SINGAPORE - In the past 1½ years, there have been at least six cases involving non-Singaporean employers who absconded without paying their foreign workers, according to the Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC).
In each case, more than 20 workers were owed about three to four months' pay, said MWC chairman Yeo Guat Kwang, who added that the non-governmental organisation started noticing the trend only in recent years.
"The non-Singaporean employer has little to lose and runs away when times get difficult... when they return to their home country it's out of our jurisdiction," Mr Yeo said at a Chinese New Year celebration for foreign bus captains at the Woodlands Westlite dormitory on Sunday (Feb 11).
Executive secretary of the National Transport Workers' Union Melvin Yong and volunteers from Siglap South Youth Executive Committee were also at the event, where the workers took part in games, a lohei session and lunch.
"This is something we would like to alert people to. The authorities should impose controls against (errant employers). In particular when the employers are non-Singaporean, they can impose travel restrictions on them," said Mr Yeo, who was speaking to media at the sidelines of the event.
He noted that most of the cases happened in the construction industry.
In one case in early 2017, a foreign employer owed about 80 workers at least $4,000 each, or about four months of salary. The Chinese national returned to China without settling the issue.
Regardless of whether it was the employer's intention to withhold payments from the start or whether it was due to financial problems, foreign workers are made to "suffer extreme hardship", said Mr Yeo.
Later this month, MWC will launch a scheme to help new workers arriving in Singapore set up bank accounts for electronic payment of salaries and other uses like remitting money.
This will help workers track their salary payments more easily and ensure that employers pay them on time. Under the law, employers must comply with workers' requests to be paid electronically.
Mr Yeo said salary disputes also put foreign workers' employability at a disadvantage because the incidents in their records carry a certain "stigma" and make it harder for them to find new jobs.
"More should be considered to help these victims secure alternative employment, including tangible incentives to employers who come forward to employ them."
Another suggestion he raised was for the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and employers to look into more opportunities to upgrade migrant workers' skills.
"As we gear our economy in the digital direction, it is important for us not to forget the one-third of our workforce. We should have them in line with skills upgrading and the work-process transformation," said Mr Yeo.
He said the Ministry of Manpower should consider monitoring employers' efforts in upgrading their workers as this could mean that companies will employ and retain better skilled and experienced workers. He also suggested linking skills upgrading efforts with the requirement for work pass renewal.
Construction worker Kazi Arif, 27, welcomed the call for changes as he said it would help protect migrant workers like himself.
When the Bangladeshi first arrived here 10 years ago, he got into a salary dispute with his boss at the time who decided to cut his pay suddenly. But he managed to find a new job after approaching the authorities for help.
Said Mr Kazi: "These suggestions will help us. If our skills are upgraded, we can get better jobs next time."