The following is a letter from a volunteer with TWC2, a migrant worker advocacy group, that was sent last week to the Straits Times Forum. It got rejected for publication by the Forum editor, but was re-published by The Online Citizen. I felt it was an excellently argued piece. It makes no wild accusations, and cogently explains the difference in how the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and a victimised foreign worker defines a “resolved” salary dispute. If it was rejected primarily for the purpose of protecting MOM from criticism, I find it quite shameful of the paper to do that.
Dear ST Forum,
(MOM deputy director) Ms Ng’s letter aims to counter a remark in an earlier Straits Times article in which Jolovan Wham, Executive Director of H.O.M.E., was quoted as saying ‘foreign workers here are given little real protection’.
Ms Ng stated that foreign workers wage claims are usually resolved before they return home except in exceptional circumstances. The veracity of this statement depends on what Ms Ng means by ‘resolved’. Workers may have accepted settlement terms and agreed to return home, but whether or not the settlement terms equal a fair and just outcome is a different matter. In the past few months, many foreign workers from Bangladesh and China have been repatriated and statements from MOM often claim their cases have been ‘resolved’. Yet it is not always the case that these workers are paid fully what they are owed nor are mediation processes necessarily fair.
While a salary case is pending, workers are generally unable to work and cannot afford to stay in Singapore for too long. When cases drag on, workers tend to grow desperate and, under pressure, agree to ’settle’ for whatever is given. The alternative, of prolonging their stay with no guarantee of a higher settlement, weighs mediation outcomes heavily towards employers’ interests.
Furthermore, it is not unreasonable to expect workers to be compensated for breach of contracts. Citing ‘impracticality’ and an economic downturn is questionable. A bad economy does not excuse unethical business practices nor flexibility in upholding the law. It must also be pointed out that there have been many cases in which construction workers from China have been fined hefty ‘breach of contract’ fees despite the fact that their contracts have terms less favorable than the Employment Act and should be void. Companies then deduct large sums of money from the workers’ unpaid salaries, citing ‘breach of contract fees’, before repatriating them. In the past few months, MOM has allowed these ‘breach of contract fees’ to be deducted from workers salaries during mediation meetings.. How is it that this is not considered ‘impractical’ in an economic downturn?
It is encouraging to know that the MOM is taking the recent media coverage seriously and is acting to ensure employers uphold the Employment Act. We look forward to greater enforcement of existing laws and prosecution of errant employers so that all workers will be protected. After all, it is not the mere existence of laws that provide protection but its active and consistent enforcement.
Ms. Stephanie Chok Juin Mei
(This letter was re-published with Ms Chok’s permission. MOM’s letter to the ST can be found here.)