In the past 1½ years, there have been at least six cases of non-Singaporean employers absconding 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 noticed 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 yesterday.
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. "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, on the sidelines of the event.
He said most of the cases happened in the construction industry.
In one case early last year, 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.
CALL TO DO MORE
The authorities should impose controls against (errant employers). In particular when the employers are non-Singaporean, they can impose travel restrictions on them.
MIGRANT WORKERS' CENTRE CHAIRMAN YEO GUAT KWANG
Later this month, MWC will launch a scheme to help new workers set up bank accounts for electronic payment of salaries and other uses like remitting money. This will help workers track their salary payments easily and ensure 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 at a disadvantage because the incidents in their records 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 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," he said.
Construction worker Kazi Arif, 27, said the changes would help protect migrant workers like himself.
When he arrived here from Bangladesh 10 years ago, he got into a salary dispute with his boss. But he found a new job after approaching the authorities for help. "These suggestions will help us. If our skills are upgraded, we can get better jobs next time."