By: Jolovan Wham
A 55 year old employer has pleaded guilty for receiving money in exchange for continuing employment in his company. Ng Boon Cheng, the managing director of Lian Lee Wooden Case Maker, faces 18 weeks in jail if he cannot pay the fine. He is also banned from employing foreign workers, according to state media Channel News Asia yesterday.
In December 2015, 7 Bangladeshi workers approached HOME for assistance because Ng had demanded $6000 from them in return for the renewal of their work permit cards. He threatened them with termination if they refused.
“No money, automatic go back,” he told them
The employer also claimed that out of the $6000, the agent would take $3000 or $4000. In an exchange between the workers and the employer which HOME witnessed, the employer blamed MOM’s regulations for the kickbacks and tried to imply that the money is actually taken by MOM.
“Every year MOM do something problem for company” “You know why MOM want to increase so many? They want you all to go back, don’t want you to stay in Singapore.”
The employer also tried to assure the workers that they could cover back to cost by doing more overtime work. He also warned the workers that he would reduce their overtime hours as punishment if they were not compliant.
Two weeks after HOME assisted the workers to file the complaint to MOM, the employer was instructed to return the workers their money. However, in an attempt to reduce his culpability, the employer tried to disguise the kickbacks he had demanded by documenting it as “savings” and “deposit” in the payment vouchers.
Filing complaints against employers for kickbacks is an almost impossible task for migrant workers. This is because the Ministry of Manpower will only accept such complaints when there is evidence such as receipts, and other documents proving that these illicit transactions have taken place. However, it is virtually impossible for workers to obtain such evidence.
Reducing employers’ reliance on migrant workers to raise productivity is one of the government’s policy objectives, and imposing high foreign worker levies is one of the ways in which they try to achieve this.
In a letter which HOME wrote to local newspaper Today in 2010, we had warned that this was not an effective measure. Many employers prefer migrant workers because they are willing to work longer hours and during weekends. They are also willing to accept lower salaries than the average local low wage worker. When levies are raised, the employer will pass the burden of this increased cost onto the foreign worker by decreasing wages and demanding kickbacks.
There is also a likelihood that the agent fees that workers pay may increase to manage this additional cost. This problem is compounded by the reality that low wage foreign workers have little bargaining power to demand better working conditions. In such a situation, neither the employer nor the worker will benefit.
In the past year, HOME saw almost 100 cases in which workers alleged they had to pay kickbacks to employers. But most of these cases were not investigated either because the workers were afraid of losing their jobs or they were not able to “prove” these claims to MOM.
The seven workers HOME assisted made a successful claim only after we provided assistance to gather evidence.
Commenting on the conviction, Hasan Mahabub, one of the complainants, told HOME that he was “happy” that the employer was brought to justice “This employer makan many money from workers”, he said.
Commentary was first published in Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME).