Why It Matters

Gap in law to protect workers

Two labour disputes reported in the past week have highlighted a gap in the law that is supposed to protect foreign workers.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM), which runs the Labour Court, can charge the employers in court for not paying salaries or not buying workplace insurance. But MOM does not have the legal power to recover the debt because the money is owed to the workers, not the ministry.

In one of the recent cases, the boss of a local company ignored a Labour Court order to pay his worker $7,363 in salary arrears. In the other case, the employer did not buy workplace injury insurance and ignored a Labour Court order to compensate an injured worker $11,625.

The Bangladeshi construction workers in both cases were told by MOM to enforce the orders themselves by seizing their employers' assets and selling them.

They were left to fend for themselves.

This gap in the law should be plugged for several reasons, but two are highlighted here.

First, foreign workers are important to the economy. About two in five workers here are foreigners.

Second, local workers who face similar problems will also benefit because the Labour Court covers them too.

One way MOM can help foreign workers is to pay what the Labour Court has ordered first, and recover the payment from the employers later. This will ensure that unpaid workers receive their salaries and injured ones are compensated without delay. The ministry can also work with non-governmental organisations to identify and help vulnerable workers early, especially in clear-cut cases where the employers have withheld salaries or compensation payments.

Workers, foreign or local, should not have to fork out more cash or fend for themselves in claiming what they are rightfully owed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2017, with the headline 'Gap in law to protect workers'. Print Edition | Subscribe