The dormitories are not the problem as migrant workers are more anxious about salary-related issues and food, remarked Alex Au, Vice President of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).
Mr Au was one of the panelists in the webinar titled ‘Labour Day Special Webinar – Migrant Workers and the Pandemic in Singapore’ which was organised by MARUAH, a human-rights non-government organisation, in conjunction with the International Labour Day on 1 May.
Among the topics that Mr Au highlighted in the webinar were the issues raised by migrant workers before and during the emergence of the coronavirus outbreak; and surprisingly, none of the issues touched on their living conditions in the dormitories.
“The interesting thing is that in the same period when all of Singapore was talking about dorms and dorms, the workers were not bringing the topic up in conversation with us. They were the people experiencing the lock-down inside dorms, confined to their rooms for 20 – 22 hours a day, in stifling crowded conditions, but it doesn’t really come up when they call or message us,” he hinted.
Issues raised by migrant workers in pre-COVID times
In pre-COVID times, migrant workers raised the issue about their salary – non-paid salary, short-payment salary, unpaid medical leave wages, and unreasonable salary deductions – exorbitant agents’ fees, misinterpretation of terms of employment, payments demanded for work permits renewal, premature termination, and access to medical care, food, and housing.
According to Mr Au, the issue of housing was typically brought up by Special Pass holders who lost their jobs when their work permits were cancelled by their employers. Following the cases of salary or injury claim that they made against their employers, these Special Pass holders were allowed to stay in Singapore until the case is settled.
Looking at the cases of unpaid salary and injury claims, Mr Au indicated that the relationship between the workers and employers is one of the conflicts. Nevertheless, by law, employers are still required to provide housing for migrant workers.
“The State doesn’t see it as its responsibility to do so. But one can surmise that if the relationship is one of conflict, or if the company is close to bankrupt — one reason why it hasn’t paid wages in a while, thus triggering a salary claim from employees — the company would be extremely reluctant or unable to provide. Thus the housing problems that Special Pass holders face.”
Migrant workers rarely complain about the dormitories to avoid losing jobs
Although the migrant workers rarely complain about their dormitories, this should not be inferred that they are happy with it, Mr Au remarked.
“When we start to ask what they think of their dorm accommodation, it’s a mix of answers, some quite positive, others very negative,” he added.
Mr Au noticed that there was an “air of resignation” when he questioned them about their dormitories. He said the migrant workers are acutely aware that raising the dormitories issue to their employers might risk their jobs, thus they rather put up with the situation to continue providing for their families.
Issues raised by migrant workers during the outbreak
When the outbreak escalated within the migrant workers’ population, the TWC2 has been receiving some issues from the migrant workers in the last four weeks which are mostly salary-related issues.
“Other issues, such as exorbitant agents’ fees have not gone away, but in the present situation, they are not as urgent as getting paid for March and April,” Mr Au stated.
He added that the migrant workers have misinterpreted the S$750 levy rebate by the Government for the employers. Previously, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has advised employers that the money should go towards the “upkeep and maintenance” of employees, but migrant workers thought that the $750 should go directly to them in cash.
“I won’t go further into this since it is outside the scope of this talk,” noted Mr Au.
Another issue raised by migrant workers during the outbreak is food. The migrant workers are now being served with catered food as many dormitories have been gazetted by the Government to contain the virus.
He hinted that the workers complained about the food quality, cultural suitability, and portion size of the food. However, he asserted that the situation varies widely from dormitories to dormitories, and even from week to week.
“The complaints may be coming from only some dorms, or some company employees, probably related to management issues of the meals supply chain in those particular dorms or companies.”
Proper system is required to tackle three issues related to cheap labour, says Alex Au
Referring back to the issues raised in the pre-COVID times, Mr Au highlighted three issues that are germane to the point about cheap labour, adding that a proper system is needed to tackle them.
These three issues include exorbitant recruitment fees that often flow back into the employers’ pocket; demands for payment before employers renew migrant workers’ work permits after it expire in one or two years; and all sorts of unreasonable deductions under the guise of “company policy” existing in grey areas of the law.
“What these three measures do is to claw back into the employer’s pocket what he has or will have paid out to workers in salaries. What a wonderful method for reducing payroll cost. Besides blatantly low basic salaries in the first place, this is how we keep imported labour even cheaper,” he noted.
According to Mr Au, for first-time migrant workers who wish to obtain a job with a salary of S$400 a month in Singapore, they have to pay about S$8,000 to S$10,000 for their agents’ fees.
“In other words, the prospective worker sinks in 20 – 25 months’ worth of salary in order to “buy” the job. If the employer has pocketed all of that — not always because the agent also takes a cut — the employer would in effect get free labour for 20 – 25 months,” he explained.
“After 24 months, the work permit is up for renewal, and another opportunity comes up to ask for another payment,” Mr Au added.
However, he said that not all employers are unethical, and the situation varies considerably from one company to another as some workers claimed that they have good working experiences in Singapore with good employers who are not rapacious.
“Workers cannot know in advance whether it’s a good company or a bad boss. All they know is that if they want a job in Singapore, the going rate is X thousands of dollars. Take it or leave it. No cost-benefit analysis can be performed,” he remarked.
Consequently, workers decided to work overtime, so that they can at least live on that, and recover their sunk cost as soon as possible, stated Mr Au.
“Often, workers tell us that they usually have to put in three, four or five hours of overtime every day — told to us typically in the context of not being paid their rightful overtime wages in the end.”
Following that, he noted that the country recorded 14 workplace fatalities between 1 January to 17 April this year, which is higher than last year’s nine workplace fatalities. He went on to suggest that fatigue from excessive work could lead to a loss of concentration and safety lapses.
“Once again, I must stress, we’re talking about unethical employers. TWC2 believes that in fact, most employers try to look after their employees within their means, but the trouble with allowing unethical employers to get away with it is that ethical companies then have to compete against them to win contracts.”
The Government plays a role in addressing the migrant workers’ problem too
Nonetheless, the problems should not be solely directed at employers alone, as the Government policies and actions play a role in setting the scene and enabling practices to flourish.
Mr Au highlighted that there is regulatory neglect as the enforcement of laws against exorbitant recruitment costs, renewal money, and unreasonable deductions are being handled poorly.
Based on a survey that the TWC2 conducted a few years ago, the majority of the workers said they were recruited via an unlicensed recruiter living and working in Singapore, while a minority of them said they found the job through a recruiter in the source country who usually work with a licensed recruiter in Singapore.
“But where was the large payment made? In the source country, so that the licensed agency in Singapore could continue to claim clean hands,” Mr Au noted.
He continued, “We can have fine laws that call for caps on agency fees, but if unlicensed cowboy agents are nonetheless free to operate they will grab more and more market share — as seems to have happened. Why? Because the cowboys can offer bosses a cut of the high fees charged to workers, when the law-abiding employment agents who do not work with source-country cowboys cannot.”
Another issue that he noticed is regulatory abetment as the rules that forbid migrant workers from changing jobs cause the worker to be beholden to their employers. When they are given no option to quit and find a new job, they are forced to put up with underpaying salary and unreasonable deductions or demands for renewal money.
Speaking of regulatory abetment, Mr Au pointed out the fact that there is no minimum wage in Singapore, which allows employers to offer extremely low salaries and cut the workers’ salaries when they have started working on the job.
“The employer can take advantage of the fact that having sunk his family’s savings into buying the job, it’s a rare worker who can reject the employer’s request to reduce his salary, because what’s the alternative? Quit and go home, only to have to pay another $8,000 to buy another job?” Mr Au added.
On that note, Mr Au concluded that there is an entire eco-system that disadvantages and disempowers migrant workers, which in an unexpected way, has led to the disease outbreak within the migrant workers’ population.
He then showed a graphic to explain how recruitment cost leads almost inexorably to transmission at worksites.
“We think we benefit from cheap labour. Our prosperity is built on that, whatever names others may throw at us (“exploitative capitalism” anyone?). But Covid-19 may be showing us the true cost. In the final analysis, we may not be benefitting at all,” he wrote.