By Jolovan Wham
Last week, 40-year-old Singapore Permanent Resident (PR), Sheng Jianzhong, the Managing Director of Sheng Yu Construction Builders Pte Ltd was sentenced to three weeks’ imprisonment and fined $169,000 in the State Courts. He admitted to 38 charges of receiving kickbacks from 24 foreign workers, amounting to a total of $85,380.
The worker in this case was able to file a complaint because the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) assisted by guiding him in gathering important evidence. This allowed Ministry of Manpower (MOM) investigators to pursue the lead provided by the worker and crack the case eventually.
However, the case against Shengyu Construction Builders was brought to the Ministry of Manpower’s attention in December 2012 and the conviction happened only in April this year, almost two and a half years after the complaint was filed.The key informant of the case had to remain behind in Singapore for more than one and a half years before he was allowed to return home.
In another case involving kickbacks, Indian worker Raju Kumar* filed a complaint against a construction company in March last year for demanding one thousand dollars to renew his work permit.
Video of the kickback case, submitted to MOM by TOC. No replies were recieved from MOM about this case
Till now, there is no news if the company will be charged in court, and the worker is not kept abreast of the developments of the case. Will this case drag on for two and a half years, just like the latest conviction against Shengyu Construction? At one point, Raju Kumar struggled to survive and provide for his family because of the difficulties trying to obtain employment under MOM’s Temporary Job Scheme (TJS) for prosecution witnesses.
Long investigation periods are not unusual and some workers have been known to wait up to 4 years before they are allowed to return to their countries. While there are no official figures on how long it takes for a case to be brought to court, such problems have been persisting for several years already.
A four year wait for some
HOME met and assisted an Indian worker in 2009, Mr Somasuntharan, four years after he filed a complaint in 2005 with the Ministry of Manpower when his ex-employer did not pay foreign worker levies, and illegally deployed him to work in a sector not approved by the MOM.
When he finally went back to India after a brief stay at HOME’s shelter, he did not receive a single cent. It was also not known whether his ex-employer was convicted because the government has no statutory obligation to reveal such information.
Similarly, The Sunday Times told the story of one Indonesian domestic worker Ms Lilis Sriyatun, who went home last year after her employer was convicted of hitting her with a bamboo pole, hitting her with a hot spoon and poking her with a sewing needle. The employer was convicted of a $15,000 fine (on account of her mental illness), but not after having waited more than four years after lodging her police report.
While many cases involving MOM and the police seen by HOME do not take four years to be resolved, investigation periods of more than a year and up to two years still happen.
Maria Luisa Cuizon, 42, was recruited as a domestic worker, but was deployed by her employer to work in a restaurant.She slaved away for 17 hours a day, with no day off or holiday for more than four years.
She earned $400 a month, but the employer stopped paying her midway through because of financial difficulty. Ms Cuizon continued working for him, hoping to be paid later. The employer refused, even after she begged him for $150 for her son’s graduation in the Philippines. She told us this went on for more than a year and the employer ended up owing her thousands of dollars.
Finally, she sought help from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in March 2013. But she had to wait for almost one and a half years before the case was resolved and she could be re-united with her family. In the end, HOME had to raise money for her or she would have returned without a cent.
What is being done?
Long periods of investigation are issues which some in the government have acknowledged and are trying to resolve. The AGC has established a task force to look into speeding up cases so that convictions do not face unwarranted delays. This was after The Sunday Times wrote a story about several physically and sexually abused domestic workers who were waiting up to four years for their cases to be brought to court.
Chief Prosecutor Tai Wei Shyong said this year that Attorney-General V.K. Rajah had formed an internal working group to focus on improving court processes involving abused foreign workers. He said it would work closely with enforcement agencies and other parties, such as embassies and hospitals, to secure medical reports and witness statements more quickly. He also said the AGC would try to persuade the courts to fix early hearing dates.
However, it remains to be seen if there will be any significant improvements.
Is the influx of migrant workers causing this?
The Commissioner of Police, Mr Ng Joo Hee himself admitted during the Little India Committee of Inquiry hearings in 2014 that he faced a significant shortage of ground officers to deal with complaints and criminal investigations. He was reported by The Straits Times to have said that officers are already overstretched, working 12 hour shifts. He added that a key reason for the manpower crunch in the force is because its ranks have not kept pace with Singapore's population growth over the years.He said “efforts to maintain law and order in Little India and Geylang have already stretched police resources to near breaking point.”
Even though the Ministry of Manpower has not revealed whether the influx of migrant workers has stretched its enforcement capabilities, it would not be surprising if this was so since both the AGC and the Police are facing similar problems. Not only do MOM officers have to spend hours interviewing workers, they have to make field visits to work sites, interview employers, assist affected workers to find jobs, help them to claim their salaries and ensure they have housing, food and adequate social support.
The enactment of the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act and the Foreign Employees Dormitory Act has also placed additional burdens on MOM officers because more enforcement work has to be done. Are there enough of them for this? When cases can take two years or more to conclude, does it suggest that the Ministry needs more capacity to take on additional enforcement responsibilities?
Available evidence seems to suggest that there is a backlog of cases either at the Ministry of Manpower or at the courts. Between 2013 and last year, MOM revealed to The Straits Times that it had 190 substantiated cases involving kickback contraventions but was only able to convict 15 last year and 17 in 2013. This means only 17% of these cases were prosecuted. Why is it taking so long for the rest of the 83% to be brought to justice? Could the sheer number of cases have caused a backlog in the courts, or at the Ministry of Manpower, that it takes such a long time for a case to be prosecuted?
Access to Justice
The shortage of human resources to deal with cases expeditiously will inevitably result not just in longer investigations periods and waiting times for victims but also in poorer service: many migrant workers have complained to HOME and other NGOs about officers who are rude, verbally abusive and discouraging when they wish to file complaints.
Reporting claims for investigations is risky for many migrant workers because they are not guaranteed employment, nor are they compensated for the wrongs done against them. There is little reason for them to cooperate with the authorities. When these investigations take a long time, it is a further disincentive for them to remain behind to see that perpetrators are brought to justice.
*Not his real name