17 November 2011

Engagement & Enforcement

17 November 2011

In the last two weeks, I had the opportunity to participate in a series of introductory visits to better understand some of the issues faced by foreign workers, and to familiarise myself with the work of MOM officers and other partners on the ground. I told MOM colleagues to ensure that I see the ground as it is so we could take a re-look at our policies accordingly, if we have not already done so.

Early this month (1 Nov), I visited the Migrant Workers Centre (MWC), a bipartite NGO set up by employers and unions, as well as the Cuff Road Project – a “soup kitchen” for injured foreign workers - run by Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). Both of these NGOs render humanitarian assistance, such as providing accommodation and free meals to foreign workers who were awaiting resolution of employment-related disputes or work injury compensation claims. These volunteers who continue to undertake these activities with passion and selflessness, in spite of the other demands on their time, have earned my respect and I would like to pay tribute to their efforts. I am glad I met this dedicated group of individuals who not only have a lot of heart, but are clearly working out their convictions in a practical manner.

At the Migrant Workers Centre located in Rangoon Road, MOS Tan Chuan-Jin engaging in a discussion on foreign worker issues.

At the Cuff Road Project, MOS Tan being briefed by TWC2 Treasurer Mr Alex Au while TWC2 President Dr Russell Heng looked on.

Amran – a foreign worker with a work injury compensation case pending - sharing his story with us.

The Government plays a different role from NGOs, and there will be times when we may have to agree to disagree. Nonetheless, our differences should not blind us to opportunities to collaborate. We share many common objectives. Open conversations such as these are an integral part of building mutual respect and trust between the Government and its partners, and will greatly help to ensure that our policies and practices remain relevant to actual situations on the ground.

My next visit was to a commercially-run purpose-built dormitory on 8 Nov. The dormitory was well-organised and maintained with adequate space within workers’ living quarters, as well as dedicated areas for workers to engage in social and recreational activities. The dormitory operators were making good efforts to provide a suitable environment for workers to rest, and to provide options for them to spend their time in meaningful ways outside of work. It is definitely preferred for foreign workers to be housed in such premises, and the Government will work towards providing more of such sites.

MOS Tan talking to a resident of the purpose-built dormitory.

Having seen the more positive aspects of the foreign worker landscape, the final leg of these introductory visits was to non-approved foreign worker housing. With my colleagues from MOM’s Housing Enforcement Branch, we first made our way to a factory premises in Sungei Kadut.

Hidden in the corners of a single-story carpentry workshop were cramped living quarters converted from unused wooden cabinets, built on makeshift mezzanine levels. The quarters were only accessible from a single entry point via an unsteady ladder, making these quarters both fire and structural hazards. What made it worse was that the entire workshop was covered with sawdust. One can only wonder about the long-term effects of living under such conditions, or the terrible consequences in the event of a fire! The employers of these workers have been told to relocate their workers to proper living conditions within two weeks, and are assisting with MOM’s investigations.

Access to the sleeping area is via a rickety ladder.

One of the capsule beds found on the makeshift mezzanine level.

MOS Tan descending from the makeshift mezzanine level.

Later that night, we inspected two other factories in Tagore Lane which had been converted into workers’ dormitories, and based on preliminary intelligence, were known to be housing more workers than allowed. The living conditions in these premises were not as egregious as the one in Sungei Kadut, but they were nonetheless overcrowded. Again, in the interests of the workers’ well-being, the employers will be required to relocate their workers, and will be investigated.

 MOS interviewing a FW

A MOM officer asking foreign workers if they face any employment-related issues such as salary arrears.

Under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Regulations, MOM requires employers to ensure that their foreign workers have acceptable accommodation. Besides avoiding punitive action by the authorities, there’re many practical reasons for employers to provide acceptable accommodation for their workers. A worker who is housed in acceptable housing will be better rested, more productive at work, and better able to look out for both his personal safety at work, as well as the safety of his co-workers. Above and beyond this, my personal take is, simply, that this is the right thing for employers to do. It is unacceptable for employers, or unscrupulous operators of foreign worker housing, to house workers in sub-standard conditions because they want to save costs or maximise profits.

To end off, I would like to extend my appreciation to my MOM colleagues. While most of us are safe at home or spending time with friends, there’s a group of officers who are hard at work conducting inspections late into the night under conditions that could be unsafe or unsanitary. Your efforts to safeguard the well-being of foreign workers are a well-deserved pat on the back – keep up the good work!

Minister of State Tan Chuan-Jin
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