Addendum to President's Address: New insurance scheme for migrant workers' medical bills; better wages for locals a key priority

The safety and living conditions of foreign workers have been in the spotlight this year after dormitories saw huge clusters of Covid-19 cases. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - An insurance programme will be developed to help employers manage unexpectedly large medical expenses of migrant workers, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo on Wednesday (Aug 26).

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) will also carefully consider the cost-sharing model for higher standards in migrant worker dormitories, even as a stronger system of medical support for the workers is built, she added.

"As important as it is to safeguard the health and wellness of our workers, we must also ensure the higher costs are sustainable," Mrs Teo said in her ministry's addendum to the President's earlier speech, setting out its priorities for the new term of government.

This is part of the MOM's greater focus on the well-being of the country's workforce, as Covid-19 has caused considerable stress to individuals, she noted.

Currently, the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) requires employers to buy work injury compensation insurance for all manual employees and non-manual employees earning up to $2,100 a month - the ceiling goes up to $2,600 next April.

Most other workers are voluntarily insured by their employers.

The compensation limits under WICA were raised this year and cover medical expenses up to $45,000, or up to one year from the date of the accident, whichever comes first.

The safety and living conditions of foreign workers have been in the spotlight this year after dormitories saw huge clusters of Covid-19 cases.

Mrs Teo said the new Assurance, Care and Engagement Group in her ministry will ensure dormitories and other migrant worker housing are safe and resilient against public health threats. Also, the Group will team up with the community and migrant worker groups to meet the workers' social needs.

MOM will also partner trade associations and chambers, non-governmental organisations and professional bodies to provide a better support network for all workers, she added.

At the same time, improving the wages of those at the lower end remains a key priority of the ministry, although the focus now is to ensure lower-income locals remain employed amid the economic downturn.

Over time, the progressive wage model will be expanded to more sectors, in a way that is practical and ensures that local unemployment remains low, the minister said.

The model sets out minimum salaries for local workers in various roles along a career and skills progression framework.

It is compulsory in the cleaning, security and landscaping sectors, where full-time workers have seen their gross monthly incomes go up by around 30 per cent in the last five years, said Mrs Teo.

This rate is much faster than growth in median wages, she said, adding that the gains are even larger when enhancements to Workfare are included.

Raising wages at the lower end needs a long-term commitment and new mindsets among employers, service buyers and society at large, she said.

"We may have to pay slightly more for services, so that lower-income workers are able to take on better jobs and earn higher wages. Together with the Government's support for lower-income workers through Workfare and other schemes, it will help us mitigate inequalities and strengthen our social compact."

Other action plans on the ministry's agenda include reviewing regularly the Workfare and Silver Support schemes to fix gaps in social safety nets for low-wage older workers and senior citizens, as well as implementing the recommendations of the Citizen's Panel on Work-Life Harmony, including supporting employers who offer flexi-work arrangements and work-life harmony initiatives.

"Before Covid-19, we had been preparing workers and employers for the future of work. These efforts must now shift to even higher gear," Mrs Teo said.

"We will deepen and expand efforts to ensure fairness at work, with a focus on giving every worker a chance to be meaningfully employed, and fostering an inclusive workforce and progressive workplaces."

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