No Systemic Abuse of Foreign Workers?

By Jolovan Wham

“There is no basis for allegations of widespread and systemic abuse of foreign workers in Singapore”, declared Tan Chuan Jin, our Minister of Manpower in a Parliament sitting on Monday. To back this up, he pointed to figures showing that the Ministry had helped some 7000 migrant workers with difficulties, or less than 1% of the 700,000 work permit holders (excluding domestic workers) last year. He also said that NGOs only referred 640 cases of mistreatment, or less than 0.1 percent of work permit holders. ‘I therefore find it puzzling as to how some individuals can so quickly conclude or criticize that there is widespread and systemic abuse of the foreign workforce; or that these were the reasons for the riot.’

As the government does not reveal detailed, disaggregated data on the number of complaints filed and the number of penalties meted out for employment violations, it is difficult to assess the extent to which migrant workers are exploited and how firm the government is in dealing with abusive employers. Last month, Tan Chuan Jin said his Ministry only received approximately 3000 employment related complaints from migrant workers; therefore, unhappiness with working conditions was not widespread. At a forum organised by Maruah last month, I pointed out how unreliable that figure was, and how no mention was made of the number of complaints filed and those which had been accepted as valid. I left these comments on MOM’s and Tan Chuan Jin’s facebook wall. Complaints may not be accepted by the Ministry because it does not fall within its statutory ambit. But does this make the claim any less legitimate? For example, if a worker is aggrieved about his/her low salary, would the Ministry take up his/her case since we do not have laws which provide wage protection?

At yesterday’s parliament sitting, Minister Tan revealed a new figure which was a significant departure from what was cited previously last month. This time the number of complaints received was 7000, rather than 3000 for the same time period. The Ministry also attempted to categorise the nature of the complaints. But how accurate is this, since it appears as if the figures can change, depending on which criteria is used? If the question was asked again, would we see a different figure? In evaluating the statistics, we also need to take into consideration that many workers are afraid of filing complaints for fear of losing their jobs and becoming blacklisted by the Ministry. Through the NGO’s interviews and experience assisting thousands of them over the years, these problems can be linked to inadequacies in current policies, employment practices and the enforcement of existing laws. Therefore, there are grounds to conclude that many of these problems are systemic in nature.

For example, workers awaiting work injury compensation payouts often face frustrating delays in receiving medical treatment, medical leave wages, as well as food and lodging. Workers who have “agreed” to employers withholding salaries are also told by ministry officials during mediations, that, since they had agreed to these conditions, they should abide by them. This is despite the fact that the Employment Act stipulates such “agreements” are illegal. Other policies which point to systemic abuse are the security bond policy which results in workers’ movements being restricted and their passports being confiscated; inadequate wage protection which lead to workers earning slavery-like wages below $2 per hour; dismissals for which there are limited mechanisms for redress, and restrictions on job mobility which encourage human trafficking and forced labour.

The Minister’s speech, which was reported in the Straits Times today, also said that ‘Some NGOs had claimed that the abuse of foreign workers was a cause of the violence’. The Minister did not say which NGOs had made these allegations but as far as I know, the local migrant rights groups have not speculated on the causes of the riot, nor have they linked it to the abuse and exploitation of workers. He also voiced unhappiness that some ‘individuals’ who are representatives of the NGOs ‘have hit out at the government’, and quickly adds that these are views which may not necessarily reflect those of the NGOs themselves. By framing his comments in this way Tan Chuan Jin is attempting to portray individuals, such as myself or Alex Au on his blog Yawning Bread, as unreasonable critics of the regime who do not have the support of the NGOs.

But NGOs may not take highly critical positions on policy matters because they fear alienating the government too much, or losing the support of funders, and not because they do not wish to demand government accountability. We saw this happen with Nizam Ismail of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) when two government ministers told the AMP President that funding for their programmes may be withdrawn if he took part in the Population White Paper protest at Hong Lim Park. The ministers were also said to be concerned about Nizam’s participation as a panelist at a seminar organised by the Workers’ Party and his criticism of government policies on social media. According to a Yahoo! report, Nizam was told to “take it easy” and decline participation from such activities, or else, the government would withdraw all funding from AMP. (story)

Similar veiled threats were made to HOME during the financial crisis of 2008 when hundreds of Bangladeshi workers were laid off, and when I publicized a petition signed by over a hundred Panasonic factory workers demanding better working conditions in 2012. The migrant rights NGOs were also summoned to a meeting with government officials for a ‘pep talk’ just days before the launch of the day off campaign for migrant domestic workers.

Even former top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow had to retract his criticism of the government and the PAP in an interview with SMA magazine, after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed concerns about his comments.

Tan Chuan Jin’s anxiety to correct perceptions that migrant workers are not systemically exploited is not corroborated by NGO activists and those workers who have been failed by his Ministry’s policies. He is quick to defend his officers from criticism and has publicly stated that his officers work very hard. I do not deny that there are officers who are dedicated and conscientious in carrying out their duties. But this does not mean that we should overlook policies which encourage abuse and exploitation. Instead of citing Ministry commissioned surveys about how happy migrant workers are, the riot should be an opportunity for his government to seriously review how our immigration, social welfare and labour policies have failed to provide protection to workers who have fallen through the cracks.


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