Dec 13, 2012

Singapore - Get to the root of workers' unhappiness

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He stood on the street in Little India looking bewildered, carrying a few bags of clothes.

I approached him. It turned out he was a Bangladeshi construction worker who had run away just after a week in Singapore to put an end to the beatings and scolding by his boss.

"Being treated like a dog is no way to live. I have to stand up for myself," said the 20-year-old in fluent English.

I gave him a few phone numbers of migrant worker groups to call for help before bidding him goodbye.

Migrant worker rights activists say young blue-collar foreign workers have become more aware of their rights and think it is important that they are safeguarded.

They say young foreign workers are less subservient than their older counterparts, who arrived in Singapore in the 1980s and 1990s, because they are better educated and have access to information on their rights on the Web through mobile phones and computers.

Outreach by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), migrant worker groups and embassies, which has increased in recent years, has also helped foreign workers gain a better understanding of their rights.

The group of Chinese national bus drivers who went on strike two weeks ago to protest against their wages and living conditions was one high-profile example.

But there are hundreds of others asserting their rights in quieter ways: by simply running away or going to MOM or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for help to resolve disputes with their bosses.

There are no official figures on the number of runaway foreign workers in Singapore but migrant worker rights groups Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) estimate that there are at least a few hundred of them.

For example, the Home shelter for women currently has about 60 runaway maids.

On average, the shelter provides accommodation for 100 women a month. This is up from about 80 a month last year.

More are also going to NGOs for help with injury compensation claims and to recover salaries they are owed.

The Migrant Workers' Centre helped about 1,500 people last year, up from around 1,200 in 2009. TWC2 has helped close to 2,300 workers this year, up from about 2,100 last year.

More maids are also asking for new bosses, who will hopefully treat them better.

MOM data shows that on average, only 42 per cent of maids placed in homes by agencies between October 2009 and October last year stayed with the same employer for at least a year.

What are the implications of dealing with a foreign worker population that wants to be treated fairly and may, increasingly, agitate for its rights?

The workers' grievances generally centre around owed salaries, poor living conditions, overly high recruitment fees and injury compensation. The law protects workers against such abuses.

One view is to simply assume that the workers will stand up for themselves and dishonest and abusive employers will be punished under the law in due course.

But it would perhaps be wiser to address the problem in a more proactive manner and go to the root of their unhappiness.

If we can address some of the more fundamental problems that face foreign workers in Singapore today, we will have a happier foreign workforce.

Better morale and higher productivity should follow, and that will benefit employers in the long term as well.

There are three areas that we should look into.

The first is the ability of bosses here to unilaterally cancel the work permit of a worker and repatriate him or her immediately back to the home country.

Today, foreign workers can address their grievances by approaching their bosses, MOM, unions and migrant worker groups.

But many fear that by airing their grouses, their bosses will retaliate by cancelling their work permits.

Under the law, employers can cancel work permits immediately and repatriate workers within seven days of the cancellation.

In fact, many bosses send their workers home on the day the work permits are cancelled as they do not want to spend more money to house and provide food for them.

Many workers end up going home saddled with debts they can't settle if their contracts are terminated prematurely.

This fear can fester and turn into desperation. Some workers may feel that only by taking matters in their own hands can their grievances be heard, like in the case of the SMRT bus drivers.

Second, foreign workers have to go through a tedious process to claim compensation and settle disputes. This generally takes about a year to complete, say migrant worker groups.

The foreign worker must first lodge his or her complaint with MOM. Then an officer will follow up and interview both the worker and the employer, as well as gather evidence to verify the claims.

If the grievance involves workplace injury, the worker will go for medical treatment. He is given a special pass and not allowed to work.

Migrant worker rights groups say the likelihood of being unemployed for months on end has discouraged some workers from claiming compensation. Others have given up waiting and have left Singapore empty-handed.

Home chief executive Bridget Tan says employers should not be given the full power to cancel work permits.

Instead, this responsibility should be given to the Government.

Knowing that their bosses cannot cancel their work permits unilaterally will encourage workers to raise their grievances in an open and lawful manner.

At the very least, it could be made mandatory for employers to give a three-week notice period before cancelling their workers' work permits.

This will give workers time to look for another job and seek help from MOM or NGOs if their contracts have been terminated unfairly, said Home's Tan.

MOM also needs to look at simplifying and speeding up the process of seeking compensation and settling disputes between foreign workers.

Migrant worker groups have suggested that the S$5,000 (US$4,000)security bond that employers post to hire foreign workers be used to compensate the workers.

A third area of concern is the high placement fees many foreign workers pay to come to Singapore. It is common for maids to pay up to S$3,000 and construction workers S$5,000 to S$6,000 in placement fees to get a job in Singapore.

Such fees do not make sense as the procedures involved, including applying for passports and other travel documents, cost only a fraction of the money the workers are forking out.

Singapore agents say that the fees are high because of unscrupulous middlemen in the home countries of the workers.

But Institute of Southeast Asian Studies fellow Theresa W. Devasahayam, who studies foreign worker issues, suspects that agents both in Singapore and overseas are taking a cut of the hefty fees.

Often there is no paper trail for these placement fees, and it is difficult for the Singapore government to take to task Singapore agents - and in some cases, employers - who may be in cahoots with agents abroad to overcharge the workers.

Meanwhile, the ministry has urged workers to protect themselves by asking for receipts that break down the fees they pay.

But these reminders have to be coupled with stronger and more visible enforcement action to weed out such bad practices.

Dr Devasahayam says if Singapore agents insist that they are not earning extra commissions, they must back their words up with receipts and documents.

They must also be punished if they do not have the evidence to back up their claims.

Singapore has already made strides by introducing stricter laws to punish errant employers of foreign workers with the amendment of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act earlier this year.

These changes must be coupled with a deeper look into the fundamental problems facing foreign workers.

Only then will Singapore retain a quality migrant workforce, which will in turn help our economy and society grow.

*US$1=1.2 Singapore dollars

Amelia Tan

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