Common Problems Migrant Workers in Singapore Face

In a typical cycle of a male migrant worker coming to Singapore, there is the risk of encountering various problems. A list of the common problems are as follows. This is a chapter I wrote for Calvin Chong, ed., Servant at the Fringes: Christians Serving Foreign Workers in Singapore (Singapore Bible College, 2018).
Common Problems Migrant Workers in Singapore Face (Correct as at 22 September 2017) In a typical life cycle of a male migrant worker who comes to Singapore to work, he would face the risk of encountering various problems. A list of the common problems are as follows. Before arriving in Singapore There are cases of misrepresentation by recruiters and employment agents in the worker’s home countries. Misrepresentations may be as to terms of employment, including the nature of work, salary terms, agency fees, or even the existence of work at all (Basu 2014).  There are also scams which take place in Singapore where workers are tricked into paying money for non-existent jobs overseas (Toh 2016).  It is possible that some cases may constitute trafficking in persons. In some “contract swap” or “contract substitution” cases, the workers are made to sign contracts only after arriving in Singapore. Such contracts having different terms from what was communicated to them back in their home country (Open Working Group on Labour 2015). By such time, they have already incurred substantial expenses to come to Singapore, and so are not in the position to negotiate their terms, even if they are cognizant of these misrepresentations or differences in salary amounts. Migrant workers pay recruiters or employment agents in their home countries and in Singapore substantial fees to have an opportunity to work in Singapore. Singapore law restricts such fees payable to local employment agents to a maximum of two months of the worker’s salary. In reality, this appears not always to be the case. In addition to employment agents in Singapore, migrant workers often pay sums substantially more than two months of their salaries to recruiters, referrers, unknown middle-men, training agencies, and testing centres in their home countries. The breakdown of what part of such payments go to which party is often opaque. Money paid outside of Singapore and which is not paid to the employment agents is said to be beyond the jurisdiction of Singapore’s authorities (MOM 2012; MOM 2013). When in Singapore
  1. Housing
While there are now purpose-built dormitories for migrant workers which come under Ministry of Manpower (MOM) regulation, many migrant workers still live in unhygienic and overcrowded accommodation. The law mandates that employers provide accommodation which meets certain requirements and that they inform MOM where their workers are residing at. If workers are to stay at construction sites, the living quarters must be approved by MOM. However, in many cases, the employers simply leave it to the workers to find their own cheap accommodation which are often offered with sub-optimal living conditions. Some employers do not apply for living quarters approvals because the conditions are simply not passable. While employers have been prosecuted for housing workers in unacceptable conditions (MOM 2017b), it remains uncertain how many remain unreported. A walk around places like Geylang would easily reveal unsafe and unhygienic housing for migrant workers.
  1. Food
A joint study by the migrant NGO HealthServe and the National University of Singapore has shown that migrant workers are not receiving enough nutrition and that food provided is often unhygienic (Ng 2015). Migrant workers typically obtain their meals from caterers or prepare their own takeaway meals before or after work. Under these conditions, food goes cold and run greater risk of going bad, thus causing public health issues among the workers.
  1. Medical
Although employers are legally obliged to pay for migrant workers’ medical expenses when they fall ill or suffer injury, many do not do so. Employers are also supposed to have purchased medical insurance and work injury compensation insurance required by the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA). However, there are many cases of employers who do not claim on the medical insurance. In the event of work injury, there are employers/insurers who object to either the injury being classified as “work injury” or to the quantum of the compensation. Some employers fail to obtain WICA insurance or do not have sufficient assets. In such cases, even if the worker’s claim is accepted, he is not compensated by the insurer or the employer. Workers therefore are left without compensation or money for medical treatment. In a recent study, it was found that 71% of 525 male migrant workers surveyed did not have or were not aware if they had healthcare insurance (Lee et al. 2014). In some cases where medical treatment is urgently and critically required, workers will not have sufficient funds to pay deposits or fees for the treatment. They thus depend on their employer to provide a letter of guarantee to the hospital. There are many cases of employers refusing to so provide, even though they are legally obliged to cover the workers’ medical expenses. Also, there have been cases of doctors administering insufficient medical leave to workers possibly at the behest of employers who enter into retainer arrangements with private doctors/clinics/hospitals. The reason for this is so as to circumvent a regulation which mandates reporting any work injury or illness to the authorities if a medical certificate for more than three days of medical leave is issued. To date, there has only been one reported case of professional discipline by the highest court in relation to such a malpractice (SMC 2016).
  1. Legal
Unpaid and Underpaid Salaries In 2015 and 2016, about 6,000 unpaid salary and underpaid salary cases were lodged by employees in the Labour Court for each respective year (MOM 2017a). When companies have cashflow problems, it is often the case that employers stop paying workers their salaries. In some cases, this could be for several months or even more than a year without pay. Workers may not be aware of their legal rights and avenues to claim their salaries. If the employer terminates their employment and repatriates them before a chance to lodge a complaint/claim with the Employment Claims Tribunal, they will be without recourse. Those who do bring such claims to the tribunal face the challenge of having to prove their claims often without documentary evidence. In a case witnessed by this writer, a worker alleged that the employer falsified documents which purported that he had been paid.  The challenge for workers is exacerbated by the fact that they cannot be represented in these proceedings by lawyers or any representative. They also have difficulty communicating effectively, given that even their Mandarin or Bengali is not easily translated due to accents, dialects, and regional vocabulary. Some workers are underpaid what is due in salary. This is usually because employers pay workers the same wage rate for overtime work or work done on rest days. Under the law however, they are supposed to pay 1.5 times or 2 times the regular wage rate. In some instances, employers incorporate unfair salary terms into workers’ contracts which allow them to circumvent these laws.  In other instances, the contractual basis for how the worker’s salary should be calculated is deliberately made ambiguous. Some contracts include both salary clauses for hourly wage rates and also piece-meal rates. The latter calculates salary based on work output.  It is deliberately left unclear as to which applies should a case be brought to court. The Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) When migrant workers suffer work injuries, they can claim compensation under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA). The legal regime is such that employers are supposed to purchase WICA insurance for their workers.  There are known cases where employers flout this law, fail to obtain the required insurance, and hence deny workers the means to claim compensation for serious injuries such as ones leading to permanent incapacity. Such workers are left limbless, with the loss of future job opportunities, a huge medical bill, and an unpaid debt from recruitment agency fees. In other cases, employers abuse their position of dominance and raise disingenuous “factual” assertions to disavow liabilities. Enforcement of Court Orders Even if migrant workers succeed in obtaining a tribunal or court order in their favour, they often face difficulties with the enforcement of the court order.  In part this is because they would have to incur additional costs in enforcement procedures. The bigger problem however is that frequently their employers are private limited companies which have a separate legal personality from the shareholders and directors. This thus shields the individual shareholders and directors from liability and potential bankruptcy. While what we have is a legitimate legal mechanism, what is unfair is that these shareholder-directors can operate recklessly and enjoy the impunity of not having to pay the workers’ judgment debts, and then go on to incorporate new companies to repeat the cycle of mistreating workers and enjoying impunity. The Minister of Manpower revealed in Parliament in January 2017 that out of 1,400 Labour Court orders, 350 such orders (or 25% of all such orders) were eventually defaulted on (MOM 2017a). The Minister stated that “the 350 defaulted orders involved 200 companies which were mostly in financial difficulties or had ceased operations. MOM took enforcement actions against all of them which included warnings, fines and restriction of work pass privileges”. It should be noted that these numbers do not indicate at all whether or not the people behind these companies went on to incorporate new companies and continue their cycle of dealings with migrant workers.
In other scenarios, liable employers do not have assets or did not procure insurance to compensate workers. In 2014, a workplace accident left PRC worker Tang Zengshun blind in one eye. He was awarded injury compensation and lost wages by the Labour Court amounting to about $123,000. However, he did not receive a single cent from his employer. The employer did not have a valid insurance policy to cover its liabilities under WICA (Ho 2016b). Some volunteers tried to crowdfund money to give Tang so that he would not return home disabled and penniless. On the crowdfunding site, only $6,300 was raised ( 2016). He returned home blind and likely poor to a three-year-old granddaughter and an elderly mother. Kickbacks and Unauthorised Deductions There are a significant number of cases of employers who demand kickbacks. That is to say, the migrant workers have to pay their employers significant sums of money to ensure they can keep their jobs. If they do not pay, the employer will terminate the employment, repatriate the worker, and hire another migrant worker at a low cost. There are cases of prosecution by MOM against such errant employers (MOM 2017c). In one case, a managing director of a company collected kickbacks of $105,235 from 20 of his foreign workers as a condition for their continued employment with the company (MOM 2017b). This amount adds up to an average of S$5,250 per worker. One could buy a 4,000 square feet plot of land in Bangladesh with that amount. However, whistleblowing on employers is dangerous for workers, so it is likely that there are many unreported cases. Apart from kickbacks for continued employment, some employers also make illegal deductions from their workers’ salaries for foreign worker levies, work permit renewals, recruitment agent fees, insurance premiums, safety effects, and alleged breaches of contract.
  1. Lack of Work Safety
The statistics of workplace injuries and fatalities in Singapore are worrying. The government is also concerned about this (Ho 2016a).  In 2016, there was a total of 13,014 workplace injuries of which 66 were fatal and 594 major injuries.  In 2014, there was a total of 13,595 injuries of which 60 were fatal and 672 major injuries.  In 2014, the workplace injury rate per 100,000 employed persons is 385.04. And the fatal workplace injury rate per 100,000 employed persons is 1.70.[1] However, by comparing these figures with those from a country with a comparable population size like Finland, it appears there may be issues with the accuracy of Singapore’s reported statistics. While Finland has a substantially higher workplace injury rate, it has a significantly lower fatal injury rate. Most migrant workers work in the construction, maritime, and oil & gas sectors, which are high-risk areas for work injuries and fatalities. Thus, it is very likely that many of the people who contribute to these statistics are migrant workers. Although there are laws, programmes and aids for employers to address workplace safety issues, the statistics remain worrying. Could it be that we have such high work injury and fatality statistics because we do not value the life and safety of these workers as much as we would local workers? If so, perhaps what is needed is not more laws and programmes, but cultural and attitudinal shifts among employers such that more employers value the lives and safety of migrant workers and therefore conduct business operations accordingly.
  1. Social, Emotional and Psychological Problems
Apart from the legal and practical problems highlighted above, many migrant workers also experience, or are at risk of experiencing, associated social, emotional and mental problems. Much of this is related to the uncertainties of their employment status and related threats by their employers. A Singapore Management University study of 801 non-domestic migrant workers found that more than 60% of respondents who had outstanding injury or salary claims were predicted to have serious mental illness – more than four times the number for workers with no claims.  Threats of repatriation by employers, debts owed to recruitment/employment agents, and a lack of housing for workers after making claims against their employers, contribute to psychological stress on the workers (SMU 2015). Apart from psychological distress, migrant workers also face all the associated problems of adapting to work in a foreign country. This would include having to adapt to cultural and language differences, loneliness, integrating in community, finding one’s tribe, homesickness, and so on.

After leaving Singapore

Assuming a migrant worker leaves Singapore alive, he could possibly face issues of an unpaid debt arising from having had to pay recruitment fees, kickbacks etc. Further, there may be social and cultural problems when a worker returns home with a debt he owes to his family and community. Some workers return home with pending legal claims. Their returning home makes it much more difficult for them to continue pursuing their claims. The practical difficulties, in addition to financial ones, make it unlikely for them to get redress and justice.


It should be noted that the above problems are common problems which NGOs and volunteers who work with migrant workers have seen. This writer does not know how prevalent each problem is.  It would be difficult for any person or entity to be able to definitively present accurate statistics on the prevalence of the problems. This is because studies, surveys and polls of migrant workers on such problems will often be subject to biases and inaccuracies. NGOs who conduct studies based on data from their case files will necessarily see a bulge in certain types of cases. Government-commissioned studies or so-called independent studies may also be subject to the problem that migrant workers may not report their problems honestly because of a real or imaginary fear of backlash or losing their jobs. Nevertheless, looking at the absolute number of complaints to MOM and cases which NGOs have seen, we can be certain that the number of problematic cases is not a mere handful. For some egregious cases, it is one case too many. It appears then that a typical low-wage migrant worker who comes to Singapore is at risk of the following:-
  1. Being defrauded in his home country as to his employment in Singapore;
  2. Incurring huge debts, and having to sell family property, to obtain work in Singapore;
  3. Living in unhealthy and unsafe conditions in Singapore;
  4. Malnourishment and consuming unhygienic food;
  5. Falling sick or suffering injury without the means to pay for good medical treatment;
  6. Not being paid their hard-earned salary;
  7. Not receiving compensation when they suffer work injuries;
  8. Not being able to obtain the fruits of justice even if they succeed in claiming against their employers;
  9. Having their salaries illegally deducted;
  10. Having to pay kickbacks to their employers just to keep their jobs;
  11. Working in unsafe and potentially lethal work environments;
  12. Suffering various social, emotional and psychological problems.
Suffice to say, a migrant worker in Singapore appears to be in an unenviable position fraught with possible life-threatening and life-draining dangers and burdens. It behoves the Church to ask herself, “What does the good news of the Kingdom of God look like to a migrant worker in Singapore?” This is a question which leads to no easy answers, but it is a question we must nevertheless ask if we are to be faithful to our God-given mission.  

Reference List

Basu, R. (2014, April 28). Law must not overlook labour trafficking. Retrieved from (2016, December 15). Raising Funds for Mr Tang. Retrieved from Ho, O. (2016a, May 25). Concern over rising workplace deaths. Retrieved from Ho, O. (2016b, July 18). Injured worker’s long wait for payout. Retrieved from Lee, W., Neo, A., Tan, S., Cook, A. R., Wong, M. L., Tan, J., … Ho, C. (2014). Health-seeking behaviour of male foreign migrant workers living in a dormitory in Singapore. BMC Health Services Research, 14(1), 300. Ministry of Manpower. (2012, December 24). MOM regulates local recruitment fees; penalises errant agencies. Retrieved from Ministry of Manpower. (2013, December 27). MOM: Employment agency fees are already capped. Retrieved from Ministry of Manpower. (2016, October 11). Managing Director Charged For Collecting Over $105,000 In Kickbacks. Retrieved from Ministry of Manpower. (2017a, January 9). Written Answer by Mr Lim Swee Say, Minister for Manpower to Parliamentary Question on labour court orders on employee salary non-payment. Retrieved from Ministry of Manpower. (2017b, March 15). Construction company faced 80 charges for housing offences. Retrieved from Ministry of Manpower. (2017c, March 16). Company and its ex-director charged for false information and kickback offences. Retrieved from Ng, K. (2015, March 19). Foreign workers ‘served unappetising, stale food.’ Retrieved from Open Working Group on Labour Migration and Recruitment. (2015). Zero Tolerance for Contract Substitution. Migration and Development Civil Society Network. Retrieved from Singapore Management University. (2015, November 4). SMU study reveals challenges and emotional distress faced by migrant workers in Singapore. Retrieved from Singapore Academy of Law. (2016, July 25). Singapore Medical Council v Wong Him Choon [2016] SGHC 145. Retrieved from Yong Chuan, T. (2016, May 15). Migrant workers cheated out of a job in S’pore. Retrieved from     [1] MOM, “Fatal injury rate stayed at 1.9 per 100,000 employed persons, but more non-fatal workplace injuries in 2016” (14 February 2017):; Workplace Safety and Health Institute, Singapore (WSHI), Workplace Safety And Health Report, 2014. [2] (30 November 2016);

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