The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) said that adequate protection for migrant workers is needed to prevent abuse and exploited, if Singapore wishes to properly appreciated and acknowledge their contributions, as recommended in the Committee of Inquiry’s (COI) summary report on the Little India riot in December 2013.
The COI report, while noting that “foreign workers’ employment and living conditions in Singapore… were not the cause of the riot”, indicated that “we must be on guard for any deterioration in this situation”.
The COI also identified six areas of concern, which were the legal rights and protection of foreign workers, high fees charged by foreign employment agencies, employment processes, sensitivity when dealing with foreign workers, the involvement of employers and community support groups, and improvements to their accommodation. Jolovan Wham, executive director of HOME, raised concerns about a number of these recommendations in a statement issued to media.
On the issue of agency fees, Mr Wham said that “Singapore should only approve the work permits of workers who have gone through legal recruitment channels in countries of origin.” The high fees that are charged by agencies at countries of origin were mostly and often remitted to employers and recruiters based in Singapore as kickbacks, the NGO charged. “More oversight and enforcement in this area is needed in Singapore as the problem does not only reside in the country of origin.”
The COI has indicated that “MOM regulates the fees charged by employment agents in Singapore, but is not able to do the same with agents registered overseas.” Nevertheless, it “hopes that something can be done, perhaps on a bilateral basis, to improve this situation for foreign workers.”
To resolve the issue of agency fees, the COI also recommended that “MOM could consider working with employer associations to encourage annual increments as a norm in the industry.”
In response, Mr Wham said that it will not be effective without legislation or a change in mindset among employers, and “legal protections should be enacted to prevent wage discrimination by nationality.”
“Moreover, current policies such as high foreign worker levies are a disincentive for employers to increase their wages,” said Mr Wham. “Levies can go up to S$1,000 for each foreign worker hired. Many employers are already recovering the cost of levies by collecting kickbacks from workers.”
“The National Wages Council should also state explicitly in their annual report on wage increases that their recommendations also include foreign workers in order to send a strong signal to all employers to take the wage increments of their low wage migrant employees seriously.”
HOME also took issue with the COI’s view on the adequacy of foreign worker housing. “According to media reports, there are approximately 150,000 bed spaces in such dormitories out of over 700,000 low wage migrant workers in Singapore, excluding domestic workers,” said Mr Wham. “Large numbers of workers continue to live in cargo containers, factory converted dormitories, shop houses, private apartments, HDB flats and temporary work sites facilities, including incomplete buildings under construction.
“These places are often cramped, unhygienic and full of pests. Their living conditions still fall short of international housing standards.”
HOME also indicated that, in encouraging better awareness of employment processes, it is “vital that policies and laws which make it difficult to claim (workers) rights be changed.” Citing the unilateral right of an employer to cancel work permits, Mr Wham believe that this “needs to be curbed and the worker’s right to switch employers freely has to be guaranteed. Without these changes, workers will remain reluctant to file cases of abuse.”
HOME agreed with the COI’s recommendations that law enforcement officers need more training on sensitivity towards migrant workers, saying the NGO has heard cases where government officials have been rude to workers. “We also urge for these recommendations to be extended to employers, as many of cases of ill treatment and verbal abuse are often caused by errant employers.”
The COI had suggested that “staff who have to frequently interact with foreign workers – bus drivers, timekeepers, APOs, and even SPF officers – should be given some basic training in cultural sensitivity and an appreciation of the role that foreign workers play in Singapore.”
HOME also agreed with the COI’s call for more resources to be given to establish welfare groups and support communities for migrant workers, which the COI has said “can be done through engaging the help of NGOs and
community volunteers concerned about foreign worker issues.”
“Working abroad in new surroundings can be very stressful for many migrant workers and adequate social support is necessary,” said Mr Wham. “In addition, there is an important need for independent representation of workers by unions in order for their interests to be effectively promoted, as only 11% of all foreign workers are unionised.”