Philippines Makes Big Steps in Labour Protection, where does SG stand?

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In the Philippines, many companies fire workers after five months to avoid their workers from becoming permanent employees after a six-month probationary period as required by its labour law.

This work practice – “endo” – maintains low labour costs and allows businesses in freely adjusting payroll, leaving workers in a vulnerable situation.

In his 2016 election campaign, President Rodrigo Duterte promised to eliminate endo. Labour laws and practices have been revised to boost worker protections since then.

This makes me wonder, is Singapore improving its labour protection?
 
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Last month, I was having lunch with my grandfather at a coffee shop. That was when I witnessed a migrant construction worker collapsed on the ground. I was shocked.

A young Singaporean-Chinese man scurried over from the next table and propped him up in a chair. Shortly, the worker regained consciousness. “Have you eaten?” asked the young man.
 
The young man and the worker could not understand each other as the worker spoke in a language (which could be Bengali) that none of us in the coffee shop understood.

Nonetheless, the young man offered him a cup of water. But he was so weak that the young man had to drip water into his mouth with a straw.

At that moment, I wished that what I saw – a worker fainting due to extreme hunger – was a one-off. But I knew it wasn’t.
 
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BUILDING ON...

Singapore’s construction industry relies heavily on foreign labour. In 2017, there were 284,900 migrant workers in the industry, from countries such as Bangladesh, India, and Thailand.

Most migrant workers came to Singapore in hope of improving their lives back at home, but their venture to this beautiful country made them more precarious than ever before. This is due to the low wages, high migration costs, and lax hiring practices in the construction industry.

Singapore has three pieces of legislation that protect the migrant workers in Singapore. They are Employment Act (EA), Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA), and Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA).
 
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On March 5, 2018, changes were made to the EA to ensure its relevance. The changes include removal of the salary cap of the EA, additional protection on work hours and overtime pay, and the transfer of salary-related disputes to the Employment Claims Tribunals.

However, are these changes sufficient for migrant construction workers?

Here are three areas that I believe Singapore can do better.

WEAK BARGAINING POWER

Most workers are hesitant in negotiating their working conditions with employers because they fear early repatriation. An employer can terminate workers and cancel their work permit whenever and without reason. Consequently, workers are repatriated back to their own country.
 
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To make matters worse, they are deep in debt due to high migration costs incurred to work here. This tilts bargaining power in favour of employers, placing workers in an exploitable position.

UTOPIAN WORKPLACE SAFETY REGULATIONS

The WICA ensures employers are liable to compensate workers when they suffer an injury by accident due to work. This sounds too good to be true.
 
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This assumes a utopian world, where there is world peace, no crimes of any kind, and everyone loves one another.

But let’s face reality. The world is an imperfect place.

WICA ignores the conflict of interest between employers and worker. An injured worker wants to stay in Singapore for medical treatment and be compensated, while an employer wants to avoid paying liability and the responsibility of providing food and medical treatment for his worker.
 
Credit: Singapore General Hospital

According to TWC2, a non-profit organisation that promotes equitable treatment for migrant workers in Singapore, there are cases where employers deny to occurrence of an accident at the workplace. When employers deny, the burden of proof falls onto the worker. This becomes the workers' words against the employers' words.

LACK OF PROPER SALARY DOCUMENTATION

Unpaid and late payment of salary is a common occurrence in Singapore’s construction industry.

Although there is the Employment Claims Tribunal to resolve salary-related disputes in the revised EA, it does not solve the problem.
 
Credit: TWC2

The lack of proper salary documentation is a loophole in which employers can exploit to bilk their employees. TWC2 found out that most workers are paid in cash, usually given in a used envelope. Some workers are even required to sign payments vouchers that they would not have a copy of.

This becomes difficult to determine whether the actual salary was paid.

WAY FORWARD

Current legislation is insufficient to protect migrant workers in Singapore. This is because laws are not plenary and strong enforcement is needed to give teeth to laws.
 
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I believe that EA, EFMA, and WICA are promising signs of a healthy workplace, but more public pressure is needed to fill the gaps in current legislation and to enforce existing laws. This can be the first step towards improving the lives of migrant workers in Singapore.

After all, migrant workers in Singapore have built Singapore into a beautiful nation. Shouldn’t we show our appreciation by making Singapore a better place for them to work in?
 

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