The plight of foreign workers has finally come to the fore, with the SMRT workers' action about two weeks ago. Yet, their complaints — of discriminatory wage policies and poor living conditions — are not new. They are part of a whole slew of problems faced by migrant workers.
Amelia Tan's article in The Straits Times on 13 December titled "Get to the root of workers' unhappiness", while timely, repeats what has already been raised many times in the past — by migrant workers NGOs, activists, bloggers, and volunteers. Tan's piece follows two other articles in the same paper over the weekend. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is well aware of the issues raised in all these.
Yet, there seems to be little done.
The three main points or issues raised in the article, for example, have been repeatedly suggested to the MOM for a long time now: one, the ability of employers to easily cancel the work permits of their foreign workers and repatriating them home; two, the tedious and long process foreign workers have to go through to settle wage disputes and compensation claims; three, the high placement fees migrant workers have to pay to come to work in Singapore.
As mentioned earlier, MOM is aware of these problems faced by the workers. In 2010, the two migrant workers NGOs, TWC2 and HOME, issued a paper titled "Justice Delayed, Justice Denied", highlighting these problems and suggested solutions to address these.
In short, these have been repeated ad nauseum, it would seem.
It is thus quite misleading to claim that there are "proper channels" or "available avenues" to which workers can turn to seek redress. This is only half true because some of the problems they face are institutional, rather than just simple cases of non-payment of salaries, for example. They are institutionalised because the system is weighed so heavily against the average migrant worker.
And even when one goes through the "proper channels", one may still not have one's problems resolved. The case of Nepalese workers Rana Kumar Rai is an example. He had brought his case all the way to the courts — and won judgment in his favour. Yet, even with the help of MOM, he was unable to recover the salary owed to him by his employer. His employer simply refused to abide by the court's orders — and there was nothing even MOM could or would do about it.
Rana eventually had to leave Singapore because his special pass had expired, and he was told by MOM that his presence in Singapore was no longer required to assist in investigations.
Rana went home a broken man. He had worked 18-hour days at a coffeeshop while he was here.
[Read his story here: "How the system failed this worker"]
So, let's be clear about one thing. All the talk by the authorities and the union that workers have "proper channels" to seek help or redress is not entirely true. In any case, these would be trying to put out fires as they occur, instead of preventing the fires in the first place.
It is puzzling why the government apparently does not want to introduce and implement the suggestions by TWC2 and HOME, suggestions which would go a long way to address some of the shortcomings of the present system. Why, for example, does the government not mandate that all salary payments be done through the banks, as suggested by the NGOs, so that there are records of these, which will help in any salary dispute, claims or settlements?
Why does the government not outlaw repatriation companies which behave like nothing more than legalised gangster outfits?
Tan, in her Straits Times article, says changes "must be coupled with a deeper look into the fundamental problems facing foreign workers." I agree. In fact, we should realise that migrant workers are human beings, and not just some "cheap labour" which we use and abuse as and when we like. This too requires a shift in our fundamental perception of these workers.
So, let's not kid ourselves that the "proper channels" which exist are adequate. They are not, and we should not pretend that they are.
But will the MOM and the government listen, now that migrant workers themselves are taking desperate means to have their grievances heard? Or are we going to wield the big stick and talk tough with them, while at the same time doing little to empower them in concrete and meaningful ways?
When will we realise and understand that as long as employees — whether local or foreign — are disempowered, employers will always easily abuse them? And do we really think that suppressing such seething unhappiness is how we preserve our so-called "industrial harmony"?
Indeed, with the massive number of foreign workers here, ignoring their grievances will only lead us down the murky road of what we fear most — the rupture in our social stability. And it would be no fault of theirs, but ours, for ignoring their cries. All because we can threaten them into silence with the big stick that we wield.
Indeed it is time for the authorities to get serious, get to the root of the unhappiness, and to act to protect migrant workers.
PS: There is a public forum this Saturday, 15 December, at Park Mall, which will discuss some of these issues. Do come and share your views. Details can be found here: "SMRT Strike And Its Implications On National Security".
Andrew helms publichouse.sg as Editor-in-Chief. His writings have been reproduced in other publications, including the Australian Housing Journal in 2010. He was nominated by Yahoo! Singapore as one of Singapore's most influential media persons in 2011.