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Foreign workers paid only $2.25 an hour!

Yesterday, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Law K Shanmugam had visited a foreign workers’ dormitory in Yishun and had said that the foreign workers “have no complaints about working conditions, about salaries, about their employers”.

It was also reported that, “he also urged the foreign workers to voice out any other concerns with regards to their wages and living conditions”.

It was also reported that he had said that, “if the workers have any grievances or unhappiness, they have many avenues through which to seek help — for example, through their unions, the Manpower Ministry or the Migrant Workers Centre.”

Actually, it is perplexing why Shanmugam would form the conclusion that foreign workers “have no complaints about working conditions, about salaries, about their employers”. It is indeed curious because the non-governmental organisation, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) had actually been compiling stories of the ill-treatment and discrimination of foreign workers by their employers.

In a survey that was conducted by the Singapore Management University (SMU), it was found that, “65% of injured and salary-claim workers reported that they had been threatened by their employers with premature repatriation. Of working workers, 12% have been so threatened”. In another study conducted by TWC2, it was found that, “only 28 percent of injured workers have been offered accommodation by their employer (sometimes, MOM) post-injury”. In fact, in a study conducted by the Ministry of Manpower, it was found that, “slightly more than half of total costs (to recover from workplace injuries and ill-health actually) fall on workers themselves, when quantified into dollar terms”.

Which is why it is thoroughly perplexing why Shanmugam would not have known of these. Shamugam had also said that, “If there’s contrary evidence, we are happy to listen, because our task is not to deny evidence. In fact, we are happy to receive the evidence and deal with it … we are looking, searching (for evidence).” It is not known how many foreign workers Shanmugam had spoken to at the dormitories to come out with the conclusion that foreign workers “have no complaints about working conditions, about salaries, about their employers”, but the surveys that had been conducted to hundreds of foreign workers, which is undoubtedly more representative, says contrary. Thus we look forward to Shamugam “deal(ing) with” the evidence ” since their task is “not to deny evidence”.

Yesterday, we received a pay slip of a foreign worker. The job of the foreign worker is to be a welder and he is paid only $2.25 an hour. His monthly overall wage is only $500.13.

In fact, all the other foreign workers also receive similar monthly wages, an average of $436.75 in a month.

On top of the miserly wages, the workers would also have to pay a penalty fee of $200 if they lose or damage their work permit – which is almost half their monthly wage!

According to the survey by the SMU, it was found that, “the threat of premature repatriation creates a lot of stress”. Also, “having uncleared debts incurred in agents fees also hung heavily over them”. From our understanding, the foreign workers who were being paid only $2.25 an hour had continued to work because of similar fears and had thus kept silent, in spite of the severely low wages and ill-treatment.

Shanmugam might have visited the dormitories to speak to the foreign workers but it is questionable if the foreign workers would have been willing to “voice out any … concerns” about these problems to him, especially under the careful watch of their employers. Indeed, according to the survey, up to 65% of workers have been threatened with repatriation and “such intimidatory behaviour by employers (apparently) seems very common”.

In fact, according to Jolovan Wham, “companies that blatantly flout our labour laws are often allowed to get away with it because (the Ministry of Manpower (MOM)’s) approach to labour disputes, especially those involving salary matters is to conciliate between the employer and the worker, and let the matter rest after it has concluded. Numerous workers have complained about how (the MOM) officers often conciliate against the standards established in our labour laws, and how some of (the) officers are either rude or indifferent to their plight.” Also, “the salaries of migrant workers are often withheld by their employers as a form of collateral for ‘good behaviour’ and to penalise them should they terminate their contracts prematurely.”

In fact, in 2009, the MOM had “received approximately 3,770 complaints about salary related issues from foreign workers”. However, “only 4 employers were prosecuted for failure to pay salaries in that year”.

Recently, the vice-principal of JurongWestSecondary School, Pushparani Nadarajah had asked, “How many of our leaders and top officers who say that every school is a good school put their children in ordinary schools near their home? (Only) until they actually do so are parents going to buy (it).” Similarly, for the policymakers, how many of them would be willing to earn $2.25 an hour in Singapore? And if not, should they subject the foreign workers to such low pay, or to even deny the problem of low wages? Should they step up their enforcement of wayward employers, instead of prosecute only 0.001% of the employers whom foreign workers have complained about being ill-treated?

Indeed, the fundamental question we have to ask is this – is it humane to pay workers such low wages? Whereas the cost of living in Singapore is the 5th most expensive in the world, does it make sense to pay any worker a paltry wage of $2.25 an hour an expect them to make ends meet in Singapore? Perhaps our policymakers might consider them as labour to be contracted, used and sent back – which might explain the knee-jerk reaction to suspend “25 private bus services which ferry workers to the area”, to take away the only leisure activity that they can have, and to even consider “housing some foreign workers at nearby offshore islands”, as National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan had suggested.

In case our policymakers have forgotten, these foreign workers are human as well, and any human being should be treated with the basic respect and dignity that we would want to confer onto ourselves as well.

Indeed, Mahatma Gandhi had also said that, “The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members.”

It would be highly questionable if our policymakers deem it fit to pay themselves the highest political salaries in the world, but pay Singaporeans and foreign workers the lowest wages among the high-income countries. Such exploitation of the workers say a lot about a government, who would rather believe in “growth at all cost”, while allowing the “weakest” to be left behind.

Indeed, Singaporeans have to ask ourselves – if we have a government which would treat the “weakest members” in our society with such disdain that would they treat the citizens with such unkind actions as well, and I think for many Singaporeans, we already have the answer.

Shanmugam had “urged the foreign workers to voice out any other concerns with regards to their wages and living conditions”. Such “evidence” is tons a plenty. Shamugam wouldn’t have needed to visit a few dormitories just to prove the point that foreign workers “have no complaints about working conditions, about salaries, about their employers”. If he had only spoken to the non-governmental organizations such as TWC2 or the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), he would have at least heard of some of the 3,770 greivances that the foreign workers in 2009 have.

Perhaps if our politicians would show some measure of civility, we look forward to them taking firmer actions towards errant employers and to improve the wage and living conditions of these foreign workers. The fair treatment of foreign workers in Singapore have larger implications for Singaporeans – it is precisely because the pay of foreign workers have been so heavily depressed that the wages of Singaporeans are depressed and have remained stagnant for the past few years. Singaporeans are forced to accept lower pay, in order to be employed. In order for Singaporeans to receive fairer and more equitable pay, the MOM needs to be firmer in their responsibility to take action against irresponsible employers, and ensure that downstream, workers receive fair compensation for work performed.

By Han Hui Hui, Leong Sze Hian and Roy Ngerng