Migrant workers in Singapore face many salary and injury claim issues: report

Foreign workers receiving 3G mobile phones distributed by TWC2 on 21 March 2017. Photo: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo Singapore

Migrant workers in Singapore who seek to file claims against their employers face the prospect of losing their jobs, being repatriated or even intimidation, according to a report about the injury and salary claims process for migrant workers.

Even most of those who manage to file claims end up not being fully reimbursed after waiting a lengthy period for the claim to conclude, said experts at the launch of the report on Thursday (29 June). Some end up not filing their claims after employers threaten to deport them.

Based on interviews of 157 migrants workers, the report explores the common problems that migrant workers – usually from the construction and marine industry – face when filing claims related to workplace injuries and salary.

The report was collated over 18 months by seven authors, comprising academics, a lawyer and an executive from non-profit organisation Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). The project was funded by the Chen Su Lan Trust for TWC2.

Of those interviewed, 94 were Bangladeshi while 48 were Chinese. The rest comprised Indians and a Sri Lankan.

Many of the workers had the same stories to tell: employers who underreport their injuries, failure to support their injury claims due to a lack of evidence, and being unable to enforce claims as employers refuse to pay.

When a worker files a salary or injury claim with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), an employer typically cancels his work permit so as to avoid paying the monthly foreign worker levy. Once a work permit is cancelled, the affected worker would be issued a special pass so that he can stay in Singapore until the conclusion of the claim. However, a special pass does not allow a worker to continue working here.

Kamal Islam, a Bangladeshi migrant worker, has a pending claim with the Labour Court but does not have the funds to support himself and a family back home in the meantime. Kamal had to borrow money for his daily needs in Singapore but he incurred more debts in the process.

Said Kamal in the report, “MOM said I would get the Labour Court money, but the current state is that I might not get the money, as the company is winding up and cannot pay. If I was just allowed to work, then I would at least have some money to support myself…Even going to MOM cost money.”

According to the MOM website, employers are required to provide food, acceptable housing and pay any medical leave wages and medical bills during the entire claim process for work injury compensation, even after the worker’s work permit is cancelled.

However, this did not help worker Liu Minmin, who has been on a special pass for two and a half years after his work permit was cancelled by his employer. The migrant worker from China receives $2 to $5 every two to three days from his employer. The money wasn’t enough to pay for his medical treatment and Liu, who sleeps at the worksite, has to borrow money for transport and food.

Workers who have injury claims can ask for compensation from their employers under the Work Injury Compensation Act. Those with salary claims can approach MOM.

Traditionally, workers whose claims cannot be settled by mediation can escalate the matter to the Labour Court but this presents difficulties to them, as they are unfamiliar with court processes and lack the skills to represent themselves in court.

From April this year, a new entity, the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT), replaced the Labour Court for salary and contract-related claims up to $20,000 for work permit holders. Unlike the Labour Court, ECT orders are treated like court orders. However, enforcement orders still require extra funds on the worker’s part, which might not be viable for them.

According to Debbie Fordyce, the founder of TWC2’s free meal programme for foreign workers with injury and salary claims, the resolution of injury claims can take between one and three years, while salary claims can take up to nine months. Fordyce, who is also one of the report’s authors, said that of the 800 salary cases handled by TWC2 in 2016, none of the migrant workers received full restitution.

The reports’ authors say that more can be done to help workers. They recommend having the workers sign a Standard Employment Contract, which ensures minimum standards, such as basic salary, rest day pay and working hours, are in place.

Other recommendations include strengthening enforcement actions and ensuring workers have access to evidences for their claims.

Jolovan Wham, a social worker and former executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation of Migration Economics (Home), recommended allowing workers to change their employers more easily.

Wham, who was a panellist at the event, said, “The right to switch employers can actually compel employers to up their game because if workers are allowed to switch freely employers would need to provide better conditions and terms to motivate workers to stay.”