Migrant workers from India face a hard reality in Singapore The reason for exploitation of foreign workers is the employer-sponsored work visa policy

A recent eight-hour strike by around 200 workers over non-payment of four months' salaries has brought into focus various issues relating to the exploitation of foreign construction workers in Singapore.

Ramakrishnan Kannan, 35 hails from the Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu and has three children and old parents to look after. He took a loan of Rs.four lakh to pay a commission to the recruiting agent in India. “I was promised a salary of SG$ 600 by the agent, but was sometimes paid even less than SG$ 400. Things got worse last June when I broke my hand and leg while pushing a beam at my employer DN Coocon Pte Ltd's work site,” said Kannan. Even though the employment of foreign manpower act (EFMA) of Singapore mandates employers to bear all medical expenses for their workers, “I am still to receive any compensation,” he added.

Lakshmanan Prapakar, 31, of Tiruvarur, Tamil Nadu faced a similar tragedy working as a plumber for Soon Heng Sprinkler Pte Ltd. He broke his right-hand thumb in November 2011. “For an injury as grave as mine, I was initially sanctioned only three days of medical leave,” he said.

Foreign workers constitute more than 85 per cent of Singapore's construction workforce from India, Bangladesh and China. There are approximately 1.05 million foreign workers in Singapore, of which 2,45,000 are in the construction sector alone. The relatively low wages, long hours and harsh working conditions make the industry an unattractive sector for most Singaporeans.

“The most important reason for exploitation of foreign workers is the employer-sponsored work visa policy prevalent in Singapore, which gives employers excessive power and control over their workers,” said Debbie Fordyce, coordinator at Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a non-profit advocacy group working for fair treatment of foreign workers in Singapore.

It starts with having to pay high agency fees to secure a job in Singapore. Once here, the workers are made to sign contracts limiting their civil liberties and agreeing to receive lower wages than promised. Additionally, the prevalence of unpaid salaries, long working hours with no offs, forced dangerous work leading to injuries, employers refusing to bear the cost of medical treatment, poor accommodations, passports routinely withheld, and above all, forced repatriation to their home countries without the employer settling their claims, make migrant workers one of the most vulnerable section of Singapore society.

“Though EFMA lays out a pretty comprehensive protection scheme for foreign construction workers, its enforcement is poor. We have been alerting the ministry of manpower (MOM), Singapore, to these cases for several years with no noticeable improvement,” added Ms Fordyce. “Instead, the ministry expects these workers - unaware of their legal rights, dependent on their employer for food and shelter, and heavily in debt to agents - to be proactive in reporting abuses.

Furthermore, the policy of requiring workers who have made compensatory claims against their employers to stay in Singapore on a Special Pass, which doesn't allow them to engage in any form of employment, is particularly strange. How does the MOM expects the worker to survive in Singapore without any source of income till his claim is resolved - a process which often takes months - is beyond comprehension.”

High Court of Singapore in a recent case Lee Chiang Theng vs Public Prosecutor SGHC 252 has noted, “foreign workers are unquestionably not chattel like the slaves of less enlightened times” and are “especially vulnerable”. Lee, who was the appellant, was sentenced to four weeks jail and SG$36,000 fine by a lower court for illegal hiring, non-payment of salaries and substandard accommodation leading to the death of one worker from chicken pox. Judge of Appeal V.K.Rajah while noting the prosecution's failure to appeal said, “Had there been an appeal to enhance the sentences, I would have been inclined to significantly increase the term of imprisonment.”

Meanwhile, on its part, MOM has launched an awareness campaign among migrant workers by distributing a booklet titled ‘A guide for foreign workers' published in six languages including Tamil and Bengali. All new workers arriving with an in-principle approval for work permit get a copy at immigration informing them that their salaries must be paid at least once a month and within seven days after the salary period. Also, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, minister for manpower, had assured the Singapore parliament recently that his ministry will act tough against complaints of wrongful confinement and forcible repatriation of foreign workers.

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