Why foreign workers are hesitant to seek help over owed wages

The Ministry of Manpower's view that workers who have not received their due pay would stand a better chance of recovering it if they come forward early with their complaint is sound ("MOM: Salary recovery matters are civil claims"; Jan 19). Waiting only means the arrears mount up.

However, it is important to recognise that this is not as straightforward as it might appear.

There is a great power imbalance between migrant workers and their employers, making workers hesitant to seek help.

They know they will lose their jobs once they lodge a formal complaint. They know the rules forbid them from seeking alternative employment and that they will be repatriated, if not at once, then when the case is concluded, with or without payment.

Once home, they might have to wait months and pay thousands of dollars to agents to get a new job.

MOM's own rules forbidding change of employment make it very costly for workers to complain.

For most workers, keeping quiet and hoping for the best will appear the safer approach, at least until months later, when their meagre savings run out.

If workers were allowed to obtain alternative employment within their approved sectors without first going home, then MOM's advice to complain early would be more realistic.

There is another problem with the MOM's stated position that after the Labour Court has found that salary is owed, it is a civil matter for the worker to pursue for himself.

Non-payment and delay of salary is a serious offence in Singapore law. Sections 21 and 34 of the Employment Act prescribe fines and imprisonment.

A similar rule is found in the Fourth Schedule of the Work Passes Regulations 2012, buttressed by Section 22 of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA), which has even tougher penalties. Section 20 of the EFMA lifts the corporate veil, holding officers of companies personally liable.

It would seem that there is a reluctance to prosecute errant employers.

Given the hardships imposed upon workers by the failure of some employers to pay them what they are due, these laws should be enforced.

Noorashikin Abdul Rahman (Dr)


Transient Workers Count Too

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 21, 2017, with the headline 'Why foreign workers are hesitant to seek help over owed wages'. Subscribe