The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) should issue “clear directives” in relation to its general statements regarding the welfare of migrant workers in Singapore during the COVID-19 pandemic, said migrant labour rights non-profit organisation Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).
In a statement on Thu, TWC2 said while MOM’s efforts to “protect the rights and welfare of work permit holders stuck in the quarantined dormitories” are “commendable”, the ministry should also take into account “variation in employer attitudes and individual circumstances”.
“While TWC2 believes that most employers will try to do their best by their employees, we must be alert to ambiguities or loopholes that can be exploited by less scrupulous employers,” said TWC2.
Citing a report by TODAY–which quoted Manpower Minister Josephine Teo’s statement about how affected workers will continue to receive their salaries during quarantine, as the period is treated as paid hospitalisation leave–TWC2 pointed out that the Employment Act suggests otherwise.
“By TWC2’s reading of the statute, the Employment Act doesn’t actually provide for quarantine to be treated as paid hospitalisation leave; it is going to need an emergency directive or by-law to put intent into effect so that the Employment Claims Tribunal can rule accordingly should there be dispute in future,” the organisation highlighted.
TWC2 added that an employee is only entitled to paid hospitalisation leave if he has completed three months of service.
“Newly-joined employees may be left high and dry during this isolation period in the dorms. Many would have paid substantial recruitment fees to get their jobs and, like so many migrant workers, be on low salaries.
“It would mean extreme hardship for them to be ineligible for paid hospitalisation leave, and this gap must be closed,” warned the organisation.
“Thus, general statements by MOM ought to be hardened into specific directives with the force of law so that less scrupulous employers cannot take advantage of ambiguities,” said TWC2.
Such directives, said the group, can take the form of outlining that the entitlement to salary on the basis of hospitalisation leave should be applicable to all employees regardless of the length of service, and ensuring that meals catered to quarantined dorms should not be charged to workers.
MOM should assist employers in paying workers’ salaries for March this year even if workers are “stuck in quarantined dorms”: TWC2
MOM, said TWC2, should also assist employers who have not yet paid their workers’ salaries for March this year to do so immediately “even if workers are stuck in quarantined dorms”.
“Some employers have a habit of including all manner of deductions, outside of contractual terms. In these times when employers face a downturn, there will be temptation to apply deductions to reduce payroll costs,” said TWC2, noting that “a minority of employers pay salaries in cash”.
“Quite often, they pay the previous month’s wages around the 7th day of the following month. Since the dorms were locked down a little before the 7th of April, we are concerned that some workers have not received their March salaries.
“Their employers, not having set up GIRO payment arrangements earlier, will need help to get salaries to the workers stuck in the dorms,” the organisation added.
TWC2 also criticised the omission of migrant workers from the financial relief provided for in the supplementary Solidarity Budget–in reference to the 75 per cent wage subsidy for workers with a S$4,600 monthly salary cap–given how migrant workers make up “a third” of Singapore’s workforce.
“Foreign employees are just as vital for Singapore. They are here precisely because we need them, or they have skills that not enough Singaporeans have.
“Even low-wage workers would have acquired skills and experience through their years of working here, and they tend to do the jobs that no Singaporean wants to do.
“To lose them because their employers did not get enough support through this period would handicap these employers when times improve, for they would then find that they do not have the experienced workers they need to resume business at full throttle,” said TWC2.
TWC2 also called on the government to mandate that at least 70 per cent of the S$100 support for each quarantined worker “must reach the employee in monetary form”.
“Ideally, the government should pay out directly to the worker, leaving a balance of $30 to be claimed by the employer, but we recognise that there may be logistical difficulties as the government may have no record of foreign workers’ bank accounts, or the workers themselves have no bank accounts because their employers discouraged them from opening one.
“But the general principle that at least $70 should go to the worker in a monetary form (i.e. not in-kind) should underpin how this subsidy is to be used,” said TWC2.
MOM should also require employers to pay out a special “hardship” allowance as a salary top-up, up to S$70 per day before the employer can claim the balance S$30, the organisation suggested.
“$30 per quarantined employee per day is more than enough to defray an employer’s costs. It would be morally repugnant if we did not insist that at least $70 be directly given to the employee,” said TWC2.
MOM should allow migrant workers holding Special Passes to stay longer, take up employment in other sectors: TWC2
The Ministry, according to the organisation, should also allow retrenched migrant workers “to stay longer and given the option to find new jobs, even in sectors outside their usual line of work”.
This particularly applies to holders of Special Passes who are “particularly vulnerable” during this period, said TWC2.
Workers holding such passes are typically migrant workers who have filed cases over salary or work injury claims, and whose work permits have been cancelled by their employers as a result of the conflict in their relationship or redundancy.
“Being on Special Passes, they are no longer employees of their former employers, and MOM’s assurances that salaries should continue to be paid through the quarantine period are thus irrelevant to them.
“No doubt it would have been true even in normal times that they would not be entitled to salary, but in the current situation, we expect salary mediation sessions or Employment Claims Tribunal conferences and hearings to be delayed. Being under quarantine, they cannot attend anyway. Therefore, the effect of the lockdown would be to prolong the in-limbo status of many salary claimants,” said TWC2.
Hospital appointments may be pushed back for workers on Special Passes with ongoing work injury claims.
Workers in such situations “cannot go see the doctor if they’re in quarantine — and their compensation claims may therefore take longer to resolve”, said the organisation.
“For both groups, with air routes largely shut down, even when cases are resolved, repatriation may be delayed, adding to a long and uncertain wait,” TWC2 stressed.
The organisation encouraged MOM to allow Special Pass holders to take up employment in sectors other than that in which they were originally employed.
“Even in the midst of a pandemic, and even when construction or some sectors slow down, there are other sectors in great need of more workers, e.g. cleaning and sanitisation, hospital laundry, food delivery, etc.
“MOM should be liberal about inter-sector movements of migrant workers and laid-off workers should be given the option of taking up work in the sectors with an increased need for labour,” said TWC2.
The organisation also urged MOM to provide some “compassionate allowance of a few hundred dollars each” to Special Pass holders to compensate for an “extended in-limbo status”, given their dire financial status as a result of not receiving their salaries in the meantime.
MOM should urgently increase testing capacity for migrant workers residing in all dormitories: TWC2
Noting the high risk present in quarantining entire dormitories housing migrant workers on such a massive scale, TWC2 called upon the Government to heighten the capacity for COVID-19 testing, and to not only test workers in the three gazetted dormitories but those residing in other dorms as well.
“We urge a massive increase in testing capacity. All 24,000 workers should be tested and the population in dorms – not just the three quarantined one, but all dorms – should be thinned out to enable physical distancing,” said TWC2.
Referencing a report by The Straits Times on Mon (6 Apr), which stated that the current COVID-19 testing rates have stepped up to nearly 2,900 per day, TWC2 posited that even if Singapore “devoted all testing to just the workers in the three dorms, it would take us 8 – 9 days to test all 24,000 workers”.
“We will always be behind the curve at such an inadequate testing rate,” said the organisation.
Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME)–another NGO focused on migrant workers’ rights–on Mon (6 Apr) similarly urged the Government to conduct wide-scale testing of migrant workers in accommodation with confirmed infections.
Highlighting that the high density of residents in such dormitories — coupled with the asymptomatic transmissibility of COVID-19 — may result in a new cluster of infections, HOME expressed its concerns regarding “recent cases where employers not only refused to cover workers’ medical expenses but also discouraged or even punished workers for seeing a doctor when unwell”.
“Unsurprisingly, workers usually see a doctor only when their symptoms are sustained or more serious. Workers’ poor access to timely medical care means those infected may go undetected until much later: lengthening the period that the virus may be transmitted.
“Keeping them in such living conditions creates systemic vulnerabilities waiting to erupt. This endangers the workers and the broader community: not only during pandemics, but even with smaller-scale disease outbreak such as TB,” the organisation warned.
“Singapore has benefited so much from enjoying the fruit of their labour while keeping their cost low. We owe it to them and their families to spare no effort to protect them,” said HOME.
While TWC2 acknowledged that relocating around 100,000 workers “is no doubt a daunting task”, the organisation said that the Singapore Government “is famed for commandeering resources to meet big challenges”.
The Government, said TWC2, should “fit out empty buildings” such as “abandoned HDB or other structures waiting to be demolished”, construct makeshift accommodations on empty land or car parks, or utilise army barracks and hotels.
Separately on Tue (7 Apr), the Ministry of National Development told ST that 21 vacant Housing Board blocks in Bukit Merah are being refurbished to house healthy foreign workers working in essential services.
Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sam Tan told residents in a notice a day prior that the dormitories of the workers who will be occupying the vacant HDB blocks in Bukit Merah have not been spared from COVID-19.
Housing them separately, said Mr Tan, will “keep them safe from the disease, which will in turn keep us safe when they are working in our midst”.