In the last month or so, several people, journalists mostly, have asked my opinion whether, six to nine months after the People’s Action Party (PAP) received a bloodied nose at the 2011 general elections, anything has changed in the way Singapore is governed. In the main, I have said No.
In this article, I am going to give you an example why I don’t see any real change. My example relates to a news item involving foreign workers, not because foreign worker policy is the touchstone of political governance, but because it’s an area I am relatively knowledgeable about. I am sure readers can find similar examples from other policy areas that they have insight into, that equally illustrates little change. Also, the tale here is not about foreign workers per se, but about how the government continues to massage the news.
My point is this: If the government is expending so much effort massaging the news, it can only suggest that it has little interest in doing things any differently from before. It seems more concerned about LOOKING good, not DOING better.
My story begins with a news report on the Online Citizen, dated Monday, 6 February 2012: Construction workers strike at Tampines. The Straits Times didn’t report it until 06:00h on Tuesday, 7 Feb 2012, both online in its Breaking News section, and in that day’s print edition. The New Paper also reported it on Tuesday, as did Yahoo Singapore.
The gist of the story was that about 200 foreign workers, mostly from Bangladesh, downed tools when arriving at work on Monday, complaining that they had not been paid since November 2011. Additional complaints included being made to work overtime without overtime pay, poor quality of food despite having their pay docked for it, and deductions for future renewal of their work permits (it is illegal for an employer to charge workers for renewal). The police came, as did officers from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
The employers, Sunway Concrete Products and Techcom Construction & Trading, began paying November salaries by the afternoon, reportedly at the urging of MOM. They also promised to pay all outstanding salaries by the end of the week.
The strike that couldn’t speak its name
Yahoo titled its story ‘200 Bangladeshi workers stage sit-out over pay dispute’, the New Paper said ‘Workers stage 7 1/2-hour sit-in under blazing sun’ while the Straits Times’ headline was ‘Wage dispute resolved after 200 workers stage protest’.
Pause for a moment and look at the term each used:
- The Online Citizen called it a “strike”;
- The New Paper called it a “sit-in”;
- Yahoo called it a “sit-out”;
- and the Straits Times called it a “protest”.
One of the rules for headlining a news story is to use the most appropriate word in order to convey the gist of the story as economically as possible. The terms “sit-out”, “sit-in” and “protest” have broader meanings than “strike” — the former are words that can be used in situations not involving labour disputes — and by that simple measure, they are less appropriate words to use. There is a very specific term for the incident in the English language — “wildcat strike”. In this respect, therefore, The Online Citizen gave us the best headline.
Surely, the Straits Times, New Paper and Yahoo would know how to headline their news stories? Surely they would know the term “wildcat strike”? Yet they didn’t use it, not even in the body of the text. Why not?
I have information that MOM called at least two of these three media telling them not to use the word “strike”.
Crash. Bang. Fail. Nothing has changed.
Putting lipstick on a pig
Beyond the non-use of the word “strike”, the rest of the Straits Times headline was also from a bygone era. Putting the emphasis on the government valiantly saving the day, it read: “Wage dispute resolved after 200 workers stage protest; construction firms agree to pay salaries unpaid since November after MOM intervenes.”
This is quite absurd. The news value was not that the government flew in to restore peace, harmony and sunlight, but that a strike had occurred in the first place.
For example, if there was a six-car pile-up on an expressway with a driver critically injured, and the first report was headlined: “Road re-opened to traffic after blockage; man’s life saved after Civil Defence ambulance came to pick him up”, wouldn’t you laugh? It’s focussing on the secondary details, not the chief point of interest.
Yet the Straits Times story on the strike was in exactly the same vein.
Next, let’s analyse the stories themselves. There were altogether four reports in the Straits Times spread over five days. I have, in the graphic attached (click for a larger version in which you will be able to read the text), coloured the paragraphs to indicate the provenance of the information.
The first story was mostly reporting, with a bit from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and some quotes from the non-government organisation HOME.
Twenty-four hours later, the follow-up story was heavy with the government’s point of view. You can glimpse, between the lines, a push by MOM to put out its point of view, citing statistics that the number of worker claims lodged with them have fallen over the years. Then, patting itself on the back,
The MOM, which released the figures to the Straits Times yesterday, said the overall downward trend was likely due to a step-up in its outreach programmes.
Enforcement teams also carry out inspections on a regular basis, said its spokesman, who added that it takes a serious view of late salary payments.
— Straits Times, 8 February 2012, Fewer foreign workers filing claims: MOM
To be fair, it should be noted that the newspaper also reported that non-profit groups working on the issue did not support the ministry’s claim that workers’ complaints were getting less numerous. Nonetheless, taken as a whole, the article represented an attempt by the ministry, with the collusion of the newspaper, to paint the incident as an isolated one against a backdrop of rising happiness among foreign workers, and an attempt to fend off accusations that officials had not been doing their jobs, thus allowing abuses to flourish.
And there the matter would have rested, with the ministry having the final word, if not for Transient Workers Count Too issuing a press statement. This advocacy group took issue with the penultimate sentence in the second news story, which had said:
The MOM urges workers who had encountered irresponsible employers to lodge reports with it early.
Thus, a third story appeared, on Friday, 10 February. Again, some credit should be given to the Straits Times for running the third story; it could well have ignored TWC2’s statement. But even then, it reported only what was palatable to the government. Big chunks of the press release (full text below) were not mentioned at all, probably because what TWC2 said was too critical to publicise in our mainstream press.
What was reported was this:
Make it mandatory for employers of foreign workers to provide monthly payslips and deposit salaries into bank accounts.
These are among the recommendations sent by non-profit organisation Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), in the wake of Monday’s protest in Tampines by foreign workers over non-payment of salaries.
A salary slip showing detailed calculations of pay, overtime, allowances and deductions would ‘arm the employee with documentary proof as to whether he has been paid correctly, and whether illegal deductions have been levied’, said TWC2 vice-president Noorashikin Abdul Rahman.
‘Salaries paid through a bank account would also provide an audit trail as to how much was paid and when,’ added Dr Noorashikin, who is also a lecturer at a local polytechnic.
Currently, it is not mandatory to issue payslips to work-permit holders or deposit their pay into bank accounts.
— Straits Times, 10 Feb 2012, Make bosses issue payslips, says migrant help group
(The story contained a factual error: It said the recommendations had been sent to the ministry “in the wake of Monday’s protest”, when — and it was made clear in the original press release — it had been submitted before.)
The full press release can be seen below. You will immediately see that TWC2 provided the background why workers are reluctant to lodge salary complaints with the ministry. All these pious calls on workers to lodge complaints are meaningless if the ministry does nothing to address the huge costs of whistleblowing. Unless the ministry takes the trouble to rebalance the playing field, it shouldn’t pretend to be looking after workers’ rights. But of course, none of those points was carried in the Straits Times.
MOM needs to be more proactive than reactive over salary complaints by foreign workersThe recently reported strike by about 200 foreign workers at a worksite in Tampines over unpaid salaries once again highlights the inadequacy of existing systems for preventing such exploitation of labour by employers. (Straits Times, 7 Feb 2012, Wage dispute resolved after 200 workers stage protest, by Jessica Lim and Elizabeth Soh). The Straits Times report also mentions that workers had suffered deductions of $1,500 purportedly for future renewal of their work permits. Such deductions are illegal and yet are extremely common. But why is this illegal practice so widespread? Why do we regularly hear of unpaid salaries?During a current research project being undertaken by TWC2, a majority of Bangladeshi workers interviewed at Changi airport before their return home reported either having paid to renew their contracts or in a few cases, had to forego renewal of their contracts because they refused to pay the money demanded.The Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) essentially reactive approach to such problems is far from satisfactory. Moreover, MOM’s reliance on whistle-blowers (except in cases of mass protests) from among aggrieved employees before the ministry would start an investigation is unrealistic, especially as the ministry does nothing to protect whistle blowers from retribution by employers.MOM calls on workers to make formal complaints if they have not been paid. Such calls ignore the reality that (a) the employee seldom has documentary proof of his complaint and thus runs the risk that after exposing himself, his complaint is not taken seriously, (b) the employer typically terminates the complainant’s employment and tries to repatriate him as soon as possible.Given such a high risk to undertake and such a high price to pay (losing one’s job for which a workers would typically have paid thousands of dollars to secure), it is hardly any wonder that workers seldom respond to MOM’s call for early reporting of employer abuses.The result is a festering of grievances until enough workers are prepared to down tools. Mass action and safety in numbers provide workers protection from an employer’s wrath and retribution when MOM does not provide the same to a single, isolated complainant.To address these weaknesses in policy, TWC2 has proposed a few simple changes to the regulatory framework.1. It should be made mandatory for employers of foreign workers to provide a pay slip to each employee monthly showing detailed calculations of pay, overtime, allowances and deductions. This arms the employee with documentary proof as to whether he has been paid correctly, and whether illegal deductions have been levied.2. It should be made mandatory for salaries to be paid through a bank account. This provides an audit trail as to how much was paid and when.3. Employers should be penalised for premature termination of work permits. (Specific ideas were provided to MOM.)4. Employers should be incentivised to draw workers from a pool of transferable workers who are already in Singapore rather than bring in new workers. (Specific ideas were also provided to MOM.)Proposals (1) and (2) help address the issue of empowerment of the worker when he has a legitimate complaint, thus making whistle-blowing more effective. Proposals (3) and (4) provide workers with a little job security, so that the price they have to pay for making legitimate complaints against errant employers is not as high as at present. Such an improved framework would make it more likely that salary abuses are reported early and action taken.TWC2 put these proposals to the Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-jin more than a month ago. We have not so far received any response.It is also important to enforce whatever laws we have. Too often, when employers fail to pay workers or make illegal deductions from salaries, MOM treats the matter as one of civil dispute, when the fact is that one side has clearly broken the law. This case at Tampines, involving Sunway Concrete Products and Techcom Construction & Trading (as reported by the Straits Times), calls for prosecution and deterrent sentencing. TWC2 hopes MOM presses for that. It would send a wrong signal of impunity if such an outcome did not result.— Statement to the media by Transient Workers Count Too, 8 February 2012