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Cracking down on foreign worker abuse
Publication Date : 20-06-2012
In an economy that harnesses well over a million work-permit holders, a clear expression of fundamental employment rights is de rigueur. Fair contracts, safe working conditions and decent living arrangements reflect well on a society that is highly dependent on migrant labour. Existing legislation on this is being reviewed and the Manpower Ministry (MOM) was right to seek public opinion on proposed amendments to the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act.
Different perspectives have to be taken into account as foreign labour is a multifaceted issue. Many employers do act responsibly but inevitably, there are those who resort to devious means to gain unfair advantages. As noted by the ministry recently, common contractual violations include illegal salary deductions for medical fees, repatriation costs or breaches of work safety rules. What is particularly galling is the attitude of some errant employers. One boss was reported to have justified the deductions as a safeguard against restive workers who might "create too much trouble". This is wilful abuse, no ifs and buts.
One solution might be mandatory standard employment contracts for, say, the building sector. The MOM, the Building and Construction Authority, industry representatives and non-governmental organisations can work together to settle on terms fair to both sides.
While acknowledging that comprehensive protection exists against abuses in general, activists claim that the enforcement of laws and mechanisms of redress are inadequate. Low-skilled workers understandably might not act proactively when abuses arise, being unaware of their rights. Others remain silent because of the burden of debts to agents. Also, they might not be able to continue working when investigations are commenced. Such concerns should be addressed by streamlining the reporting and claims procedures. On the part of regulators, the investigation of abuses is not always straightforward as cases of illegal employment and others are becoming 'increasingly complex' and might involve syndicates that 'devise new modus operandi to counter prevailing enforcement approaches', as MOM noted.
Contract disputes aside, migrant labour issues have drawn negative attention because of the longstanding blight of poor housing conditions and cases of badly injured workers packed off or even abandoned. The proposed amendments can help stem abuses by increasing penalties for infringements and granting more investigatory powers to enforcement officers to successfully prosecute those who are responsible for unscrupulous practices.