Employers who hire foreign workers and default on their wages sometimes wind up their businesses, only to set up new ones later, just to avoid paying the money they owe.
A non-governmental organisation that advocates for the rights of foreign workers has called for such employers to be banned from starting new companies until they have paid the workers.
This will ensure that they cannot hire and exploit a new batch of foreign workers, said the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) in a research paper published this month.
It also urged the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to proactively prosecute errant employers and give the new Employment Claims Tribunals more power (see sidebar).
Home interviewed 2,009 work permit holders from China, Bangladesh, India and Malaysia who had sought its help in 2015 and last year. It found that unpaid wages and underpayment were the most common problems, with about half of the respondents citing these woes.
ISSUES SOME LOW-WAGE FOREIGN WORKERS FACE
• Wage stagnation - salaries have not risen in over 25 years.
• Workers are not paid, or they receive their salaries late.
• They are not paid for overtime work, or for working on rest days and public holidays.
• Employers make unauthorised deductions from their wages.
• Employers declare a higher salary to the Manpower Ministry but pay less than that.
• Employers lie about salaries and work conditions.
• Employers ignore Labour Court orders to pay workers.
• Manpower Ministry proactively prosecutes employers who break labour laws.
• Increase powers of the new Employment Claims Tribunals.
• Ban employers who owe workers' salaries from setting up new companies.
• Allow workers to switch employers temporarily when they have salary disputes with their current employers.
• Enact anti-discrimination laws at the workplace.
• Step up education for employers in sectors where there are high rates of labour law violations.
• Give free legal aid to foreign workers who make salary claims against employers.
• Lessen the burden on workers who have to prove violations by their employers.
Home acting executive director Jolovan Wham said this exploitation was akin to "wage theft".
"Wage theft is an appropriate and accurate term because in the majority of cases we have documented, there was a deliberate attempt by employers to underpay, ignore labour laws, deduct wages and manipulate payment methods," he said.
Home also found "wage differences according to nationalities". It said new construction workers from Bangladesh or India typically earned $18 per day in 2015 and last year, a sum that had not risen since 1992, when the average daily wage of a new Bangladeshi worker was $16 to $19. But a new construction worker from China earned about three times more in 2015 and last year, getting about $50 a day.
Another problem was workers not being paid for overtime or for working on public holidays. One in three of those interviewed said he did not get overtime pay.
One in four workers said his employer made unauthorised cuts from his salary for purposes such as insurance premiums, safety equipment and even punishments for breaching the work contract.
Home said some unauthorised deductions were termed loans and savings. Also, some employers recorded fewer hours worked, to punish the workers. "This is another means to exact a financial penalty on workers without having to make outright deductions," Home said.
Some workers said they were deceived about wages and work conditions by employers.
There were also those who ended up in irregular work arrangements, in which they were not working for the employers listed in their work permits. These workers were brought in through "shell companies" set up for the purpose of profiting from recruitment fees and kickbacks.
Mr Wham said he hoped the paper would create greater awareness among the public and prompt MOM to change things.
Construction worker Sohag Fazlul Haque, 30, has had various unauthorised deductions made to his salary each month.
"Some people stay quiet, but I cannot. I want the workers not to have this problem in future. I want them to know the problems," he said.
SEE HOME: 'Wage theft' leaves workers in distress