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In the article ‘MOM refutes report on Chinese migrant workers,’ MOM says that HOME’s report The Exploitation of Migrant Chinese Construction Workers in Singapore does not reflect the full picture of their employment conditions. It also cites statistics showing a decrease in complaints.
The issues raised in HOME’s report do not claim to be representative of all migrant Chinese construction workers. However, through our interviews and experience assisting hundreds of them, we believe the problems they face reveal inadequacies in current policies, employment practices and in the enforcement of existing laws.
For example, workers awaiting work injury compensation payouts often face frustrating delays in receiving medical treatment, wages as well as food and lodging, even though such complaints have been brought to the Ministry’s attention. Workers who have ‘agreed’ to employers withholding their salaries are also told by Ministry officials during mediations that since they had agreed to these conditions, they should abide by them. This is despite the fact that the Employment Act stipulates such ‘agreements’ are illegal.
One possible reason for the decrease in number of complaints is the various measures by the government to reduce the number of foreign workers and the completion of mega construction projects such as the casinos. That the number of complaints has fallen since 2008 is unsurprising because that was the year the global economy was in crisis; economies around the world have been slowly recovering since then. Thus, to attribute the decrease in complaints to better working conditions is dubious at best. Moreover, it is likely there are many unreported cases because many workers are afraid of lodging complaints for fear of losing their jobs.
While we are encouraged by the efforts of the Ministry to reach out to workers in China, public education should also be paired with stronger enforcement action against errant employers. For example, even though there were almost four thousand employment related complaints made to MOM in 2009 only four employers were prosecuted for failure to pay salaries. It is not enough for MOM to urge workers not to sign contracts containing oppressive employment terms, when penalties against employers for drafting such contracts are weak.
The practice of blacklisting workers is not only limited to workers committing employment-related infringements as MOM claimed. The work permit conditions also warn them against engaging in ‘immoral and undesirable activities, including breaking up Singaporean families.’ Such conditions are discriminatory because they do not apply to other categories of employees and unfairly stigmatises work permit holders. Even though MOM says they will only blacklist workers when they are certain that infringements have been committed, we are unsure how that certainty is achieved when in many instances, the workers are no longer in Singapore to respond to allegations from employers.
Employers, unions and the government have a part to play in upholding workers’ rights. The current crisis in worker productivity should be viewed from this perspective. When employees feel valued within the company, they are more likely to be motivated to work harder and better for their employers.
Jolovan Wham (范国瀚）
Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) 情义之家