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In the years that HOME has run its shelters and help desks, we have heard from many workers about officers who lack listening skills and empathy. Therefore, we welcome The Ministry of Manpower’s decision (MOM officers to beef up skills in communication, January 2nd 2015) to send its officers for training in cross cultural and communications skills for its officers as part of its efforts to facilitate labour disputes and investigations.
As part of the training, it is important for MOM officers to address the reality that migrant workers often feel disadvantaged during mediations and investigations because of their nationality, lack of proficiency in the English language and the power imbalance between them and their employers. In these disputes, employers usually have the upper hand because they may have access to resources such as professional legal advice, whereas migrant workers will not be able to afford such services.
Cultural sensitivity such as refraining from speaking Mandarin to ethnic Chinese employers during dispute resolution creates a more inclusive atmosphere for workers. Showing empathy for the worker’s frustrations and emotional difficulties during dispute resolution will counter perceptions that government officers are biased against them. Workers will also be less intimidated if government officials do not lecture them or dismiss their concerns.
When salary disputes are taken to court, it may take up to several months to resolve. Therefore, many officers may prefer to resolve such disputes at the mediation stage. Foreign workers are not allowed to work during the period of their claims and they usually feel pressured to accept less than what they are legally entitled to. Since many workers are sole bread winners, they are at a disadvantage in such situations. Therefore, MOM’s role in mediating employment disputes that is sensitive to culture and power dynamics is important in order for workers to feel that the outcome of their dispute is a fair one.