NGO study finds 'gaps in Labour Court system'

Workers at a construction site in Changi Business Park Central 2.
Workers at a construction site in Changi Business Park Central 2.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

MOM says over 90 per cent of salary-linked claims are settled via mediation within one month

A study by a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) that helps foreign workers has found what it says are gaps in the Labour Court system.

This has led to these workers falling through the cracks in a system meant to protect them, said Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) at a Singapore Management University forum yesterday.

The Labour Court, part of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), hears employment-related complaints such as disputes over salary, dismissal and paid leave. Hearings are held behind closed doors and lawyers are not allowed to represent workers or employers.

While these measures help to ensure a speedy, low-cost system, the TWC2 study found "significant obstacles and uneven enforcement" that prevent migrant workers from getting justice.

The report cited the example of compulsory mediation which takes place before a complaint is formally heard by an assistant commissioner of labour.

But the mediation process "fails to take into consideration the unequal bargaining power of workers vis-a-vis employers", resulting in the workers getting coerced by employers to sign documents and accept unfair employment terms.

  • Some suggestions from NGO

  • Reduce under-reporting of work injury claims

    •Allow foreign workers to switch employers to reduce their fear of losing their jobs if they report their injuries

    •Extend the operating hours of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for workers to file claims in the evenings and on Sundays

    •Require doctors to report all work injuries

    •Provide workers with insurance cards so they know the details of their insurance coverage

    Make it easier for workers to gather evidence to back up their salary claims

    •Compel companies to use standard employment contracts for foreign workers

    •Make it mandatory for employers to pay salaries through GIRO, which leaves a proper paper trail

    •Draw adverse conclusions against employers if they cannot provide proper documentation during mediation and Labour Court hearings

    Tighten enforcement of Labour Court orders

    •Order employers to make payments due to workers to the MOM or a government body, which will in turn pay the workers

    ••Allow workers to stay in Singapore until the employers pay up

    •Create a government fund to pay workers when their employers are bankrupt

    •Heavier punishment for employers who fail to comply with Labour Court orders.

    Toh Yong Chuan

The claims process is also problematic in evidence gathering and enforcement, said the report. "Workers lack access to the evidence required to substantiate their claims, while employers are accused of manipulating evidence to their advantage."

Errant employer behaviour includes retaliation and violations of the law during the claim process.

Employers would, among other things, use threats and blackmail, restrict movements and even forcibly send workers home, it added.

It suggested several ways to improve the Labour Court system: require employers to hire foreign workers by using a standard employment contract that sets out the minimum labour standards in Singapore; pay workers directly via electronic means; and give workers access to more information, like opening the ministry's service counters in the evenings and on Sundays.

Also, extend the time limit to settle claims and have a fund to help workers who remain unpaid because their employers fail to comply with Labour Court orders.

The 104-page report is based on interviews with 157 migrant workers who had brought claims to the Labour Court, mostly for salary arrears and work injury compensation. About two in three were construction workers.

Responding to the report, MOM said over 90 per cent of the 4,500 salary-related claims from foreign workers in the past three years were resolved via mediation within one month, and 95 per cent are resolved in two months.

A longer time doesn't help workers, it added, noting that cases that take longer are more complex.

"MOM remains concerned on the issues faced by this small group of foreign work-permit holders," it said, adding it has strengthened safeguards for workers and taken a tough stance on errant employers.

MOM said it will keep working "with constructive NGOs and the public" to better protect workers.

Since April this year, disputes like salary claims go before the new Employment Claims Tribunal which comes under the State Courts. But claims must first go for mediation. The Labour Court continues to hear work injury compensation claims.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2017, with the headline 'NGO study finds 'gaps in Labour Court system''. Print Edition | Subscribe