19 September 2014

Here to Make a Difference

19 September 2014

Workplace accidents and fatalities. Long working hours. No regular salary. These are the top employment concerns of construction workers, amongst the cases of Employment Act breaches that MOM investigated in 2014. You would have read about MOM stepping up workplace safety inspections on construction sites.  Well, we also conduct employment inspections in the construction sector to check that employers comply with the Employment Act.

I am Carlson, a Senior Employment Inspector (SEI) with the Labour Relations and Workplaces Division (LRWD). I find my work fulfilling as I see myself as a “protector” of worker rights, whether they are local or foreign workers. My work can also be exciting as we often have to deal with “surprises” – from fending off fierce stray dogs to getting our vehicle out of mud during a heavy downpour at the construction sites.

What our job entails

Conducting an employment inspection at a construction site
Let me share with you what goes on in a typical employment inspection at a construction site. It normally starts with my team confirming that the employer is on-site before we begin to interview his employees. As the construction sector employs mostly foreign workers, language can be a problem. We need to be patient, speak slowly and use simple English when we speak to the foreign workers. Conversations are easier when we have Tamil or Bengali speaking colleagues with us. We never let language be a barrier in our work though – if needed, we will use colloquial terms such as “money bag” (to mean wallet), “kopi break” (rest time) and “makan” (meal break) to conduct our interviews.

The common Employment Act infringements in the construction sector are salary late-payments, salary non-payments and excessive working hours. Sometimes, we also uncover other breaches such as unauthorised salary deductions and kickbacks. These infringements are investigated swiftly before they fester into bigger problems for the workers or the industry. We act on every complaint, and in cases where there are minor breaches, an advisory or warning would be given. In egregious cases, errant employers would be prosecuted in Court.

There are naysayers who claim we don’t mean business, but we do. We are serious about employers fulfilling their obligations under the employment laws. Our teams conduct over 5,000 inspections a year across different industry sectors. Construction workers work hard to make a living, and deserve the same protection as other workers under the employment laws.

Conversation with a foreign worker to understand his employment terms and conditions
What keeps us going

In the course of my job, I have often encountered grateful workers who expressed their gratitude with a simple “Thank you, Sir” or a shy smile and a nod of acknowledgement. These workers have gone through numerous difficulties to secure their employment here in Singapore, with the hope of earning more to improve the lives of their loved ones at home. 

There is one construction worker, “Prakash”, who left an impression on me. Prakash came from a large family in Bangladesh. His father has three wives and he is the youngest child among the eighteen children that his father had. Life was hard back in his home country and his father earned very little as a fisherman. Prakash lost two siblings to sickness as his family could not afford their medical treatment. He decided to come to Singapore in 2010 when his father was taken ill suddenly and needed long-term treatment. 

Prakash shared with me that he valued his job in Singapore. He worked hard and it paid off as his employer renewed his work permit. While Prakash was fortunate that he had a good employer, he heard about bad employers who withheld salaries from their workers or made them work long hours without rest or extra pay. Prakash was glad that MOM officers came to the worksites to interview workers about their employment conditions from time to time. He felt that such inspections helped to keep employers on their toes, and allowed workers to give feedback about their employment conditions. 

Based on my interactions with these workers, I find that they are willing to share with us the issues they faced at work. Where there are possible violations of the Employment Act, I would act quickly to follow up on the worker’s claims, and assure him that he would have his employment rights protected. We take the same approach regardless of whether the workers are local or foreign. The bottom line is that their rights must be protected, and our job is to make sure these are.

What we hope to achieve

It is true that not all workers are as fortunate as Prakash. I have come across cases of workers who are being taken advantage of by bad employers. In such instances, we would not hesitate to initiate tough enforcement actions against them so that workers are protected by our employment laws. Our enforcement action is not just for the construction sector alone, but in other sectors as well such as food & beverage, cleaning and security. At the end of it all, what keeps my colleagues and I going is the thought that every effort we make, no matter how small, plays a part in creating better workplaces for all workers in Singapore.

Carlson Yuen
Senior Employment Inspector
Standards Compliance Department
Labour Relations and Workplaces Division

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