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Speech at Official Opening of Avery Lodge

Mr Gan Kim Yong, Minister , Avery Lodge

Mr Ronald Ong
Chairman, Morgan Stanley (South East Asia)

Mr Craig Pearce
Vice President, Morgan Stanley Real Estate

Mr Vernon Chua
Director, Avery Strategic Investments and
Managing Director, Averic Capital Management

Excellencies

Ladies and Gentlemen

Good Morning

I am pleased to join you this morning for the official opening of their newest dormitory, Avery Lodge. I am glad for several reasons.

2.   First, the launch of purpose-built dormitories such as Avery Lodge underscores the Government's commitment to ensuring an adequate supply of proper housing for foreign workers here. Many Government agencies have been working together to identify and prepare a pipeline of suitable sites for the development of such purpose-built dormitories. I am pleased to be able to witness this effort bear fruit today.

 

3.   Second, the design of this dormitory and its facilities show that it is possible to provide more than just basic accommodation. Besides being able to enjoy facilities such as an indoor gym and outdoor fitness park, workers living in Avery Lodge are able to return home to comfortable self-contained apartment units with bay windows and high ceilings. Proper housing is good not just for workers, but also for business. Workers with proper housing are more likely to be well-rested, productive, and motivated. For example, Jemix Engineering (Singapore) Pte Ltd, one of the employers housing their workers in Avery Lodge, sees good housing as a way of rewarding and retaining valued employees. Its director Mr Kevin Song was told by his workers that they like their new living quarters and amenities such as the gymnasium. He has also noted that his workers are healthier and in fact, he is seeing a corresponding improvement in productivity as well. It is no surprise that Avery Lodge is already about 80% occupied.

4.   Dormitory operators have an important role to play in providing good housing options for responsible employers like Jemix Engineering. This goes a long way to ensuring the well-being of our foreign workers here. I would like to take this opportunity to commend Avery Strategic Investments, as well as other industry players who serve employers with a great sense of professionalism.

Enforcement against unapproved accommodation

5.   Unfortunately, not all employers behave responsibly. By housing workers in unacceptable accommodation, they deny workers a basic standard of living, create fire and health risks, and harm Singapore's image as a great place to work. There have been cases of employers who decided to cut down on the provision of proper housing so as to save costs. Some do not provide proper sanitation or ventilation, while some squeeze more than the allowed number of people in a room. This is unacceptable. The Government will not condone such irresponsible behaviour. We have been bringing errant employers to task, and we will continue to do so.

6.   Last year, MOM took enforcement action against 852 employers for failure to provide acceptable accommodation for their workers. MOM has further ramped up its enforcement efforts this year. In the first three months alone, we took action against 217 employers.

7.   My Ministry co-ordinates such actions closely with other government agencies such as the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). In March, MOM, together with the SCDF, URA and the National Environment Agency (NEA) embarked on an island-wide sweep of illegal dormitories. This sweep resulted in the operators of 14 dormitories being fined by SCDF for infringing fire safety regulations. 18 Enforcement Notices have been served by URA on the parties responsible. If they do not comply with the Enforcement Notices, they could be prosecuted and, if convicted, fined up to $200,000, imprisoned up to 12 months, or both. To date, almost 1,400 workers have been relocated to approved housing as a result of this operation.

Enforcement against other employer malpractices

8.   Besides failing to provide proper accommodation, some employers may also fail to pay their workers' salaries. MOM has set up a taskforce to detect such malpractices early before the salary arrears accumulate. The taskforce consolidates and analyses information surfaced from our inspections as well as intelligence we receive on possible salary arrears cases. Since this taskforce was set up in January this year, we have surfaced 43 companies with salary arrears through this effort. Once such cases have been detected, MOM teams will move in quickly to manage the case in a holistic way.

9.   This includes the settlement of salary arrears and other infringements such as unacceptable accommodation. We will also take action against the employers concerned – for example, we have already prosecuted 2 of these employers for failure to pay salaries and are investigating a further 9 with a view to prosecution. In cases where employers can no longer afford to employ the workers because they cannot pay them, we help the workers return home after their outstanding payment issues have been resolved. Employers who attempt to repatriate their workers in an improper manner or when salaries are still owing will also be dealt with. MOM has revoked the work permits of one marine engineering company, K-7 Engineering, which attempted to repatriate their 12 workers before salaries were settled. The company will also be barred from hiring foreign workers in future.

10.   My Ministry also scrutinises Work Permit applications closely. Employers under suspicion for not having legitimate work for their foreign workers are flagged out and the Ministry investigates into such companies. Those found guilty of flouting the law will face the full consequences of their actions.

Whole-of-Government (WOG) efforts on foreign worker management

11.   All these initiatives are important to protect the well-being of foreign workers. Equally important, however, are our efforts to ensure that foreign workers can co-exist harmoniously with Singaporeans in our society. Foreign workers form an important part of our labour market and will continue to be so for a long time to come.

12.   That said, the Government recognises that we can better manage the presence of foreign workers in our communities, especially in areas where the number is significant, such as the Serangoon Road area / commonly called Little India. To address these concerns, a Ministerial Steering Committee, which I chair, was set up late last year to coordinate whole-of-Government efforts to facilitate a harmonious co-existence between locals and foreign workers.

13.   First, we recognise that foreign workers come to our shores with customs and habits that may be different from our social norms. We have therefore included the topic of social norms in our ongoing education efforts for foreign workers. For example, these messages are now included in the booklet given to all new foreign workers in their native language, alongside information on Singapore's laws. Since December last year, new workers in the construction, marine, metalworking, oil and petrochemical industries have been shown a slideshow on Singapore's social norms as part of their mandatory pre-employment training. There will also be mobile exhibits displayed at dormitories and workplaces.

14.   Second, the Government is also working with local communities to address their specific concerns over the presence of foreign workers. For example, although Police statistics have consistently shown that foreign workers are no more likely to commit crime than locals, we are aware that some residents would nonetheless like to see a stronger security presence in the midst of a large group of foreign workers. For this reason, and to also enforce against anti-social behaviour such as littering and spitting, uniformed Auxiliary Police Officers (APOs) and Security Officers (SOs) have been deployed in the Serangoon Road area since January 2009, under the oversight of the Police. This pilot initiative has worked well and we will be extending it in stages to other areas across the island where foreign workers gather in significant numbers.

15.   Lastly, we recognise that, just like you and I, foreign workers also need a place to relax, socialize and meet their friends. We have worked with purpose-built dormitories to provide social and recreational facilities for their workers within the dormitories. But not all workers stay in purpose-built dormitories, and even those who do cannot be confined to their dormitories all the time. This is why the Government supported the proposal by the Singapore Contractors Association Limited, or SCAL, to build a recreational centre for foreign workers at Soon Lee Road. The SCAL Recreation Centre was officially launched last month, and its amenities include a canteen, a supermarket, hard courts, and a beer garden. My MOM officers have visited the place and they tell me it is very "happening" especially on Sunday nights.

Conclusion

16.   We will continue to have foreign workers living, working and playing among us. They play an important role in our economy. The Government's efforts to ensure their well-being need to be complemented by those of industry players such as employers and dormitory operators. At the same time, it also takes the effort of all Singaporeans to facilitate harmonious co-existence with foreign workers. Let's all do our part to make Singapore a society where foreign workers are treated fairly and where they can live and work alongside Singaporeans in harmony, as they continue to contribute to our nation building.

Thank you.