Can everyone WorkRight?
Some 600 employers have denied workers their basic employment rights in the past year. More than half of the workers affected were in the low-wage bracket, in sectors such as cleaning, food and beverage, and retail. Not paying for overtime work topped the list of infringements, followed by not giving staff annual or medical leave.
The WorkRight initiative, which was launched jointly by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board last year, aims to help workers to know their employment rights, and ensure employers are aware of their obligations under Singapore’s employment laws.
While some employers deliberately flout the law, the majority are responsible, with a handful who are genuinely unaware of their obligations. “We have therefore also stepped up our efforts to educate this group of employers,” Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said at the first WorkRight Roadshow last month.
One example was Long Life Stationery Pte Ltd, which was unaware of its obligations regarding overtime pay. After a WorkRight inspection, Long Life Stationery rectified areas of non-compliance swiftly and made good any owed amounts of salary and CPF contributions for its 12 local workers. “The employer’s willingness to remedy its oversight promptly is the responsible thing to do,” said Tan.
Rights for all
While WorkRight has Singaporean workers covered, other employees are left in limbo. Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a non-profit organisation dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers, says that while the great majority of migrant workers are covered by the Employment Act, there are many cases in which employers do not abide by the law and enforcement is ineffective.
Lack of contracts binding employers to a certain salary scale, underpayment of regular salary and/or overtime, forced “savings” deductions that turn out to be unrecoverable, and unreasonable deductions for things such as food, housing, utilities, laundry, and income tax, are just some of the ways in which migrant workers’ rights have been quashed. Others include illegal deductions for work absences and company doctors who give them unduly short medical leave to keep company accident records looking good.
“There are companies against which we never hear complaints, but in some sectors, such as among sub-contractors in construction, abusive behaviour such as this is widespread,” says John Gee, Immediate Past President and Head of Research for TWC2.
Foreign workers often keep quiet about salary issues because to speak up would cause them to lose their jobs and be repatriated, he adds. These workers also worry, perhaps with good reason, that lodging a complaint would prejudice any future application to work again in Singapore.
“We think that in some cases, extra consideration needs to be given to migrant workers because of their vulnerable status as low-paid foreigners in Singapore,” he adds. “Unlike locals, they cannot change jobs at will, or stay with relatives and benefit from their support during difficulties with their employers, and they are often unfamiliar with how Singaporean institutions work.
“Therefore, we'd like to see them being protected against arbitrary deportation by their employers, and being given opportunities to seek alternative employment if they fall out with their employers, rather than being sent home.”
More can be done
John Gee, Head of Research for Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) says more can and should be done to ensure migrant workers have their rights too. He suggests:
- Removing employers' right to send workers home at will
- Allowing workers to not only join trade unions here but also take up posts in them and speak for themselves
- Allowing workers to change jobs if their relationship with their employer breaks down
- Ensuring promises about terms and conditions made in workers’ home countries are made in writing strictly enforced on their arrival
- Ensuring workers retain control of their own documents – work permits and passports
TWC2 has recently submitted its recommendations on the amendment of the Employment Act and the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act.
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To protect employees, the identity of anyone who files a complaint is kept strictly confidential.