Response to Adjournment Motion at Parliament
Dr Koh Poh Koon, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Manpower
I thank the Member for sharing his concerns and suggestions on how we can create a fairer and more inclusive Singapore for our migrant workers. Indeed, migrant workers have and will continue to contribute immensely to Singapore’s development. They are welcomed members of our society, and MOM is committed to ensure that our migrant workers are treated fairly and that their employment rights and well-being are safeguarded during their time here in Singapore.
Enforcing against collection of kickbacks
2 MOM agrees with the Member that the collection of employment kickbacks is a serious offence as it shifts the burden of employment costs from employers to workers and increases the debt burden on the migrant workers. Thus, MOM undertakes a multi-pronged approach to detect and deter the collection of employment kickbacks from migrant workers.
3 Under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA), accused persons, upon conviction, may be sentenced to imprisonment for up to two years or a fine of up to $30,000, or both, per charge. Those who abet the collection of kickbacks will face the same penalties.
4 To the Member’s suggestion to increase the penalties for kickback offences to match the maximum penalty for bribery cases, I would like to highlight that accused persons can be charged on a per-worker basis. For instance, in 2018, an employer was sentenced to fines totalling $120,000 for 10 charges for collecting kickbacks from migrant workers. This, in fact, is higher than the $100, 000 penalty suggested by the Member.
5 Substantial fines of $7,000 to $12,000 per charge or short imprisonment terms have been imposed by the Courts. These sentences have not approached the maximum fine or imprisonment term set under the EFMA. This indicates that the current maximum fine or imprisonment term for the collection of kickbacks have been sufficient for the Courts to impose sentences that reflect the gravity of the offence in all previous cases. On top of the fines and imprisonment terms meted out, the Courts are also obligated to order the offender to pay a sum which is equal to the amount of the sum or other benefit the offender had deducted or received.
6 Besides the strict penalties, MOM also actively enforces against employers, unlicensed agents, or employment agencies, who collected kickbacks from migrant workers. In recent years, MOM made use of data analytics to identify and detect unusual patterns in hiring practices more quickly and accurately. This has helped MOM proactively detect cases of employment kickbacks, in addition to complaints that we receive.
7 Migrant workers who are pressured into giving kickbacks should step forward and report the matter to MOM, our FAST Team officers deployed to the dormitories, or reach out to the non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as the Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC).
Facilitating employment change for migrant workers
8 We share the Member’s view that migrant workers who are treated unfairly should be allowed to change employers. Migrant workers with valid employment claims, including those who have been forced to pay kickbacks, are permitted to transfer to another employer and continue working in Singapore. This is an important safeguard for migrant workers who have been unfairly treated.
9 In addition, measures are in place to facilitate the retention of experienced work permit holders in Singapore. Workers can transfer to a new employer at the end of their contract, without the need for the current employer’s consent. This is currently allowed in all the business sectors.
10 The Retention Scheme in the construction sector is an additional effort to retain workers whose employment has been terminated and who wish to continue working in Singapore. Under the Retention Scheme, the Singapore Contractors Association Ltd (SCAL) takes over the upkeep and maintenance of such workers and matches them to another employer in the construction sector.
11 Since its implementation in September 2021, about 430 workers have been enrolled in the scheme. We are in discussions with SCAL on extending the Retention Scheme for a few more months, to support the industry in retaining experienced workers.
12 At the same time, as we had announced in November last year, we are working with the respective Trade Associations and Chambers (TACs) to implement the Retention Scheme in the Marine and Process sectors as well. The TACs have been preparing for this implementation and should be ready soon. We will provide an update on these in due course.
13 While these Retention Schemes play a part in ameliorating the manpower challenges faced by the industry today, the fundamental solution is to safely increase the inflow of new workers into Singapore. MOM has therefore been facilitating various industry initiatives to progressively allow more Construction, Marine and Process (CMP) sector workers into Singapore safely. Subject to the public health situation, we will continue these efforts to bring in workers safely to support the needs of the industry.
14 The Member also suggested salary controls for workers who transfer to a new employer. Salary is one of many factors that workers and employers may consider when negotiating a new employment. We should not introduce rigidity to this process by anchoring on arbitrary salary points or increment rates. Employers and workers should have the flexibility to negotiate employment terms with consideration of various factors, including the worker’s skills and training, and the prevailing market conditions.
Ensuring sufficient rest for migrant workers
15 Besides ensuring employment safeguards, we agree with the Member that all employees, including migrant workers, should have sufficient rest to ensure their well-being and safety.
16 Last year, MOM announced our intention to implement, by end-2022, the requirement for migrant domestic workers to be given at least one rest day per month that cannot be compensated away. Migrant domestic workers work and live in their employers’ homes. Hence, having a mandatory rest day that cannot be compensated away will provide migrant domestic workers with mental respite and more opportunities to form a network of support outside their households.
17 For migrant workers, there are protections under the Employment Act on the maximum hours that employees can work per week and per day, as well as the maximum number of overtime hours per month. These protections apply to all employees, including migrant workers and local employees.
18 Employers are also required to grant all employees, including migrant workers, at least one rest day without pay per week, unless there is a prior written agreement between the employer and the employee to work on the rest day. The employee must be also provided monetary compensation for working on his rest day.
- If work is done on the rest day at the employer’s request, the employee must be compensated at twice his regular rate of pay.
19 As a safeguard, employers cannot compel their employees to work on their rest days, unless under exceptional circumstances. Migrant workers who are forced to do so should approach MOM for assistance and we will investigate.
20 We share the Member’s concern on the importance of workplace safety. Fatigue and overworking can affect a worker’s safety at work. This is why the Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Council promotes the protection of workers to prevent fatigue through its Total WSH programme, WSH Council guidelines and platforms such as the annual National WSH Campaign. Last year’s National WSH Campaign emphasised Care Time for workers to take care of their safety and health. Simple actions such as regular exercise, constantly being hydrated and having adequate sleep can improve one’s physical and mental health and allow workers to be more alert to unsafe acts or conditions at their workplaces.
Allowing more migrant workers to visit the community
21 Lastly, the Member has asked to allow all vaccinated and boosted migrant workers in dormitories to enter the general community as long as they comply with the current safe management measures and testing regimes. We are very mindful that social and recreation activities are important to the well-being of migrant workers. At the same time, we are also responsible for safeguarding their health and reducing disruption to their lives and work.
22 The good health outcomes of our workers residing in dormitories were achieved through the steadfast support and significant efforts from all our stakeholders - dormitory operators, employers, and the workers themselves. With COVID-19 still circulating in Singapore and the recent Omicron wave, we must not lift these rules in the dormitories too quickly and risk a re-ignition of cases which will unwind the gains we have so painstakingly made in the last two years. As dormitories are communal settings where transmissions can occur rapidly, MOM’s strategy is therefore to take a careful and calibrated approach to progressively allow more migrant workers to visit the community while actively working to make sure that their well-being is taken care of:
- First, we have allowed a range of social and recreation activities within the dormitories, subject to group size restrictions and Safe Management Measures.
- Second, migrant workers can now visit any Recreation Centre daily. We are also working with Recreation Centre operators and community partners to introduce programmes and new offerings to make Recreation Centre visits more engaging.
- Third, from 18 December 2021, 3,000 vaccinated migrant workers per day are allowed on community visits on weekdays and 6,000 vaccinated migrant workers per day on weekends and public holidays. While the visit slots are not fully utilised today, we are prepared to adjust the quota to allow more migrant workers to visit the community as the COVID situation improves further.
23 While the Member highlighted that Full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) similarly stay and work in a communal setting but can remain part of the community, the key difference is that NSFs would be able to return to their own separate homes to be quarantined when necessary. This is unlike dormitory dwelling migrant workers, whose fixed place of residence is in a communal setting, making a potential reignition of cases in the dormitories a health risk for many workers.
24 We are grateful to our migrant workers for their patience, cooperation, and support during this pandemic. In line with the progressive adjustment of the Safe Management Measures for the general community, MOM will calibrate measures to allow more workers to visit the community while ensuring the risk of COVID-19 spread is contained.
25 Taking good care of our migrant workers is a continual effort, and MOM will continue to partner stakeholders, such as non-governmental organisations and employers, to build a better ecosystem for our migrant workers who have contributed much to Singapore.