‘Proper channels’ for workers aren’t adequate

Amelia Tan's article in The Straits Times on 13 December

COMMENT

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.

Related Stories:
Speaker of Parliament, PAP MP Michael Palmer resigns due to 'improper conduct'
Ex- Straits Times editor reveals gov't meddling in tell-all book
Singaporeans,go forth and multiply

  • COMMENT: Singapore a secular state? Think again
    COMMENT: Singapore a secular state? Think again

    In recent years, there have been loud calls to exclude religion from the public sphere in Singapore. Singapore is widely seen as a secular state because it has no official religion. But there's more to secularism than the absence of a state religion.

  • Written reply on 1MDB was corroborated: MOF

    KUALA LUMPUR: The written reply by Prime Minister and Finance Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak in Dewan Rakyat recently on the financial status of 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) in BSI Bank Singapore was corroborated by the ministry's officials. In a statement today, the ministry said the details in the written reply were produced and vetted through by ministry officials based on the information given by 1MDB. “The Finance Ministry has amended its earlier reply dated March 10 to avoid any confusion on 1MDB's financial status in BSI Bank Singapore to meet Parliament's demand on information pertaining the matter. “The ministry's move to rectify its earlier reply proved that it had no intention to withhold any information on the matter.” The statement said the accusation made by former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad claiming that Najib was not telling the truth in his written reply was uncalled for as the latter presented his response based on the information that was corroborated by ministry officials. The ministry said it had already taken the necessary actions to ensure that such an incident would not be repeated.

  • Doubling bottom 40pc household income a priority: Najib

    TOKYO: Doubling the household income of those in the bottom 40 per cent of the income bracket is a priority. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak told a dinner audience of about 260 Malaysian students and professionals here that balancing income inequality was one of the challenges faced by Malaysia. He said the many successes achieved by Malaysia did not mean that it did not face challenges. "Doubling the household income of those in the bottom 40 per cent is our priority," he said. Najib, who arrived this morning as part of his three-day visit here, said Malaysian students in Japan should prove that they were on par with the Japanese. He called on Malaysians studying and working here to acquire as much knowledge possible and return to contribute to Malaysia's development. On bilateral ties with Japan, Najib, who will meet his counterpart Shinzo Abe tomorrow, said both countries would enhance cooperation in a multitude of fields, especially economic and new technologies. Najib, who is accompanied by wife Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, Transport Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Idris Jala, Chief Secretary to the Government Tan Sri Ali Hamsa, is expected to take a high speed train trip to Sendai on Tuesday. Japan, which operates the famous Shinkanzen high speed railway network, is keen on the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR) project. The project will cut travel time between the two cities by 90 minutes.