Who chases workers up cranes?

pic_201212_05Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said the recent SMRT bus drivers’ strike was a “wake-up call” to employers, asking them to reflect on their own human resource and feedback systems.

Are there avenues for complaints and so on available? Are they working the way they are supposed to and so on?

— Today, 4 December 2012, SMRT drivers’ illegal strike a wake-up call for companies: Tan Chuan-Jin

He should start with his own ministry. Are there effective avenues for complaints and satisfactory resolution for workers at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM)? Are they working the way they are supposed to?

The same newspaper story reported that Tan emphasised that there are rules and regulations to deal with grievances and frustrations whether they be from employees or employers. Are MOM’s rules even-handed and fair? Does he understand how those rules and regulations act against workers?

The recent case of two workers who climbed a crane in protest should be a wake-up call to the MOM. When asked why they took matters into their own hands and not rely on MOM, they were reported to have said that going to MOM to lodge their claims was “troublesome”. Naturally our mainstream media didn’t think it important to investigate what they meant by that, but frankly, there is no smoke without fire.

Their despair about MOM’s processes is an indictment of the ministry, and Tan Chuan-Jin should pay attention to his own turf’s failings before lecturing companies — not that some companies don’t have failings too. The fact is, companies feel an impunity with the way they treat their staff when they know that MOM will not lift much of a finger to help workers get justice.

* * * * *

Before the dramatic events, Zhu Guilei and Wu Xiaolin went to their company office over what they felt were salary arrears. My source tells me that the company acknowledged that they were owed money, slightly above $1,200 in one case and over $2,000 in the other. However the company wanted to deduct various expenses, including several months’ accommodation and return airfare, effectively negating their claims.

The two men thought that not only were the deductions unjust, it was absurd that they had not been told of this before.

They went to MOM to lodge a complaint about the owed salaries, the unannounced deductions and the net effect of  negating their claims. The officer at MOM told them to bring documentary proof. Our mainstream media reported as much, though it added a line about their “agreeing” to do so — words that came from MOM, not the workers.

. . . gone to the Ministry of Manpower on Wednesday and said they were owed salaries by their employer, Zhong Jiang (Singapore) International, whose parent company is a China state-owned construction firm. However, they did not have the necessary documents to support their claims and MOM officers asked them to return with the documents for investigation. They had agreed to do so, an MOM spokesperson said.

– Today, 7 December 2012, Two workers protest on crane over wage dispute, by Louisa Tang

How could they agree to provide proof? From my experience volunteering with Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), offending companies typically keep all records to themselves, if at all they maintain them. They do their darnest not to provide their employees with any documentation. No time sheets, no pay calculations, no records of payment. I don’t know exactly what paperwork Zhu and Wu had, but my guess is that they had been provided none by their employer. If so, the men would have been disgusted by the unrealistic and dismissive attitude of MOM, and it should hardly be surprising that the men felt they had to do something dramatic to highlight their case.

They climbed a high construction crane and stayed on the 10-storey high crane at Jurong Port Road for about nine hours on Thursday 6 December 2012. They were arrested when they climbed down and now face charges of criminal trespass.

pic_201212_06Tan Chuan-Jin should be ashamed. While the men’s grievances were rooted in the company’s behaviour, the immediate trigger for their protest action was the MOM’s own unhelpful attitude. But of course, the government would love us to see the workers as the hooligans, and not point fingers at the ministry.

Interestingly, I’m not the only one who noted the inbuilt laziness of the MOM. In a comment below the Tan Chuan-Jin’s Facebook post saying the same thing about the workers “agreeing to return with proof”, Facebook reader Jake Tan wrote:

In colonial times, there was the Chinese Protectorate to look after the rights of migrant workers from China. If MOM’s role is just to wait for documents, is our protection of migrant workers worse than colonial times?

* * * * *

Readers might also have noticed that Tan Chuan-Jin said in his Facebook post that “MOM requires documentation from workers in order to substantiate their claims”, but he seems ignorant of the power imbalance between low-wage  (especially migrant) workers, and employers. As mentioned above, it is the companies that have the documents, why ask workers for them? Isn’t it the MOM officer’s job to investigate, asking the employer for documents if need be? Why penalise workers for not having them?

Any right-thinking person will know that in order to redress this imbalance, the authorities must act to empower workers to acquire necessary documents. If you don’t give workers the right to documentation, you shouldn’t be asking them for documents.

In this respect, TWC2 has long argued that MOM should make it mandatory for employers to provide employees each month with copies of their timesheets, an itemised pay slip showing clearly how the total salary was computed and for payment to be made through a bank account so that there is an audit trail. For a long time, there was no action on MOM’s part, as if our proposals have been flushed down a black hole.

Then in recent proposals for amendment to the Employment Act, the government suggested that

To minimise disputes and raise awareness of employee’s salary entitlement: The [Employment Act] currently does not require employers to provide their employees with a copy of their monthly salary records or maintain other forms of employment records such as records of their employees’ working hours and paid sick leave entitlements. To raise awareness among employees of their salary and employment rights; and to help employers minimise instances of disputes arising from inadequate documentation, it is proposed that employers be required to maintain detailed employment records of their employees and that employees be accorded the right to a written salary payslip.

Proposal: Require employers to maintain detailed employment records and to provide written payslips to their employees upon request.

(emphasis mine)

Upon request? It’s like suffering massive constipation and laying a peanut. It will do nothing to solve the problem. Employers will merrily threaten foreign workers (verbally of course, so there is no proof) with immediate termination and repatriation if they have the gall to request for written pay slips. Net result: no one will dare ask for pay slips.

One way for workers to face up to such threats is if they organised. Say 200 of them got together to ask for payslips. Would a company risk having to sack 200 workers? But if 200 workers got together to coordinate their actions, would MOM then step in and start arresting workers for industrial action?

We must understand the difference between rights on paper and substantive rights.

I can well imagine that when employees are not paid properly and go to MOM to lodge complaints, MOM officers will continue to say the workers are at fault for not having and bringing proof.

Forget the “request” business. Make it mandatory. Build in a presumption clause that if the employer fails to voluntarily provide a detailed and written calculation and organise a bank trail to show that the promised sum has actually been paid, then the employer is presumed not to have paid the salary. The onus of proof must lie with the employer — the one controlling the documents — not the employee.

There is a chance that MOM will say, “Oh, but we never thought of the possibility that employers might threaten employees with the sack for asking for a payslip,” to explain why they are tiptoeing around the problem. If they even try that excuse then they only show that they don’t even know the true conditions faced by workers on a daily basis. What calibre of officials is that when they don’t know what’s going on in their area of work? They’d just be heaping disgrace upon shame.

See also Andrew Loh’s commentary on Yahoo: ‘Proper channels’ for workers aren’t adequate

To Tan Chuan-Jin: It’s not just some blacksheep companies. Your own ministry is a shambles. Get your own house in order, get your officers doing the investigative work they are paid for. Reflect on your ministry’s in-built bias against workers. Do some plumbing and unchoke the avenues for case resolution that your ministry claims to provide.

35 Responses to “Who chases workers up cranes?”

  1. 1 yuen 15 December 2012 at 17:30

    feedback channels must not only exist, but must be seen to exist; in other words, people need to regularly hear that such channels have been used and the problems that existed before have been solved; this unfortunately detracts from the -image- of great leadership with -apparent- absence of problems; being able to resolve this dilemma requires real leadership

  2. 2 LT 15 December 2012 at 17:32

    I have first hand experience with MOM when dealing with my maid who is under theft investigations. To say that they are bias against workers is unjust. They were totally for the maid who was denied salary from me, and chasing me for the outstanding salary even when police investigations are still being carries out. Finally, the case was concluded that the maid did not steal my money as the police could not find enough evidence to charge her. As far as I am concerned, I lost over $10k of cash and valuables, I found a drunk maid at home, I had a CCTV of a stranger entering my apartment block, cash remittance receipt of amounts of monies that is much more than her salaries but claimed that the monies were borrowed and not stolen. Our police officers have bigger fish to fry than such small case like mine and took more than a year of investigations before concluding that there is no case against her and I have MOM on my back despite being a victim myself. So no, I don’t think MOM is incompetent. They were very competent chasing the $800+ for my maid. And I have to add, for one year she is with her agent doing what I don’t know, but she turned down MOM’s assistance scheme to help enployees that are under investigations, yes, they even have such a thing.

    • 3 Patrick 15 December 2012 at 21:48

      I agree with you that this is not an issue of bias but more of MOM looking after their own self interest and doing the bare minimum.

    • 4 henry 16 December 2012 at 14:00

      Corporations are far too challenging to deal with as opposed to single employee employers like you ( and I ). Being individuals, we are easily threatened. Corporations being large business entities can hide, delay and beat around the bush.

      Someone higher up decided long ago to deal with domestic maid issues with gentleness, perhaps while holding hands with a Non Government Organisation (NGO) who always support day off for maids.( and they have succeeded while local workers have failed in getting higher wages)

      I agree with Mr Au that legislation is the route to protect all workers regardless of their status, nationalities. Business owners are very powerful in influencing Government. As poster K Das has written, parliamentarians are mostly business owners themselves or have vested interests that they will not do anything to jeoprodise their positions.

      This is a behaviour that irks me the most and it signals that sincerity is furthest from the Government’s attitudes.

  3. 5 Why MOM will not act. 15 December 2012 at 19:10

    Alex, you have to understand that many MPs are business owners, directors and shareholders of these companies. How do you expect these people to support anything that works against their selfish self interest? Please spare some thoughts for the paper Minister who need the support of these sycophants and cronies at the parliament.

    • 6 Lye Khuen Way 16 December 2012 at 12:13

      I do have much regards for the Acting Minister, but Alex’ point is not unfair.
      The MOM must be more proactive. And seen to be working,

      To be fair, almost all “coverment” agencies score poorly in this.

      The ultimate culprit? No prize offered.

  4. 7 K Das 15 December 2012 at 21:16

    This is a hard hitting piece directed at MOM. I am not sure if the Ministry deserves it.

    Mr. Tan Chuan-Jin is a bright and affable Minister but it has to be noted that managing Manpower Ministry is really a tough job. Apart from the briefings from his officials, he no doubt, would also be getting real situational inputs from the ground and involved parties. Look at the amendment to the Employment Act proposed: “Require employers to maintain detailed employment records and to provide written pay slips to their employees upon request”. I sense that the underlined qualifier must have been added under pressure from chieftains of the construction industry. They and their Employers Federation are very powerful groups and Mr. Tan, may well know, that he has to tread with care and caution as the construction industry sector is one of the leading contributors to our economy. I am optimistic that the “upon request” term will be deleted soon. The Minister may have to drive some sense into the heads of some of the industry players who may be opposed to this idea.

    Though the workers generally are law-abiding and give no problems to the employers, there are significant many who can be real pain in the neck with their misconduct, absenteeism, and reporting to authorities with inaccurate or exaggerated claims.

    If the Minister reads this blog, my wish is that he invites you over for a ‘chat’ and tap your brain since you have a reservoir of knowledge in this specific area. I am sure you have a lot more to contribute to benefit both the foreign workers and the Ministry.

    • 8 Chanel 15 December 2012 at 21:39

      K Das,

      U talk like u know Tan Chuan Jin very well.

      Please lah if managing the manpowe ministry of tiny S’pore is such a “tough” job, then what about managing the US? Malaysia? Indonesia? China?…….

      • 9 K Das 15 December 2012 at 23:42

        I do not know the Minister personally. He is the area MP to my adjacent consistuency where I usually walk across to, to do my marketing and shopping. I have seen him interacting with his constituents casually and without airs and keeping them at ease. I have also had some exposure to foreign workers issues and have attended one focus group meeting addressed by the Minister. I was very impressed by him. We gather impressions of people often from what we see. hear and read about them. This is my take on him but until I come to a contrarian opinion, I would say he is a buddying good Minister.

        My reference to a tough job in Manpower is relative to that of most other Ministries.

        Singapore is incomparable to US, Malaysia, Indonesia and China of course. They have massive hinterland and abundant natural resources. We have none and we are also abysmally tiny – a dot to others, to be exact. We have to live on our wits and mainly by enticing foreign investors here without let up and keeping them here. That is a massive challenge for us whether our leader is Obama or Xi Jinpeng reincarnation or Lee Hsien Loong

        By the way, I am not a member of any political party and I don’t wish to be. I am born here. I am just concerned – like many of us here on this site – about Singapore and its future.


      • 10 Duh 17 December 2012 at 12:13

        K Das,

        Every Ministry has it own set of problems – no one in any Ministry is having it easy. Are you telling me that MOE or MOF is having a whale of a time while MOM is suffering? I fail to see evidence of your point.

        Singapore is a country with unique problems? Another mindlessly regurgitated point created by the PAP. K Das, take note that NO COUNTRY is an mirror of another – ALL countries are unique. By your argument, the study of political science would be completely invalidated. All countries share similar problems and issues to grapple with (e.g., debt, employment, inflation) even though the combination of problems might be unique. Singapore is not that special, get over it. There are other small nations in the world too. ALL countries are VULNERABLE in some aspects, even the US.

    • 11 yawningbread 15 December 2012 at 22:22

      Assuming you are right and that the ministry has been at the receiving end of much lobbying by employers’ groups, it still doesn’t make the ministry look good.

      Say an association of electronics retailers starts lobbying the government asking that it should not be mandatory to provide itemised receipts to customers for transactions on the scale of hundreds or thousands of dollars per transaction, most right-thinking people would not consider that a legitimate objection, but as highly suspicious behaviour. “What shenanigans are they up too?” one might ask.

      So, if employers association lobbies the govt to free them from providing itemised pay slips, and the govt considers that a legitimate objection that they will take into account in crafting laws, does it make the govt look wise or a fool?

    • 12 Duh 16 December 2012 at 00:02

      Five words – extraordinary pay dictates extraordinary results.

      Maybe the PAP should think twice about paying themselves the highest salary in the developed world for a politician and what expectations that high pay entails?

      If TCJ cannot handle this tiny dot of an island and is paid that much, imagine someone who is managing the US labour market with less pay.

      • 13 Chanel 17 December 2012 at 15:29

        K Das,

        “Singapore is incomparable to US, Malaysia, Indonesia and China of course. They have massive hinterland and abundant natural resources……. We have to live on our wits and mainly by enticing foreign investors here without let up and keeping them here.”

        This is the typical government mantra and propaganda. Which country doesn’t need to entice foreign investors? Wouldn’t a country like Germany have a much tougher time attracting investors because of their rigid labour laws?

        Our manpower minster has an easier time because there strikes are NOT allowed in S’pore. Life as a manpower minister is a lot tougher in countries where workers’ rights are not being curtailed.

    • 14 Lawrence Wrong 21 December 2012 at 06:18

      I would think the Minister, being paid millions, should use his own brain and think instead. Stop finding excuses for those ministers – they know what is going on the ground,whether they acknowledge it is another matter altogether.

  5. 15 Chanel 15 December 2012 at 21:37

    MOS Tan Chuan-Jin,

    You can fool some of the people all the time and all of the people some of the time…….but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time !!!

  6. 16 R Seah 15 December 2012 at 22:24

    @K Das,

    Why are you are wearing kid gloves? PAP style is to put on knuckle dusters. Isn’t he (aren’t they all) touted as being the best there is in Singapore’s limited talent pool, with helicopter vision (not given to flights of fancy, might one hope?), and all other dazzling qualities lacking in us “lesser mortals”?

    Given the hype about the PAP brand of talent, and given that they are immediately enjoying full pay upon appointment, we the people expect that they hit the ground running…no less!!

    • 17 Shia Low 16 December 2012 at 00:05

      MOM reflects our govt’s pro-business stance. TCJ is just another cog in the wheel who is subject to the values of his party.

    • 18 K Das 16 December 2012 at 00:37

      You read me wrong. I have hit them right with knuckle duster, where I have to. There are, for you to see, my such postings, particularly, in this blogsite as well on TR Emeritus.

      I am not anti anybody but only anti specific policies, which are patently unfair and unjust and which affect the common people most.

  7. 19 bee 15 December 2012 at 23:25

    singaporeans are politically naive. many treat the msm as their bible of knowledge and often fooled by public image of civil servants.

  8. 20 George 15 December 2012 at 23:47

    The govt has a very weak point – it is entirely dependent on the civil servants to deliver what the govt promises to the voters. The higher echelon civil servants know this very well. They know they are the tail that could wag the PAP dog! Why do you think the govt is so good to the civil servants these days?

    The fact is the govt has become moribund, ineffective and bankrupt of ideas.

  9. 21 Saycheese 16 December 2012 at 02:34

    When will Amy Khor advise MOS Tan to do the right and honourable thing?

  10. 22 V.THAMIZHMARAIYAN 16 December 2012 at 07:36

    We should give suggestions to improve, The MOM system. Complaints against them is not workable . Thank You.

    • 23 yawningbread 16 December 2012 at 14:36

      And what would you next if all your suggestions go into a black

    • 24 Vote out PAP 16 December 2012 at 15:28

      My suggestion is to vote out the current regime since suggestions do not work.

    • 25 henry 16 December 2012 at 17:03

      They know exactly what is wrong and what needs to be improved and how.

      The data, and resources are available to them. Because they have the authority, they have the choice and they choose not to deal with it.

      Asking for feedback through the National Conversation is what they said:

      ” managing expectations”

      In the world of customer care, that means setting parameters and dictating the choices. The conclusion is: You have a choice. Choices that I offer you. Not choices that you want.

      Dont be fooled.

  11. 26 Eric 16 December 2012 at 08:29

    The so-called elites in Sg society have been living a great life for far too long! They draw out-of-this-world salaries and really have not offered real solutions to many of Sg’s pressing problems today.

    They are neither talented nor accountable! When things gone awry, their heads don’t roll. In fact, one often find fresh, critically opined and great ideas in the Internet blogs such as yawning bread. The highly paid and so called best talents can’t come up with any good ideas. Every time some ministers open their mouths, they speaks utter nonsense (eg increasing bus fare to pay drivers??). Have the ministers got no shame. If you have nothing substantial to say, zip up your mouth!

    Speaking utter nonsense broadcast to the world that you have nothing between your ears!

  12. 27 Saycheese 16 December 2012 at 10:17

    Contrary to what Alex has written, the Ministry of Manpower is doing a marvellous job in the eyes of the government. It keeps its running costs low and the objectives of tripartism are achieved – good GDP growth through industrial peace. Our government is being very pragmatic; it safeguards our interests zealously. (Just like it is in our interest not to admit the 40 refugees.) And over here justice, compasssion and workers’ rights are not very high up on the priority list for the MIWs.

  13. 28 MOM is taking over the job of employment agencies 16 December 2012 at 15:32

    MOM is like a big employment agency. It does nothing but collect levies. No difference from other employment agencies. It even send its staff overseas to brief the foreign workers. Something that should be the scope of an employment agency. Business owners would be very happy now that they do not need to go through a third party to bring in cheap foreign workers since MOM is taking over the job of employment agencies.

  14. 29 Chow 16 December 2012 at 17:37

    Well, it’s all a matter of politics, and by politics I mean balancing between competing interests.

    As mentioned, lobbyists are playing a part as well. The lobby that comprises of those who benefit most by not having mandatory payslips and records are pushing hard to keep it off the books or at least to water down the language of the Employment Act. What needs to be done is that we need to act as the counter-weight and keep the pressure up on the government to check this. It won’t help if there are too few people interested in such things. If that is the case, the rational thing for the Ministry to do would be to give in to the lobby because they will perceive that nobody outside cares so much about this issue, so going along the path of least resistance may be the order of the day.

    It is with this view that we should continue to hit hard (ok, push hard) over this issue or whatever issue we believe in. Though I may use words like “the Minister this and that” or “the MOM isn’t doing this or that” I don’t mean it personally in a sense. I won’t refuse to shake hands with Tan CJ or walk the other way if I see him. I’d say hello and bring this matter up to him and let him know how much we care. Sure, others may see it differently, but that’s life and because he is our elected representative, I’m going to push him hard. He should have known what he was getting into from the very start because if he doesn’t like it, he can leave.

    To digress a little, I guess this is what comes out of having a ‘strongman’ or authoritarian government for too long. People start believing that all it needs is for the Government to say ‘jump!’ and all the industries, or whoever it is will ask ‘how high?’. Reality is that there are always competing interests and the longer they try to hide the fact that politics is all about deal-making and sleeping with the enemy on occasion and that they sometimes have feet-of-clay (not so relevant these days), the more cynical people will get and it gets harder for them to do things without meeting with disbelief and backlash from the public, even if the public knows what reality is like.

    • 30 henry 17 December 2012 at 10:11

      Not sure if the situation we are in is due to strongman style. Perhaps among the tripartite, strongman style was used for the labour portion while the employer is a close partnership.

      Its so close that the two ( politician & employer ) is hard to distinguish. One may not exist without the other, while labour can stand on its own.
      Very much like good cop/bad cop approach: labour is the sucker.

      If I were to wager, under these conditions, labour will always lose.
      But I hope things will change.

    • 31 K Das 17 December 2012 at 11:34

      This is a good measured roundup of how one should digest and reflect upon the main article and the subsequent comments therefrom.


  15. 32 The Pariah 17 December 2012 at 12:30

    Minister Tan Chuan Jin and MOM civil servants live in ivory towers – becoz we give them 7- and 6-figure salaries!

    Go check e-Gov directory – NONE of the MOM officers are required to disclose their e-mail address or DID telephone number.

    Pay And Profit (PAP) milk foreign maids and low-level foreign workers through Levies.

    On one hand, PAP massively issue S Passes and Work Permits.

    On the other hand, PAP do NOTHING to compel (i) Big companies and (ii) Industry associations for SME outfits to provide proper dormitories with set standards for crowding, hygiene, maintenance and independent surprise inspections – these could be ICA’s conditions for issuing such foreign employment approvals.

    Instead, PAP leave it to “market forces” which means HDB flats and condos have been turned into dormitory flat-shares with distinct ethnic enclaves of foreign nationalities.

    HDB/URA rules can only be enforced with whistleblowers – What a JOKE!!! So much for effective and independent law/policy enforcement. So much for social harmony. 60% Singaporean Voters – Pls wake up before next GE!

  16. 33 Authority 18 December 2012 at 10:50

    Hi Alex
    I was one of those who wanted the government to take quick action against the striking PRC drivers. But now I realise that their strike has brought about more action in the apst few weeks than the useless supermarket provider had done for decades. Suddenly MIC are the champions for migrant workers. After ingnoring all calls to provide better housing they want to accredit dormotories now. And the best is the man with 65 jobs claims that there is a shortage of dorm and that rents will go up forcing workers to move to HDB flats and thus angering residents. Well I would like to ask the idiot who is to blame for the situation if not the government who brough in workers by the truck loads and forget all about the logistics to support them. By the way, all this issues have been repeated over and over again by many and wham one strike and the government listens. And the man with 65 jobs suddenly enlighthens everyone to the problem. Real idiot

  17. 34 Anon 4kFB 19 December 2012 at 14:44

    Excellent piece of work.

    As a foreign worker, I feel, MOM has let down us, who have come here from third world countries facing corruption and inaction by ministries, who were looking forward to a fair and just workspace in a first world country like Singapore.

    I hope the Singapore government will learn from these lessons, listen to constructive feedback as yours and make changes to the systems, so that Singapore will remain a really sought after place for employment.

  18. 35 Wendy 10 January 2013 at 01:50

    This is really shameful.
    Had participated in one of the town hall sessions for reviews to the EP act.
    And it was widely agreed by many, not just within the discussion group I was in but also the concensus of 90% of all present concur that payslips (be it in an electronical format-some participants said investing in account/payroll software to provide such document is costly; that is crap to me, or in a physicsl written format.) be made mandatory.
    No computerized payslips? Fine. Emails then. Or some simple excel sheet. At worst, a handwritten page that is duly signed by both employer n employee n photocopied.

    The government just don’t take Singaporeans seriously, do they?
    Btw, in the townhall session, tan Chuan Jin summed up end of the session that we need to bear in mind suggestions the participants has made so far, if wholly implemented will mean a trade off in terms of employability of Singaporeans this making SG less attractive to foreign firms.

    As a normal Singaporean with no connections, what my grandma said in hokkien about the recent deaths of ns men rings in my ears.
    “Other people’s sons die a few more nvm,,but their (she meant the offsprings of those in government) sons not 1 should die.
    Our government just do not care.

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