To stem the overcharging of foreign workers, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is drawing up a formal programme to brief them about working conditions in Singapore before they leave their home countries.
Responding to many questions about high foreign worker agency fees during a panel discussion at Hub Singapore on Saturday afternoon, the ministry’s director of joint operations directorate Kandhavel Periyasamy said it was a “big concern”.
“It creates lots of problems,” he said, addressing about 60 students, academics, civil society members and members of the public. “I think once they take that kind of money, they come here, they’re forced to put up with bad conditions and they still need to repay their agency fees... it’s a real problem.”
Kandhavel shared that teams from the ministry have conducted pre-departure briefings with groups of “a few hundred” workers in Bangladesh, China and India.
These allowed MOM to address the workers’ queries and to understand better what information the workers needed.
"This is really to educate and empower them so they are not sold wrong stories and they don’t come to Singapore thinking something’s going to happen and they get cheated," he said.
Recognising that the foreign agents who frequently charge workers between $8,000 and $10,000 to send them to Singapore to work present significant difficulties for the workers, Kandhavel said the ministry has implemented rules banning employment agencies from charging more than two months’ worth of salary — and in the case of workers on a one-year contract, one month.
“But there’s very little we can do to control what is being collected on that side (in source countries),” he pointed out. “What we’re really trying to do is to educate the workers so that they can ask their agents ‘Look, why do I need to pay $8,000?'"
He said the ministry is looking at how to roll out the pre-departure briefings in a sustainable way.
Currently, the ministry has in place an In-Principle Approval letter issued to workers on the cusp of leaving their home countries to take up employment in Singapore, which details employment terms and various other information in their native languages.
Kandhavel admits that it remains “a big challenge” to reduce the agents’ fees, however.
Responding to a suggestion of potential bilateral agreements with source country governments on the matter of employment terms and agency fees, he said it is still difficult for Singapore to “mandate what happens over there”.
“But we’re really trying in terms of education, that’s the key thing we can do from Singapore’s side right now,” he said. “We’re trying to reach out to more and more workers so they will be better-educated and they won’t pay so much money to the agents.”
Kandhavel also tackled a host of other questions posed to him with respect to the foreign workers in Singapore, with issues such as worker injury compensation, blacklisting and the use of company doctors that do not diagnose worker injuries accurately for sufficient treatment being raised.
Alongside panellists Debbie Fordyce of foreign worker NGO Transient Workers Count Too and Joses Kuan, one of the three-man team behind discussion organisers Beyond the Border, Behind the Men, a project aiming to raise awareness about Bangladeshi workers in Singapore, he clarified certain misconceptions about the foreign worker employment situation here.
“We are all very passionate and committed to ensure that workers, when they come here, they are treated fairly” he said. “They come here, they do a job, they’re building our roads... they need to be compensated fairly, they need to be treated properly, they should not be abused when they go back.”
The topic of migrant worker issues resurfaced in the public eye when a series of labour actions sparked by a two-day SMRT bus strike involving more than 180 drivers from China. The government quickly condemned the incidents, prosecuting the strike's instigators and key participants while deporting 29 others, and issuing warnings to a further 150, but the issue of how foreign workers here are treated was thrust back into the fore
At the same time, the team behind the youth-led project launched a short documentary film centring on the lives of three Bangladeshi workers and their respective stories aimed at humanising the Bangladeshis who work in Singapore.
Watch the trailer for the film here: