Neither law nor morality at Manpower ministry

The attitude of the government official in the cartoon above is exactly the attitude adopted by the Ministry of Manpower whenever workers bring complaints to them. I don’t only refer to foreign workers; I’ve heard similar frustrations from Singapore employees when they claim to have been shortchanged — albeit these examples were from several years ago. Rogue employers (and these are a small fraction of employers, most of whom are honourable) are like the robber above. Their failure to pay what’s due to workers has the same effect as robbing them.

Officials from the ministry approach all such cases as disputes between equals when the reality is that one side has more power than the other. They also tend to apply moral equivalence to both sides even when it is very obvious that one side is in the wrong.

Thus, when Tan Chuan-jin claims that

In 2010, more than 90% of employment disputes lodged by all workers were resolved through mediation within 6 weeks upon the Ministry’s intervention

as he did in a Facebook posting on 13 July 2011, you really have to wonder what he means by “resolved”.

Speak to any volunteer working with migrant workers and you will hear no end of stories about workers unpaid for months, and then when they lodge a complaint with the ministry, they find the ministry applying no pressure at all on the employers to pay up. Almost always, the companies do not deny that they have failed to pay salaries; what they tend to do in these “mediation sessions” is to raise complications about how salaries should be calculated, what deductions should be taken out and so on, to excuse their failure.

Yet, the Employment Act says that in any contract of work, there should be a defined salary period, which must not be longer than one month — if the contract is silent, the law says it is assumed to be the calendar month — and that:

21. —(1) Salary earned by an employee under a contract of service, other than additional payments for overtime work, shall be paid before the expiry of the 7th day after the last day of the salary period in respect of which the salary is payable.

(2) Additional payments for overtime work shall be paid not later than 14 days after the last day of the salary period during which the overtime work was performed.

So, the moment an employer admits that he did not pay his workers their basic salaries by the first week after the end of the previous month, and only quibbles about the details, he has committed an offence.  Ditto with overtime pay. These can remain unpaid for months when the law clearly says it must be paid by the middle of the following month. But we next to never hear of the Ministry of Manpower prosecuting any employer for this.

Tan Chuan-jin himself reiterated in his Facebook posting that

Let me be definitive about this. MOM is responsible to look after for all workers and this includes Foreign Workers (FW). Laws are enacted {Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA), Employment Act (EA), Workmen Injury and Compensation Act (WICA)} to ensure their welfare is taken care of and protection is given for those embroiled in salary disputes.

What’s the use of fine words like these, if the reality is that the ministry hardly ever prosecutes anyone, and if in “mediation sessions” officials pretend there is no such legal obligation on employers. Even if the ministry’s press secretary can trundle out one or two prosecutions in a year in an attempt to refute my point, it’s but a drop in an ocean compared to the hundreds or thousands of complaints they get. From experience, employers can safely count on the ministry turning a blind eye to their infractions, allowing mediation to drag on and on even when they are clearly in the wrong.

Tan boasts that over 90 percent of cases are “resolved” within six weeks. Six weeks is long time for workers who have not been paid for months and are broke while waiting for their cases to be settled. Where are they going to get their next meal from? Their Work Permit ties them to the employer with whom they are in dispute, which means it would be illegal for them to seek alternative work in order to survive. Exploiting their vulnerability, what typically happens is that employers offer to pay less than what the workers are owed, the ministry leans on the workers to accept the “compromise” and in sheer desperation, the workers find they have no choice.

Then the civil servant in charge chalks it up as a “successful resolution”, looking forward to a glowing annual appraisal.

Like in my cartoon above, the result is a moral injustice. It is not “resolved” by any moral meaning of the word.

Tan, who is the new minister of state at Manpower, should use the opportunity to scrutinise the information he is being fed with by his officials. As a new man in charge, he should be a new broom.  It is disappointing that the first thing he does is to get all defensive about his new department. Instead, the first question he should ask his officials is how many migrant workers have their claims satisfied in full. Then ask, of the total number of cases brought to his ministry’s notice of salary arrears, how many employers have been prosecuted.

* * * * *

The other two areas that tend to generate worker complaints are medical expenses and accommodation. The ministry’s website makes it very clear that the conditions for employers obtaining Work Permits include habitable accommodation and medical benefits. With respect to the latter, the website is unequivocal that:

Employers are required to purchase and maintain a minimum medical insurance coverage of $15,000 per year for each Work Permit holder for inpatient care and day surgery. This includes hospital bills for conditions that may not be work-related.

And yet we have employers reneging on that. When worker complaints reach the ministry, officials remain unmoved. Like in salary disputes, officials generally act like neutral referees when one side is clearly in the wrong again. Cases would be more speedily concluded (remember productivity, anyone?) if officials would quickly size up which party is in the right and which in the wrong, and start applying the law. Before long, employers will get the message and complaints will decrease.

* * * * *

In addition to merely fighting fires more effectively, the ministry should reexamine some of the structural reasons why the problems never seem to end.  In a subsequent article, I am going to explain why an entire industry has grown up that is parasitic on migrant workers. We’ll never solve these problems in any substantial way until we deal with the underlying structural issues.

Yet even short of that, there are two more simple things (in addition to applying the law) that can be done to reduce the number of cases that occur.

The first is to maintain a blacklist of employers. Readers will probably agree it is absurd to hear of employers being able to get more Work Permits to bring in more workers even when they have a history of worker complaints. And yet, this is the situation that exists. It’s the usual 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of the cases come from 20 percent of employers — perhaps not even 20, but as few as two percent. Coming down hard on the rogue employers is not going to hurt Singapore’s economy, because the majority of employers are not sources of problems.

No doubt errant employers will try to get around a blacklist by setting up multiple companies. Well, then track the directors, or track the office address. You’ll see the same names or addresses cropping up again and again.  If volunteers at non-profit groups can see a pattern, it is ridiculous that ministry officials cannot.

The second thing that can be done is to set up a centralised payment system. Persian Gulf states have a bad reputation for treatment of migrant workers too, yet the United Arab Emirates at least tries to improve things, where Singapore does not even bother.

Starting 2009, employers of migrant workers in the UAE had to make arrangements with a bank to pay all salaries through the bank. See this link. The bank monitors that payments are made and reports failures to the government. In our case we don’t even need to involve banks for monitoring, since employers have to pay a levy to the government every month, which the government monitors closely. Since we already have a centralised levy payment system tied to Work Permits, what is so difficult about requiring all employers of migrant workers to remit the entire sum (levy + basic salary + overtime pay)  to a central payment exchange run by the ministry, which then redistributes the salary component to the workers’ bank accounts? That should immediately nip a great majority of salary cases in the bud.

Tan Chuan-jin should think of his job as one of rolling up his sleeves and making things better, not defending the indefensible record of the ministry.

31 Responses to “Neither law nor morality at Manpower ministry”

  1. 1 citizen 15 July 2011 at 08:36

    my wife encountered the MOM recently. she was treated as if she was a suspect in a criminal case. first no one was allowed to be in the interview room other than MOM officials. as the husband, i was told that my presence was not required. fine, its no problem. BUT she was not allowed to make phone calls and the interview went on for hours, about 3 hours if i recall correctly. then on the second interview, she was shouted at by the MOM officer conducting the interview. they were more interested to know if there was any collusion between her and the miad agency.
    the case? it was regarding some procedural matter to determine if the maid agency followed their procedure. our maid ran away and did not make any allegation about any ill treatment other than she was stressed. she ran away on a friday afternoon and did not surface until monday at a maid shelter. they did not bother to find out where was she during the period until she turned up at the maid shelter. instead they wanted to know when the maid started work at our place. thats all. we had already told the maid that she could leave when we find a replacement. why the hell did MOM have to treat its citizens in such a poor manner. IF there was a complaint about mistreatment or abuse, then its okay, BUT for a procedural matter? and, we were not allowed to engage another maid until they cleared the matter.

  2. 2 Sad case 15 July 2011 at 08:47

    Ministry of Manpower not only neglect foreign workers, they do/did that to locals too. Many years back after I graduated, I worked as a temp HR assistant a restructured government hospital under a recruiting company. The recruiting company did not pay my wage despite me chasing them over the phone serveral times. When I went down to the company which address was listed on the namecard provided by the agent, the company did not exist. I went to my MP Ng Eng Hen, the minister then in charge of MOM and was referred to there. I was called up by MOM to ask for details and after a long time I did not hear from them. I went back to Ng and to my shock I was scolded by him for what he deemed as chasing the matter. I was a victim of a scam. The 2nd referral MOM met me and told me that they found out from the police that there were a few cases similar to mine cheated by the same agent. They said if I want payment have to approach the Court (was it Small Claims?) to file as the company was a small proprioter. Due to the complication to the then fresh grad me and the high possibility that i had to go through alot of hassle and spend more money with no results, I gave up the 1-2 months pay. I learnt my lesson not to trust these government agencies to handle my problems and even The government hospital could end up hiring a cheat agent with police records. If MOM could work with the police then to pursue payment to those like me cheated by the agent, we could have gotten some payment instead of pushing us to pursue the matter elsewhere on our own.

  3. 3 anon 15 July 2011 at 09:19


    Basically, we have a situation where the govt and its agents feel that they can get away with a lot of things with impunity, however repulsive it may be to ordinary folks and common decency.

    It is shameless and opportunistic and does things with complete disregard to others, including its own citizens. In other words it has become a monster.

    Instead of making our country a place held in high regard for its progressive and enlightened policies, it has turned into a poisonous toad inward looking and selfish that our neighbours abhor and delight in castigating.

    The truly unfortunate point is that the father and son and their coterie of followers and yesmen actually believe that their actions and behaviour is actually justified. We are in truth a disaster of a nation lead by one monstrous hypocritical party. How long will they and by implication we last is a good question.

  4. 4 so1trg 15 July 2011 at 09:40

    unforunately, our govt and service service is ingrained with the culture that we should not rock the boat.

    Rocking the boat and changing things without improving the country’s GDP will condemn you to grade D. The ultimate of all condemnations.

  5. 5 Shaun Liew 15 July 2011 at 09:53

    FW are considered “Transient” in Singapore, and if they have a complain, the government will not do anything, and it is resolved. If this is the best way, the minister will learn and apply this. Morals and law does not apply to stupid processes governed by uncaring ministers.

    Anyway, they will get their huge salaries without even getting elected or picked by the people. (Can just hide behind the coattails of MM or someone known)

  6. 6 Andrew Tham 15 July 2011 at 10:45

    Never forget that our forefathers, some of whom are still among us today, were migrant workers treated harshly. This current situation is a conviction of all responsible. I’ll say it again: never forget our roots.

    • 7 Brendan 15 July 2011 at 14:49

      Your point is ???

      • 8 JS 15 July 2011 at 17:02

        Perhaps he means that migrant workers today are like just like our forefathers who arrived at our shores, they are expected to be ragged by the towkays and those who arrived earlier. Our forefathers have paid their dues, so it feels good to see others try to run the gauntlet. That’s our roots, dear boy. Human nature.

        We are better than that today, aren’t we?

  7. 9 Robert L 15 July 2011 at 15:42

    Andrew Tham said, “Never forget that our forefathers, some of whom are still among us today, were migrant workers treated harshly. This current situation is a conviction of all responsible. I’ll say it again: never forget our roots.”

    Excuse me, I have seen this kind of sentiment expressed all too often, I beg that we should put that in its proper perspective.

    Our forefathers, those who were migrant workers, settled here when this place was a sleepy fishing village. It’s their toil that made this island a thriving business city.

    The present migrant workers come at a time when our crowded little island is bursting at the seams. Who among the readers here do not see the problems of the crowded buses, rail transit system and roads/”expressways” and the food outlets?

    The present migrant workers now also drive the locals out of jobs because they accept lower wages. Who among the readers here still buy the official story that local workers are “too choosy”, a story that all employers are quick to propagate with their constant drone of “no local workers applying for their jobs?”

    Have we not seen the pleas of local nurses crying out for better pay and working hours? Who among the readers here still believe the official line that we need to import more cheap foreign nurses? Can we have a cheap import Prime Minister instead?

    In comparing migrant workers of our forefathers’ times and those of today, let us look at giving a bar of chocolate to a starving African native as against giving the same bar to an obese middle manager.

    I’ve thought long and hard in adding this last paragraph. God said, “Go forth and multiply”. Yeah, right, that was when the planet had 9 Tribes. Today the world population is well over 6 Billion (6,000,000,000). The very carbon dioxide that we generate threatens to change the climate of the planet. We are reaching the stage where we eat our own shit and drink our own urine. We should put that in its proper perspective, yet people are still buying the line on go forth and multiply. Go figure.

    • 10 yawningbread 15 July 2011 at 17:16

      It’s you who’s missing the point. At no point is an argument being made that there should be free flow of migrant workers. The argument is that if they are already here, we should treat them decently.

      As for low salaries, it’s not migrant workers who are wanting low salaries (do you imagine that if we offered them higher pay, they’d turn the offer down?) it is the result of policy that turns a blind eye to employers using all means available to exploit the workers for the least possible pay (including not paying what they contracted to pay in the first place!).

  8. 11 Loh 15 July 2011 at 18:25

    Great post, Alex. Tan Chuan Jin will surely read your blog, now that your previous article was mentioned in the Straits Times. Let’s hope the guy has a conscience and do something to put things right.

  9. 12 Mac the Knife 15 July 2011 at 19:10

    Why do u think there is no room for workers to go on strike or even a peaceful demo, unlike in the 50s and 60s – and even early 70s?

    Why do u think NTUC is representative of the unions and the workers ONLY IN NAME?

    Why do u think NTUC is so close to the govt that many even feel it is part of the govt? If that’s the case – which I know it is – then how can unions fight for their aggrieved workers when they are bullied by their employers, many of whom are guilty of it day in and day out?

    Mac the Knife

  10. 13 Ian 15 July 2011 at 21:07

    yellow shirt guy – heterosexist community
    bald guy with specs – govt.
    blue shirt guy – LGBT

    Oh hey we got a match!

  11. 14 K Das 15 July 2011 at 21:58

    As a sort of an NGO functionary (?) it is commendable to see Alex championing the cause of vulnerable and disadvantaged foreign workers who are shortchanged by unscrupulous employers routinely. It needs humanity, passion, commitment and a sense of social justice to get involved in this field.

    It is not that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is not looking into these issues seriously enough. They do. There are hundreds of cases every month – reported and unreported – concerning non and under payment of wages and disputes over injury claims. MOM will be overwhelmed if they were to look into each and every case with unrealistic expectation of thoroughness. There will be gridlock. Both sides (employer and worker) will have their own stories to tell. MOM has to tread the middle ground though their approach generally is pro-worker. What is just to the worker may be unjust to the employer and vice versa.

    Last week I came across a case involving a local elderly worker. His right foot along the last two toes and downwards became a patch of deformed and twisted flesh. He walked limping heavily. He worked as a cleaner with a cleaning company and claimed the injury was caused on account of chemicals being used in the cleaning job daily and his feet coming in contact with these chemicals. He was required to wear safety boots his employer has supplied, whilst doing the cleaning works. He had spent some $20,000 of his own money for medical treatment and wanted some $35,000 as compensation from his employer, who denied liability as it contended the injury caused was not work related. An investigation by the employer’s insurance company revealed that the worker has diabetes and this was pre-existing before he joined the company. Under the workmen compensation act (?) the worker had no grounds to file for any claim because the nature of his injury is not covered under the act. For a claim under this act, the injury must have been caused instantaneously at the worksite like fracture, burns, loss of limps and the likes. Nevertheless the MOM as honest broker managed to secure the worker a partial sum on compassionate and goodwill grounds.

    Your suggestion that salaries of migrant workers be paid into a central payment exchange run by MOM and for the Ministry to subsequently credit the amounts into the bank accounts of these workers is a very good one. But the employers will be up in the arms against this idea ass this may create, amongst others, cash flow problems for them, especially the small timers.

    • 15 yawningbread 15 July 2011 at 23:35

      You wrote: “Your suggestion that salaries of migrant workers be paid into a central payment exchange run by MOM and for the Ministry to subsequently credit the amounts into the bank accounts of these workers is a very good one. But the employers will be up in the arms against this idea ass this may create, amongst others, cash flow problems for them, especially the small timers.”

      Do you seriously mean to say that employers should have the freedom to pay salaries late, with or without a central payment system?

      • 16 K Das 16 July 2011 at 17:07

        Of course not. All I am saying is that there will be resistance from a large body of employers to this idea.

        Cash flow problem is something we all encounter at some point in our life especially when we run a business or company. The issue is more of delayed payment and not of non-payment of wages. Imagine Co A has a wage bill of $500,000 to pay before the 7th of the month. An expected sum of $700,000 from its major client, due to be received by the 1st, has been rescheduled to be paid 10 days later. The Co pays $450,000 of the wages from the cash it has in hand leaving a balance of $50,000 owing the workers. The management explains the situation to the unpaid workers and eventually does so after few days delay. There are hundreds of such things happening particularly in the construction industry. Must MOM go after their blood in such situations?

        Perhaps employers who have repeat complaints against them for default payment of the workers salaries can be brought under the central payment system.

      • 17 yawningbread 17 July 2011 at 11:59

        If cash flow is a problem, the solution is to go to a bank and get a bridging loan; the solution is NOT to break contractual (and legal) obligation to pay one’s staff on time. Of course getting a loan from a bank means having to pay interest, while getting money from employees (the effect of not paying them however temporarily) is to extract an interest-free loan from employees. The first is an ethical way of doing business, the second is not, since employees are often in a relatively powerless position (let alone the failure to honour contracts).

        Some companies of course will not qualify for loans from banks. Perhaps their credit-history is suspect. Perhaps they actually have no ongoing business to prove to the banks that they can repay those loans. The question then is: Why are such companies with bad credit-history or no projects in their pipelines, able to get work permits?

  12. 18 whispering.dew@gmail,com 15 July 2011 at 23:43

    All these transient workers are like meat on employer’s chopping board. Whether an employee is being chopped a big chunk or small portion is a complete disgrace to Singapore so-called gracious society. If hurting someone in this manner, regardless of his/her degree of pain, without MOM protection is something TCJ feels proud of, than what is our minister good for? That also reminds us that TCJ told the media during election that rhetorics are quite common from ministers’ speech. He probably has felt it himself when he defended MOM credibility.

  13. 19 Dolphin 16 July 2011 at 14:27

    Your article title suggested that this is a MOM matter. Tan Chuan-jin for all his worth is only a Minister of State. While your points are valid that being a new man, Tan should be less defensive and take the opportunity to make things better, the new Minister of Manpower is Tharman, he is the number one man in MOM and is ultimately responsible for calling the shots. Of course he is also holding on to other numerous portfolios, however that is an internal matter for the ruling party. I do not recall any Minister of State, not even those from MND or MHA, that have ever being taken to task the way Tan has been scrutinised by the netizens in recent days. Tan is not the minister, he is not even a full minister, as such I doubt he is able to make major changes.

    • 20 Paul 20 July 2011 at 13:35

      “Tan is not the minister, he is not even a full minister, as such I doubt he is able to make major changes.”

      Yes, but I think the larger point is that even if he isn’t at the very top of the totem pole, with the final say or power to effect changes, it is the responsible thing to do to critically examine the issue and present a case (or even a plan) for reform to the person who is, rather than simply defending the status quo by reflex.

      In any case, while a MoS isn’t the head honcho, s/he isn’t exactly a lowly flunky either; s/he certainly has privileged access to the Minister.

      • 21 Dolphin 22 July 2011 at 08:21

        “In any case, while a MoS isn’t the head honcho, s/he isn’t exactly a lowly flunky either; s/he certainly has privileged access to the Minister.”

        That would have applied to any other MOS in all the ministries. Yet no one picked on MOS from MHA or MND in all the previous sagas. For an issue with MOM, suddenly the MOS is taken to task and not a word mentioned on Tharman who is the actual Minister.

        Now I am all for alternate views in parliament. However, I have also noticed a trend among neitzens in Singapore to single out and picked on particular politician they do not like. In my opinion this is not healthy and blur the issue. If this is an MOM issue why not mention Tharman, or is this actually a Tan Chuan-jin issue? Just like Tin Pei Ling or whoever.

  14. 22 zoet76 16 July 2011 at 19:43

    Today Singapore is a pale shadow from the one of the past. Today’s civil service and agency standards are appalling. Oh wait, someone will probably accuse me of tearing down institutions.

  15. 23 John 17 July 2011 at 19:24

    But if we don’t ill-treat migrant workers by delaying their pay, cutting their pay or even outright not paying them, then we will have less money ourselves to spend.

    I need a pay raise to buy a new condo, send my kids to high-achievers’ camp and for my own retirement plan. If I don’t prey on the weak and poor, then who can I prey on?

  16. 24 Link 18 July 2011 at 23:48

    The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’

  17. 25 Anonymous 19 July 2011 at 10:02

    You eat your own cooking, if you know this government all along has a track record of being ridiculously pro employer and pro business to the detriment of the employee and worker, why do you guys still support them to run this country? If 60% of the citizens in this country supported this government and voted for them, you have no right to complain here, as the mesaage I get here is that the majority is very happy with the policies and actions of this government

  18. 26 a good start 28 July 2011 at 01:18

    Just saw this post and the TWC2 open letter on the same topic, and I am heartened to see fellow Singaporeans standing up for employment pass holders (trying to avoid the term “foreign worker”, since it sounds kind of derogatory). It is a good start to call out the government on its own commitments!

    However, as is the nature of most NGO work, the success of this effort relies on 1) public engagement, 2) time/persistence and 3) government support. I’m confident that there will be a breakthrough, but it will be a long time coming, and it will probably be unglamorous when it happens. But then again, doing the right thing is usually seen as unglamorous nowadays.

    Just a note of support – no claims or evidence advanced here!

  19. 27 taxi-guy 12 September 2011 at 02:44

    I used to work at then Labour Relations Department for 6 yrs in MOM and was a socalled reconciliation officer for disputes between employer and employees. Yes, this branch of MOM certainly don’t want to do prosecute errant and recalcitrant employers. At the time, many of us rather will try our darnest to “settle amicable”, not really bothering about Employment Act infringements or true injustices being meted out towards the suffering employees. It is sometimes likened to a back-alley marketplace mentally amongst the MOM officers i.e as far as possible, resolve the dispute amicably, no matter whether employee is shortchanged or not. So long there is a settlement, no need to recommend prosecution towards errant employers because that would mean a whole pile of paperwork and additional efforts.
    It is actually quite a joke because even the damn Director of the department can candidly admit in closed door meetings that the Employment Laws are truly “pro-employer” and that when in any public communication with members of the public, we were always told to try our best to give a “non-reply”!!! haha. cannot convince them, confuse them!!!!


    ex-MOM officer

    • 28 SCO 19 December 2012 at 06:41

      I sincerely regret that you did not recognise the opportunity you had, & the position you were in, those 6 years in the Department, to make a difference in the lives of employees. Had you recognised this, the position you were in to help these workers, you might have taken greater pride in your work & persevered in it, despite the contraints faced, despite public criticism, something you would very well have been acquainted with, having spent 6 years there. YOU could have been the difference.

  20. 29 starchf 18 December 2012 at 18:17

    When i wanted to make a complaint against my ex-employer HP, the MOM officer says “Cannot” – a clearly biased statement against local employees. Just before i told him the company name, he was so gung-ho about taking action.

  21. 30 Daphne 19 December 2012 at 05:51

    I’m surprised that few people have expressed any kind of feeling disturbed by the fact that our ‘union’ head is a politician. Look at any other union in other countries, and that is unheard of. Unfortunately, I think many working Singaporeans today barely think of it as unusual because we’ve just not known it any other way, nor even thought about what a labour union is for.

    Singapore is really sealing its reputation as a cesspit for foreign labour. Lest we forget we all wallow in the same pit.

  22. 31 atans1 19 December 2012 at 09:36

    Alex, Have you tried to get bridging finance from a bank recently. I have not as I’m retired, but friends who run biz tell me that even with MNC debtors and documentation and track record, not easy to borrow from banks. And its not only tiny operation. Eurozone crisis means the Eurozone banks no longer in the mkt for loans.

    It’s not only bad employers. Cash flow is a problem. Govt and agencies like HDB should set gd example. Pay on time.

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