E-filing of employment claims a challenge for migrant workers

The State Courts have launched online filing for employment claims (New portal to settle employment disputes, Jan 5).

Digitisation of employment claims raises greater barriers to accessing justice, particularly for marginalised groups such as low-wage migrant workers.

First, the online forms are entirely in English.

The legalistic language used, while necessary for precision given the binding consequences of the forms, is impenetrable even for workers with basic spoken English skills.

Manual filing at least provided a human touch. The purely written and impersonal nature of electronic forms is far more intimidating.

Second, migrant workers lack computer literacy and access. They may be able to navigate social media on their phones. But e-mail and 2FA portals for online filing are too daunting. The workers also do not have ready access to computers and scanners.

Migrant workers, unlike Singaporeans, lack family or social support networks and resource buffers to cope with technological and language barriers.

By the time their claims reach the court, they have typically been unpaid for several months.

They struggle with basic expenses like food, lodging and transport.

Even Internet cafe computers would often be beyond their means; the more so for services like translation.

Informal ad-hoc assistance with online filing and form-filling may be available from voluntary welfare organisations.

But a well-designed dispute resolution system, which values access to justice, should not rely on external stopgaps to facilitate such basic access for an entire disadvantaged demographic.

The past three months' experience has been that even an English- and computer-literate volunteer typically takes four hours just to assist a migrant worker with the initial electronic claim form.

Furthermore, even if such piecemeal help sufficed, the employment claims regime should not compel dependence on charity and goodwill.

Rather, it should enable workers to understand and take charge of their own cases.

This is important partly because this regime prohibits legal representation. Most fundamentally, empowering workers to access justice themselves is vital to respecting their dignity and humanity.

Desiree Leong

Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home)