The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is considering outsourcing the inspection of workplaces to counter the illegal employment of foreign workers, a task that currently involves conducting more than 2,000 inspections a year. Another approach to the problem would be to act to reduce its size.
A good beginning would be to deal with the status of men awaiting the settlement of injury cases, who make up a significant proportion of those tempted to work illegally.
At present, once a worker has lodged an injury claim, his employer typically cancels his work permit and the MOM issues him a special pass, renewable until compensation is awarded. This specifically denies him the opportunity to work.
At first sight, this may seem reasonable: an injured person surely should not be working.
The problem is that many workers become fit to work again before their cases are resolved, but remain barred from working legally. Yet they have a pressing need to earn money for their families and, where employers do not take responsibility for their care, to provide for their own shelter, food and medical treatment.
Although the MOM has managed to shorten significantly the average time taken to resolve injury cases, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) still encounters some cases that extend beyond one year, to even as long as two years.
Admittedly, the cases that come to the NGO are the more problematic ones, but the numbers are not insignificant, occurring within a pool of about 200 new cases every month. These workers need food and some sort of assistance while their claims are being investigated and their injuries treated.
Factors that delay resolution
The MOM says, with justification, that severe and complicated injuries may take longer to heal and to stabilise, which needs to take place before a final settlement. But obstacles created by some employers can also lengthen the time required to resolve cases. The majority of injured workers who leave company housing and seek outside help usually do so because their employer has challenged the validity of their claims.
Those challenges are often based on inconclusive evidence that the injury was not sustained at work; the employer's reluctance to incur medical costs and safety violation demerits; statements made to the doctor by the supervisor or foreman that contradict the injured worker's statements to the MOM; pressure on the safety supervisor to withhold material evidence; and reluctance among witnesses to speak up due to fear of repatriation.
Given that an employer has a strong incentive to deny responsibility for an injured worker, he is quite likely to drive him from the company dormitory, thus increasing the worker's financial difficulties.
Such workers find regular meals, solace and assistance in food projects such as that offered by TWC2, promises of housing and higher compensation payouts from law firms, spiritual comfort and occasional meals at religious institutions, loans from friends, and cheap housing in areas like Geylang and Little India.
Many also seek casual work to help with the cost of living during this lengthy period.
They came to Singapore to work, to support their families and build a more prosperous future. In launching injury claims, they find themselves denied this opportunity, no matter how insignificant the injury, how many days' medical leave they are given, or how fit and willing they are to work.
It is no wonder that many of these men find ways to work illegally, for reasons that have become all the more pressing, given the lack of support from their employers or any other authority.
Rone is a typical example. After his hand was injured in September this year, he assumed he would be taken to a doctor, but his foreman kept him waiting. Hours later, the safety supervisor saw that he was injured and insisted he be taken to hospital. His injury was dressed at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, but his employer refused to allow him to return to have the dressing changed. He planned to send Rone home to Bangladesh.
Having worked only three months, Rone was still heavily in debt on account of his recruitment costs, so he was unwilling to return home. Lodging an injury compensation claim was the only way to prevent repatriation and, to him, illegal work seemed necessary for his survival after he was expelled from the dormitory.
Doctor's certificate inappropriate
Many doctors, perhaps not understanding the restrictions of the special pass, issue a certificate advising light duty when they judge an injured man to be well enough.
This is inappropriate on many levels. The employer who doesn't allow the injured worker to remain in company housing certainly wouldn't want him back at work; construction work is by definition not light duty; the injured man loses the financial support of medical leave wages; and the special pass prohibits any sort of work.
The MOM allows some men assisting with investigations into wrongdoing by employers to be eligible for the temporary job scheme (TJS). This could be a workable solution for injured men, but even this is problematic.
Employers are encouraged to participate in the TJS by being allowed to hire beyond their quota, but many eligible men aren't able to find suitable jobs through the scheme and choose not to take up the offer because of dissatisfaction with the work or the salary.
Allowing men waiting for compensation to move to other sectors where labour is needed, such as services, might help to overcome this problem.
Without an adequate support system or alternative ways to earn money, men will necessarily look for ways to sustain themselves during their long wait. Cracking down on their employment, with or without outsourced worksite inspectors, is likely to remain an unending, energy-consuming exercise.
Allowing injured workers, when fully recovered and suitably fit, the right to work while waiting for work injury compensation could reduce the scope of the illegal employment problem, allow those workers to make a living and fill some gaps in Singapore's labour market.
The writer is head of research of Transient Workers Count Too.