'Claims of foreign worker abuse have no basis'

Foreign workers here are, by and large, treated well by their employers. The problems and complaints by foreign workers make up a very small fraction of the 700,000 work permit holders here, said Mr Tan in a ministerial statement.


Go to Singapolitics for more stories.

Here is Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin's statement in Parliament in full:

For Parliament sitting on 20 Jan 2014 Ministerial statement on FW Management

Madam Speaker, DPM Teo gave an account of the 8 December riot, the measures taken in the aftermath, and the setting up of the Committee of Inquiry to look into the cause(s) of the riot. A number of MPs have also raised questions about the overall management of foreign workers (FWs) in Singapore. I will first address the foreign worker landscape in Singapore.

Foreign Workforce

Our foreign workforce has always been part of our economic landscape and foreign workers have contributed significantly to our progress and the well-being of Singaporeans. The growth of the workforce accelerated towards the latter half of the 2000s. However, in line with the recommendations made by the Economic Strategies Committee in 2010, we began to moderate the growth of foreign workers to more sustainable levels, with a greater emphasis on productivity improvements. We also took deliberate and progressive steps to raise the quality profile of our foreign workforce and help businesses reduce their reliance on low-cost foreign labour. We will continue to do so in a targeted and adaptive manner, taking into consideration: (i) the growth rate of our foreign workforce; (ii) the productivity growth of our overall economy; and (iii) the real wage growth of Singaporeans at all levels. This is something that we are already doing anyway, and to Mr Dhinakaran's question, the riot will not have a material impact on our plans.

Indeed, we have progressively reduced foreign worker growth every year since 2011. At end November 2013, we had about 1.1 million foreign workers, excluding foreign domestic workers1. Of this pool, about 700,000 were work permit holders.

Ms Irene Ng asked whether the rate of growth of foreign construction workers is "sustainable" or whether there should be a "cap". There is clearly a delicate balance to be struck. Many of us recognise that foreign workers are needed to build public infrastructure like roads, MRT networks, hospitals, housing, and public facilities for Singaporeans.

But we also recognise that the growth cannot be unabated. We will continue to moderate the growth of foreign workers. As part of our restructuring, we should do more with less. For example, construction is the biggest driver for foreign worker numbers. Hence, in June 2010, the Building Construction Authority (BCA) launched the $250 million Construction Productivity and Capability Fund to incentivise the construction industry to improve productivity and strengthen its capabilities. To require the adoption of more productive methods of construction, BCA has also raised the minimum "Buildable Design" and "Constructability" requirements for all new projects from 1 September 2013. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and take further steps as needed to dampen the demand for foreign workers.

Foreign Worker Management

Let me now talk about how our foreign workforce is managed.

Ms Janice Koh asked about a study on issues facing foreign workers. Foreign workers in Singapore are, by and large, treated decently by their employers. A 2011 survey commissioned by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and Migrant Workers' Centre, covering about 3,000 WPHs and 500 S Pass holders, showed that more than 90 per cent of these foreign workers were satisfied with their overall experience of working in Singapore, and more than 80 per cent would wish to continue working here. MOM conducted another survey in November 2013 with departing foreign workers and the results were largely similar. Of the over 150 foreign construction workers interviewed at the airport, more than 90 per cent did not have any employment issues; and 80 per cent were happy working in Singapore. A few who worked in other countries said Singapore was still the best as it provided a safe and good work environment. Ms Tin Pei Ling asked how we compare with other countries. Let me put it this way: foreign workers choose to come to Singapore, and these days, they are not ignorant because bad news will spread. What is the reality? Many consider Singapore to be an attractive destination country, and many foreigners at all levels continue to want to come here for work if they have the chance. Their rights and help available are clearly listed. Before they arrive here, we make sure that workers know what their pay will be via the In-Principal Approval Letter that is issued to them. During the Work Permit card issuance process, workers are also informed of channels of assistance, provided by both Government agencies and NGOs.

Are all foreign workers poorly treated here? While the situation is generally good, it is not perfect. There is always room for improvement.

From January to November 2013, MOM assisted approximately 7,0002 foreign workers with difficulties - about half of these cases were employment-related, covering things like salary and overtime claims. This represents less than 1 per cent of foreign work permit holders.

When we come across cases of errant employers who flout our laws, my Ministry takes a strong enforcement stance, and will continue to do so. To Mr Pritam Singh's question, MOM also regularly reviews our legislation to ensure that the protection accorded to workers remains adequate and appropriate. For example, under the recent changes to the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, we doubled the maximum penalty for the contravention of any condition of the work pass, including the condition for employers to ensure that workers have acceptable accommodation. Other enhancements to the Employment Act which will take effect this April will see a new 25 per cent sub-cap against excessive deductions. The penalties for employers who fail to pay workers' salary will also increase.

To Ms Mary Liew's question, my Ministry works closely with NGO partners who refer cases of mistreatment they come across to MOM officers. There were about 640 of such NGO-referred cases last year - covering less than 0.1 per cent of work permit holders.

I therefore find it puzzling as to how some individuals can so quickly conclude or criticise that there is widespread and systemic abuse of the foreign workforce; or that these were the reasons for the riot. In the same vein, some foreign media just echo these points but offer only scant evidence for their assertions. We do not think there is basis for these assertions, but look forward to the COI's perspective on the matter. We also believe that it is wrong to portray Singaporeans and our employers in this light because that is not how things are, nor who we are. During our visits to the dorms after the riot, many foreign workers told us that they were ashamed by the conduct of those responsible. The Indian High Commissioner to Singapore, Ms Vijay Thaur Singh, also shared that that there was no discontent discerned among the Indian community of foreign workers in Singapore. Our various sources in the industry do not indicate any perceptible disquiet.

Managing our foreign workers well is important. Ms Denise Phua would be glad to know that since 2008, an inter-ministerial committee has been working towards better management of foreign workers in Singapore, covering issues like housing, transport and security.

Accommodation, Recreation and Congregation

Let me talk about housing for our foreign workforce. Foreign work permit holders are currently accommodated in a variety of premises, including purpose built dormitories, workers' quarters on construction sites, converted industrial properties, HDB flats and private residential premises. Assoc Prof Eugene Tan may wish to note that a vast majority of these housing premises are within existing regulatory norms.

Mr Alex Yam asked about the security requirements at foreign worker dormitories. Dorm operators are required to comply with security requirements imposed by the Police. For example, they have to install CCTVs around the dorms and draw Emergency Response Plans to deal with public order incidents. Since the riot, the Police has also advised dorm operators to step up security and will also provide them with training. SPF reviews and calibrates these requirements regularly.

Ms Tan Su Shan and Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef asked how we can improve the living conditions of foreign workers in Singapore. Mr Alex Yam also asked about measures to manage areas where they congregate. Even before the riot, we had identified the need, over the next two to three years, to speed up the construction of more dorms so that more foreign workers can move to purpose-built accommodation. These dormitories must set aside adequate living space, and provide basic amenities and recreational facilities such as gyms, canteens, television rooms and computer access. These help to ensure that the daily basic living needs of FWs are taken care of.

To supplement the basic facilities in dorms and also to provide for those who are currently not in purpose-built facilities, the government decided to establish dedicated recreation centres for foreign workers some time ago. The one at Soon Lee Road was launched in 2009. The others at Kaki Bukit, Woodlands and Penjuru were initiated thereafter and were fully operational by 2011 and 2012.3 These centres provide a wider range of amenities that individual dormitories may not be able to, such as remittance services, supermarkets, sports facilities, and AXS machines. They are well-utilised by Foreign Workers, ranging in the thousands on weekends. The number of visitors is especially high when these centres host events such as sports competitions, cultural celebrations and movie screenings which are organised regularly. The government will launch more of such gathering spaces, to better cater to foreign workers' needs.

But while these recreation centres provide alternative options, the reality is that they can never totally replace popular spots like Little India, which have naturally evolved over time to cater to foreign workers' physical, as well as emotional needs. Foreign workers need a place to come together to catch up on news from the village, have a taste of food from home, and meet friends and relatives from across the island for a few precious hours. This is really not that different from any Singaporean worker looking to relax and hang out with friends after a hard week at work. Recreation centres cannot always meet these psychological needs.

I believe Singaporeans understand and appreciate the need for these shared spaces. Unlike the picture painted by the critics, I also believe that Singaporeans are generally big-hearted and accommodating. On the part of the government, we will manage these areas well, so that we can coexist harmoniously.

On that note, I would like to assure Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef and Mr Alex Yam that active steps are being taken to address the safety and security concerns in areas where foreign workers congregate - some of which have already been listed by DPM Teo. I also agree with Ms Tin Pei Ling and Mr Teo Siong Seng that the government should continue to encourage businesses that are able to roster their off-days to do so.

Another strategy is education. MOM works closely with NGO partners to educate foreign workers about Singapore's social norms and laws. We do so through various avenues, such as during their compulsory safety training courses and guidebooks in their native languages, which are issued to them when they collect their work passes.

Conclusion

Let me end by reiterating that foreign workers contribute positively to our well being; and the vast majority of them are hardworking and responsible. It would be wrong to make negative generalisations about the foreign workforce from this incident. Neither should we generalise about the chronic and poor treatment of these workers. The government will continue to monitor closely the overall number of foreign workers and their impact on the communities they interact with, as well as enhance the management of their well-being.

Here is a summary of the speech made in Parliament by Acting Minister for Manpower, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin:

Executive summary of ministerial statement on foreign workforce management by the Acting Minister for Manpower

The Acting Minister for Manpower spoke about managing the foreign workforce in Singapore. He made these key points:

a. Foreign workers in Singapore are, by and large, treated decently by their employers. While the situation is not perfect, surveys commissioned by MOM have found that the vast majority of foreign workers are satisfied with their overall experience working here. Many foreign workers consider Singapore an attractive destination country, and want to come here to work. Errant employers who flout the laws will be dealt with, and we review our legislation regularly to ensure they remain adequate.

b. We should therefore not generalise that there is widespread and systemic abuse of the foreign workforce; nor come to premature conclusion that it is the underlying cause of the riot. Some foreign media also echo such points but offer scant evidence for their assertions.

c. Managing our foreign workers well is important, and we will continue to improve the management of their well-being. Even before the riot, we had identified the need to speed up the construction of purpose-built dormitories over the next two to three years, and ensure that the daily basic living needs of more foreign workers are taken care of. To supplement these facilities in the dormitories, the government has also established dedicated recreation centres with a good range of amenities, and will launch more of such gathering spaces to meet foreign worker needs.

d. But recreation centres can never fully substitute gathering places like Little India, that fulfil a social and emotional need for these workers. We believe Singaporeans understand and appreciate the need for foreign workers to have such shared spaces. We will manage these areas to facilitate harmonious coexistence, just as we continue to educate foreign workers about Singapore's social norms and laws.