Monday 15 June 2015

More foreign workers seek help over wage woes

4,500 turn to MOM as it reaches out to workers via initiatives such as roadshows
By Aw Cheng Wei, The Sunday Times, 14 Jun 2015

More foreign workers are seeking help with salary disputes, new figures show - and more effort has been spent reaching out to them.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has revealed to The Sunday Times that around 4,500 foreign workers sought its help to resolve such problems last year - 900 more than in 2013.

The figure covers employment pass, S pass and work permit holders.

According to previous media reports, there were 1.32 million foreign workers, most of whom were working in the construction and marine sectors, as of August last year.

At non-governmental organisation Migrant Workers' Centre, pay woes such as unfair deductions and late or withheld payments account for about 60 per cent of the complaints it receives.

As of this month, the centre has received about 2,000 complaints regarding late or withheld payments and unfair deductions.

It expects that by December, it would have received a total of about 4,000 complaints - the same number as last year.

Executive director Bernard Menon said: "The numbers were increasing, but they have hovered around (4,000) in the past three years."

At the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics, a human rights group, 398 workers lodged salary complaints last year - up from 281 in 2013.

The ministry has stepped up efforts to help foreign workers in the past year, which could explain the rise in complaints, a spokesman said.

Initiatives include holding roadshows where construction workers live, to inform them of their employment rights.

Mr Menon said: "More workers with problems will approach us when word gets around (the community) that we can help them get their money back."

According to a survey of 328 workers conducted by Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) last year, only one in three migrant workers was paid correctly and could check his income against a detailed payslip.

Next year, employers must issue itemised payslips and provide written key employment terms, to prevent salary disputes, MOM said.

One construction worker, who claimed that he had not been paid for four months, was afraid to voice his concerns because he did not want to offend his boss. He said: "What if he sends me back with no money?"

The 38-year-old Bangladeshi national, who declined to give his name, approached MOM earlier this year only because he could not explain to his wife and two children why he was not sending money back home to them.

"I give boss many chances already, until I cannot take it. I also need to eat."

MOM reminds employers that they have a legal responsibility and moral obligation to ensure that workers' salaries are paid on time.

A spokesman advised workers with salary claims to seek help early.

Afraid to speak up

"What if he sends me back with no money? ... I give boss many chances already, until I cannot take it. I also need to eat."

- A Bangladeshi construction worker, 38, explaining why he did not speak up when he was not paid for four months. He said he approached MOM earlier this year only because he could not explain to his wife and two children why he was not sending money back home to them.

Getting their money back

"More workers with problems will approach us when word gets around (the community) that we can help them get their money back."

- Migrant Workers' Centre executive director BERNARD MENON

Ensure pay is banked, offer mobility

SUNDAY'S report ("More foreign workers seek help over wage woes") mentioned that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) will be making it mandatory for employers to issue itemised payslips next year. 

Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) will be glad to see this long-overdue requirement in place.

However, this is only half the solution. The other half that also needs to be made compulsory is payment through bank transfers.

This is because payslips only show how the salaries have been calculated. They do not show whether salaries were paid, or paid in full.

TWC2 regularly sees cases where workers report that their signatures have been forged on payment vouchers to make the documentation look like they had been paid.

Even countries in the Middle East, long accused of treating migrant workers badly, have made bank transfers compulsory.

Singapore's inaction is shameful by comparison.

Sunday's report also had an MOM spokesman advising workers with salary claims to seek help early.

Such "advice" will be fruitless unless MOM first addresses the structural inequities faced by foreign workers.

Any worker who lodges a complaint against his employer will almost surely lose his job.

The MOM does not allow workers to stay on to look for another job except in special cases, and even then, such workers, based on TWC2's documented cases, mostly do not land alternative jobs at all.

Partly, this is because the MOM gives them only two weeks to do so, simply too short a time. Moreover, lodging a complaint does not mean a worker gets his salary arrears paid to him.

The great majority of salary cases seen by TWC2 result in workers getting less than a third of what they are owed.

Workers know this. Lodging a complaint more than likely makes a worker's situation worse, not better. This explains why workers delay lodging complaints until they are desperately broke.

TWC2 has long proposed to the MOM that workers should be free to change jobs.

At the same time, curbs should be placed on employers hiring fresh workers from abroad, to give workers already here a better chance of securing alternative jobs.

This will also help retain skills and experience in Singapore. Giving workers job mobility, allowing them to quit and go elsewhere, is what will make employers think twice before holding back salaries.

It should also reduce the dispute-resolution workload at MOM.

Alex Au
Transient Workers Count Too
ST Forum, 17 Jun 2015

Electronic payments mandatory upon foreign workers' request

MR ALEX Au suggested that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) mandate electronic payment of salaries for foreign workers, and allow mobility for them to change employers ("Ensure pay is banked, offer mobility"; last Wednesday).

Our laws already require employers of work permit holders (WPHs) to pay salaries electronically if the workers make this request, and a majority of them are receiving their salaries in this manner. However, some WPHs still prefer to be paid in cash.

MOM takes a tough enforcement stance against employers who wilfully deny workers their salaries, whatever the mode of payment.

Victimised WPHs are typically given a two-week window to find new employers while their cases are being investigated.

Mr Au would know that the MOM has a history of working with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including Transient Workers Count Too, and has exercised flexibility for deserving cases.

For WPHs who are unable to - or in some cases, unwilling to - continue working, MOM will work with NGO partners to assist these workers until their cases are concluded, and facilitate their return home to start life anew.

Alvin Lim
Divisional Director
Workplace Policy and Strategy Division
Ministry of Manpower
ST Forum, 23 Jun 2015

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