| Kirsten Han |
SINGAPORE (dpa) – Bao Da Liang was looking forward to a decent income to send home to his family in China when he first came to Singapore in April 2013 to work on construction sites.
The 4,000 Singapore dollars (3,165 US dollars) in agent’s fees he and three friends each paid to find jobs amounted to several months’ wages, but he thought it would be worth it.
But a year and a half later they were on their way back to China, after their employers stopped paying them after just five months, and attempts to reclaim the arrears stalled.
“Our families are urging us to go home,” Bao told dpa shortly before the men left Singapore. “If we can’t get the money, then we can’t get the money.”
They considered taking their case to the Labour Court, set up by Singapore to resolve just such disputes with its large – and economically essential – immigrant workforce.
But when their employer made them an offer, the men decided to take the money, cut their losses and go home. “We cannot afford for the case to drag in the court,” Bao said.
They got 4,000 Singapore dollars each and a ticket home, for the 8,225 they said were owed to Bao, and 6,783, 9,650 and 11,999 Singapore dollars to his three colleagues, respectively.
They have reason to doubt the court’s efficiency. One of the few remedies available to migrant workers, the Labour Court faces accusations of failing to defend their rights, and of not enforcing its rulings when it does decide in their favour.
The issue is a sensitive one in Singapore, where an estimated 40 per cent of the population are foreign professionals and workers.
Of those, 321,200 hold visas to work in construction as of June, according to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), for a total population of just over 5 million.
While citizens earn an average of 4,445 Singapore dollars a month, according to the Department of Statistics, a 2013 report by the Straits Times said that Indian construction workers earn about 700 and Chinese ones an average of 1,200 Singapore dollars a month.
In a further blow, Bao’s visa would not have allowed him to take another job while his case was pending.
“Workers with salary arrears do not qualify for the temporary job scheme,” said a social worker from NGO HealthServe. “It’s not financially viable for them to stay in Singapore for months on end to settle their wage disputes.”
There are no lawyers at the Labour Court. Interpreters are allowed, but the court is closed, preventing NGOs or other observers from monitoring proceedings.
“The Labour Court is a one-sided game,” said Luke Tan, an executive officer at the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME).
Workers also suffer from a poor understanding of their rights and the difficulty of expressing themselves in a highly stressful situation and a foreign language or through an interpreter, he said.
The Labour Court has made rulings in workers’ favour, but these are not always followed up.
Uzzal Humar Mondal lost vision in one eye when his goggles slipped while drilling out bathroom tiles in a flat under renovation in 2010.
By law, he was due 67,950 Singapore dollars in compensation, regardless of who was to blame. But his company denied payment, claiming it happened outside working hours, according to a 2013 case study report by rights group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).
The Labour Court eventually sided with Uzzal, awarding him the compensation, medical expenses and paid sick leave.
But the case took two years, during which time he was not allowed to work, TWC2 said, adding that his employer had failed to take out the compulsory accident insurance for him.
And the ruling left it up to Uzzal to get the money out of his employer, who had not paid up by the time of publication, the report said.
“MOM doesn’t have an enforcement mechanism in place, so even after the Labour Court adjudicates in the worker’s favour the worker is left relatively high and dry,” TWC2 vice president Alex Au said.
Forcing the payment of compensation involves more court and bailiff fees.
“When the worker has not been paid and has not been working while the case was pending, where does he get the money to pay?” HOME’s Tan asked.
The Ministry of Manpower did not respond to dpa’s requests for comment.
Despite reservations, TWC2 still recommends workers to the Labour Court, and acknowledges its success stories, such as Veluchamy Duraisamy, who obtained overtime arrears from his employer.
“It costs them very little,” Au said. “And it might be prejudicial to their case in the future if they didn’t at least make that effort.”
“But we have to advise the worker that the system is very flawed, that even if you get the judgement it is not worth the paper it is written on.”
Tan agreed. “Even if you win the case you are still a loser.”