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
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 (giving.sg 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.
- Lack of Work Safety
- Social, Emotional and Psychological Problems
After leaving SingaporeAssuming 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.
ConclusionIt 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:-
- Being defrauded in his home country as to his employment in Singapore;
- Incurring huge debts, and having to sell family property, to obtain work in Singapore;
- Living in unhealthy and unsafe conditions in Singapore;
- Malnourishment and consuming unhygienic food;
- Falling sick or suffering injury without the means to pay for good medical treatment;
- Not being paid their hard-earned salary;
- Not receiving compensation when they suffer work injuries;
- Not being able to obtain the fruits of justice even if they succeed in claiming against their employers;
- Having their salaries illegally deducted;
- Having to pay kickbacks to their employers just to keep their jobs;
- Working in unsafe and potentially lethal work environments;
- Suffering various social, emotional and psychological problems.