Whenever the Ministry of Manpower wants to assure the public that it is taking ‘strong action’ against employers, it will issue statements such as the one reported in the papers today:

“The Singapore Government will take a firm stand against companies which try to circumvent the country's labour laws, said Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, in response to concerns over how some companies may find loopholes in the recently introduced Fair Consideration Framework, where employers are required to consider Singaporeans fairly before hiring skilled professional foreigners.”

There is little in this hollow proclamation for Singaporeans to take comfort in since statistics about enforcement efforts have historically been limited, making it difficult for anyone to ascertain if the government is indeed taking strong action against employers who blatantly flout our labour laws.

Motherhood statements from the Ministry of Manpower are dime a dozen. Its corporate communications department probably has a standard template it gives the minister to address tricky issues which it wants to obfuscate. Some of the common stock responses, which you will find in many of their press releases and speeches often goes like this

“MOM takes a serious view of employers who do not comply with our employment laws.”

“MOM will not hesitate to take action against employers who fail to pay their workers on time.”

MOM would not hesitate to take stern actions against errant employers.” 

The Ministry likes to publicise its enforcement efforts which would usually receive a lot of attention in the mainstream media. While it is good to publicise such cases, it should not mislead anyone to believe that the Ministry is actually addressing the systemic nature of these problems. In the rare occasion when statistics are revealed, they are usually not disaggregated, making it difficult to ascertain if enforcement is effective.

Evidence of the government’s weak enforcement efforts surfaced in a Lianhe Zaobao article published in 2010, where it was revealed that the Ministry of Manpower received 3700 salary related complaints from foreign workers in 2009. Yet, in a report to the human rights council of the United Nations at the Universal Periodic Review, it was further revealed that only 4 employers were prosecuted in that year for failure to pay salaries to workers. This means that only 0.1% of employers were taken to task. Even if not all the claims received were legitimate, 4 prosecutions out of 3700 complaints is dismally low.

Last month, I revealed a contract from a construction company with terms and conditions which clearly violated Employment Act standards. Among the terms that its workers were told to agree to were that it would work for the whole year without rest and it would accept deductions to their salaries for not obeying the orders of their management. You can view the contract here:

These problems are not new. The migrant worker NGOs have been highlighting them for many years and submitting these contracts to the authorities for investigation. A study documenting these problems was released in 2011 and submitted to the Ministry of Manpower.



The exploitative working conditions were also highlighted in the press and there was an exchange of views between MOM and HOME. Despite submitting contracts which show how companies are pressurising workers to sign unlawful terms, the same companies continue to operate with impunity. I have documented instances when ministry officers even tell workers that violations such as delay in payment of salaries or deductions for punishment are common and they should just accept it. See:

In spite of great efforts to highlight these problems over the years, little has changed. Exploitative contracts and abusive working conditions are still widespread in the construction, marine, and services industries which are staffed by large numbers of migrants because they are easier to exploit. 

Singapore’s economy was built upon weak labour protections. The government’s reluctance to mete out effective penalties against employers for violating labour laws stems from its belief that it is acceptable to compromise labour rights for the sake of businesses.

If exploiting foreign workers will result in marginalising Singaporeans in the job market, or in Singaporean workers themselves being abused, the government will continue to let it happen because protecting the interests of businesses is its priority. Our policies and the enforcement of these policies will continue to reflect that.

It is no wonder that our productivity levels remain dismally low and we have one of the highest income inequality rates in the world. Without independent unions, immigration control, anti discrimination laws, and wage protection, whatever grandiose claims Tan Chuan Jin may make about “putting Singaporeans first” should be greeted with the scepticism it deserves.


Jolovan Wham

*Article first appeared on his FB page here.