Chinese workers’ protest: What could have happened?


By Jolovan Wham (HOME)

Holding placards and kneeling in the middle of a road outside the Ministry of Manpower building, two migrant Chinese workers were reportedly arrested for protesting over a dispute involving their recruitment agency. In response to queries from the media, a Ministry of Manpower spokesperson said that the couple had approached them for help in obtaining a refund of fees which was allegedly paid to the agency in China.

The couple wanted the employment agency in Singapore to refund the fees they had paid, but according to the MOM spokesperson, who was quoted by The Straits Times, its officers had explained our laws and regulations to the couple, which they had refused to accept.

In HOME’s experience, most workers often seek refunds of fees when their employment in Singapore has been prematurely terminated and they have not earned enough to recover the cost of their recruitment fees. It is likely that the couple had paid between RMB 25,000 to 40,000 (approximately $5000 to $8000) to the overseas recruiter to find a job here. When things go wrong, the recruiters are often unwilling to refund, or will only refund a fraction of what was paid.

Even though the Straits Times report did not elaborate on the laws and regulations which was explained to the couple by the Ministry of Manpower, it is very likely that they were told it is not possible to hold the local agent accountable for fees which have been paid to an overseas agent as it was outside of Singapore’s jurisdiction.

This is what MOM often tells workers and in statements it makes to the public. While this is true, what is not often said is that large amounts of these fees are usually remitted to the agencies in Singapore as a management fee. A portion of these fees above the legal limit chargeable by agents are pocketed by them or transferred to employers as kickbacks. This was probably why the couple went to the MOM for assistance as they may have believed that such transactions fall within Singapore’s jurisdiction.

However, in the absence of documentary evidence and receipts, it is often difficult for workers to prove that they had been overcharged. Some employment agencies issue receipts which show they have charged workers within the legal limit when they have not. These agencies will arrange for the recruiter in China to remit the money to them via a third party, making it difficult for workers to prove that they have overcharged the workers, or that their employers had benefited from these transactions through kickbacks.

HOME has encountered many cases where workers have been turned away by MOM because they do not have any evidence to show that they have been overcharged by local recruiters. Every year, hundreds of thousands of dollars are transferred through banks and remittance companies to finance this illegal trade. It is not possible for workers to prove that they have paid excessive fees and kickbacks as it is akin to asking a person who receives a bribe to issue a receipt.

If the government wants to tackle this problem effectively, it has to exercise greater oversight on these transactions and expend resources to gather evidence through intelligence. It is unclear if such measures have been taken but given the high incidence of kickbacks and illegal recruitment fees workers typically pay, it is unlikely that much attention is paid to this issue.

In an attempt to inject more transparency to the system, the Ministry of Manpower made it compulsory for agencies to declare how much they charge workers in an In Principle Approval letter (IPA) that is issued to each worker before they arrive. The legal limit is two months of a worker’s salary, but many agencies game the system by under-declaring what they have charged.

Even if workers are able to prove that they had been cheated, MOM is not legally mandated to assist them to recover their fees. In a case which was brought to the attention of the media, factory workers from a Panasonic plant in Singapore managed to successfully record a confession from their agent that they had been overcharged. But the Ministry of Manpower did not assist them to recover the excess amounts that were paid, nor did they take any action against the agent until their plight was publicised in a petition via HOME.

In the next few days, the workers will be charged in court and probably convicted for obstructing traffic, illegal assembly or causing public nuisance, while the real offenders, the recruiters who have cheated them, get away scot free.

This article was first published at HOME’s website

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