The cases of COVID-19 continue to spike in Singapore with the majority of the victims being blue collar migrant workers who, being housed in tightly packed dormitories make easy targets of this contagious disease.
The government has continually stressed to that the contagion is within the ranks of our migrant blue collar workers and that many of the dormitories in which they reside are now locked down, perhaps in a bid to reassure Singaporeans that the pandemic is under control.
Under control or not, images of dirty and squalid migrant worker dormitories have made their way into the international media, causing local and international discomfort and controversy.
In a video aired on 10 April 2020, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (PM Lee) is clearly keen to reassure the concerned public that the government is looking after its migrant blue collar workers.
In his video, he was keen to stress that the government was aware of their plight and was working hard to ensure that they are looked after. Most notably, he said that he felt responsible for their welfare and that the government was working with employers to make sure the migrant workers will be paid their salaries and can remit money home.
While PM Lee may have had good intentions, it must be noted that the advisory on salary and leave arrangements during Circuit Breaker (CB) issued by the Ministry of Manpower to provide for the welfare of the migrant workers is unclear and does provide loopholes for unscrupulous employers to cut the salaries of their workers at a time when they are most vulnerable.
For instance, paragraph 18.b states that employers must continue to be responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of foreign employees who cannot work during CB. It also stipulates that employers must work out a mutually agreed salary and leave arrangements with unions and employees. It specifically states that employers can ask their foreign employees to consume their leave entitlements.
What does “upkeep” and “maintenance” mean? Does it mean substandard food that some workers have been reported? Does it mean accommodation overrun with rubbish and vermin? What does “mutually agreed” salary mean? Also, is it fair to essentially pressure workers to take leave entitlement over a pandemic that is not of their making?
Paragraph 18 goes on to provide an example of how a “responsible employer” can pay a foreign employee earning $600 per month and residing in a dormitory $450 as salary and also for his food and accommodation during CB.
It, however, negates to to mention that the foreign employee in this example would forego his work-related allowances, such as his transport and shift allowances of $400 per month. That is a significant chunk of his pay cheque to forgo from a pay cheque that is already small from the outset.
In other words, the MOM advisory is advocating a 25 % pay cut on top of forgoing $400 of allowances. In other words, this could amount to cutting more than half their salaries which are already very low to begin with.
And what about workers on temporary contracts? What happens to them?
So when one delves into the details, is PM Lee accurate in saying that the government is working with employers to make sure that migrant workers will be paid their salaries?