workers struggle to secure better
deal By Kalinga Seneviratne
SINGAPORE - When a group of about 100
mostly Bangladeshi migrant workers went on strike
at a construction site over unpaid wages this
month, it created ripples in this affluent and
orderly island republic.
The Ministry of
Manpower (MoM) quickly stepped in and ordered the
concerned private construction company to pay its
striking workers back wages owing since November
2011. The strike was over eight hours after it
started on the morning of February 6.
does not condone employers who fail to pay
salaries on time, or fail to upkeep and maintain
the foreign workers they have
brought in," said an
The strike brought
home the fact that a quarter of Singapore's four
million people are low-paid migrant workers from
other Asian countries, doing heavy construction
jobs that its own wealthy citizens will not do.
Social activists say there is widespread
exploitation by unscrupulous recruitment agents
who circumvent rules stipulated by the MoM and
take advantage of impoverished workers from Asian
countries like Bangladesh, India, China and
Last year, the MoM promised
"sufficient deterrence" to ensure that laws are
respected by agents. But, Singapore does not have
a minimum wage policy and employers may easily
terminate contracts when workers demand fair
Government figures suggest that the
country already has 240,000 construction workers
and will need tens of thousands more to execute
planned housing programmes alone.
Wham, executive director of the Humanitarian
Organization for Migration Economics, lays part of
the blame on rapacious recruitment agencies that
charge hefty fees from the workers back home and
then take no responsibility for them once they
land in Singapore.
"They pay such huge
sums of money," said Wham. "The agents must help
the workers when they face problems at the
workplace, but they don't do that."
workers from Bangladesh, India, China and, lately,
Myanmar are known to have paid amounts ranging
from US$2,400 to US$4,800 to agents in their home
countries to secure jobs in this city state.
Construction workers earn about $480 a
month while skilled workers like electricians and
welders get three times that amount. However,
agents and employers deduct money from their
monthly pay against "compulsory savings",
uniforms, food and accommodation.
(not his real name) came from Bangladesh to work
here as a construction worker about two years ago.
He paid an agent back home $3,200 to get a job
here that paid him $475 a month.
months ago when Rafiqul's work permit was
cancelled and he was given a ticket to go back
home, he found that his employer would not hand
over accumulated compulsory savings worth $1,902.
"Now he says that I have to pay for the
dormitory. This was never said to me before," he
Rafiqul complained to the
MoM, which extended his work permit to enable him
to take his employer to court.
electrician from India, handed $4,756 to an agent
in Chennai for a job in a school that pays $1,426
a month. After working for six months the job
stopped in December and he is yet to receive three
months worth of pay.
"Agents use shell
companies that exist only by name. Agents in
Bangladesh coordinate with agents here to set up
jobs. They are mostly swindlers and conmen as far
as I can see," says Debbie Fordyce, a volunteer
with Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a
Bangladeshi worker who approached TWC2 for help,
has worked here for five years and now wants to go
back home. During this period, the agent deducted
$79 each month as savings.
asked for his money, now amounting to $4,756, the
agent refused to oblige.
"I had already
given him $6,341 when I came here to work, I don't
want to give him anymore," he told IPS. But,
Fordyce says that he will find it hard to get this
money back because the law says any dues from
employers must be claimed within a year.
Another issue that rights groups want the
MoM to sort out is that of forcible repatriations
of workers injured in the workplace. After Abdul
(not his real name) met with an accident, his boss
cancelled his work permit and called in a
"repatriation company". He was threatened, and
when he complained to the MoM and police, beaten
Repatriation companies are engaged by
employers to get rid of troublesome or
inconvenient migrant workers.
groups asked the MoM to crackdown on repatriation
companies because many of them employ local thugs,
it was pointed out that while some 16,000 workers
were repatriated last year there were only seven
"When people are
forcibly repatriated there is hardly any room for
them to go and make a complaint," explained Wham.
"Though repatriation companies are legal their
activities are illegal. You cannot confine someone
against his will, it's an offence here."
Fordyce said that TWC2 sees about 200
workers a month and all have invariably been
cheated by one agent or another. Most of the
workers have lost large sums of money to agents,
collected on one pretext or another.
is receptive to our complaints, but we can't do
anything to get money back from people who have
been given money without documentation," she said.