she can end up working as many as 72 hours in a typical workweek. There are times when she does double shifts of up to sixteen hours at a stretch to meet the production targets set by the company. Nowadays, this happens at least four times a month.
The Ministry of Manpower guidelines for overtime states, “An employee can be required to work up to 12 hours a day if the employee gives his consent in writing” (here). Chen says that the workers did not give their consent in writing. The employment contract is in English, but according to Chen, no translation was made available for the Mandarin speaking workers.
Chen however, is not overly concerned about the long working hours, she is concerned that the 72 hour limit is too low and that 100 hours of overtime hours are insufficient for her to earn the extras. She is willing to work all her waking hours to make as much as she can.
She is hopeful that hard work and determination can see her through all the hardships. She is hopeful that someday she’ll be able to break out of her poverty cycle. But for now, hope is all she has got.
Chen’s passage to Singapore
Her job agent in Hubei, China made her many promises. He told her that her she could save as much as $1200 a month and that she could become rich in no time if she were to do overtime in Singapore. So, she was asked to buy her own airline ticket and asked to pay S$3600 as agency fees before her passage to Singapore.
Chen was given a contract in Mandarin which said that she was not forced or coerced into signing it and she was going to Singapore on her own free will. She was not aware of her actual employment terms until she started work in Singapore. In fact, her current employment contract with Panasonic is in English and the company has yet to give her a Chinese translation.
When asked if she would consider coming here again, she hesitantly said in Mandarin, “I have to work close to half a year just to earn back the agent fees, of course I would think twice."
Panasonic Singapore Vs Huawel China
There were 14 others we spoke to, who had similar stories to tell. One university graduate lamented about how he was short-changed. One said that China was better, and another said that things were too expensive here. But he also said the people here were cultured and polite.
The university graduate said that Huawei China paid about S$700 – S$800 as basic pay and he could easily make up to $2000 per month doing a similar job in China. He came here thinking that he could land a white collar job and was hoping to make about $3000 a month.
Union warns employees not to speak up
The workers were warned by the Union not to speak-up, negotiate or “create trouble” for the management. They were also told that Singapore government had very strict laws and “action” would be taken against those who spoke up.
Some employees received a pay rise of S$1.00 when they became too “vocal.” Another worker received a more “generous” raise of S$7.00 after working eighteen months here. The workers feel, perhaps justifiably, that the company was merely mocking their requests for better pay.
Assembly work at Panasonic Singapore
We learnt from the workers that Panasonic Singapore does assembly of refrigerators and air-cons which are exported out of Singapore.
They speculated that Panasonic continued operating in Singapore despite the costs, because of labour laws that permitted exploitation of low wage earners and a favourable tax regime.
Is it beneath Singaporeans to work in factories?
Listening to the plight of these workers, it has become apparent to us that these low wage workers are sometimes preferred, because of the lack of support and backing from unions and the industry bodies in Singapore for such workers. A Singaporean worker, on the other hand would probably have better access, though limited and perfunctory, to unions in Singapore.
An MP has said that most Singaporeans do not take these jobs because we Singaporeans are concerned about our dignity and often do not take up menial jobs as we do not want to lose face. Having seen the ruthless exploitation and the wages that Panasonic offers, it makes us wonder if the MP has lost touch with reality and if he seriously wants Singaporeans to work under these conditions.
The way forward
In another TOC article written by Jolovan Wham, “Exploitation of Migrant Workers = Exploitation of Low Wage Local Workers,” he has clearly shown how such exploitation can lead to depressed wage conditions in Singapore.
These foreign workers are taking a big risk by standing up and speaking up against their employer and our system.
Therein lies a lesson for Singaporeans – there are things that we can learn from them – that we will only be able to find solutions to our social ills by surfacing them in the right forums, by standing up against incompetency in whatever form it may be, and by being the agent of change.