Acting 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.
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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.
Tan 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?
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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.
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.