The above news story, which you can read in full here, is how perhaps most of us view the lower-skilled, lower-paid foreign worker – they are expendable. And I mean, literally so – as the above case shows. It is no wonder then that non-governmental organisations are and have been calling for tougher laws and serious enforcement of existing laws to protect these workers.
The Government recently announced some changes in law to mete out tougher sentences for those who flout the rules.
But, as activists say, this is not enough – and the example of the above story proves this. What really needs to be done is enforcement which at times is severely lacking. It is a point raised by Straits Times writer, Radha Basu, a few days ago.
The Government should go beyond punishing recalcitrant employers, although this too is important and the Manpower Ministry has taken a more active role in this. But beyond punishing employers, there should also be a commitment to recognise and protect the rights of these foreign workers (and for that matter, Singaporean workers too).
These cases of abuse and exploitation have been going on and regularly reported in the media, especially online media. Yet, they continue. One feels that employers continue to ignore the law because of several reasons:
1. The workers are so vulnerable that any form of abuse, even extreme ones, is tolerated by them out of fear – fear of reprisals from the employer and, ironically, the Ministry for Manpower. Workers fear that if they report abuse, they will be sent home, and they will have to deal with a lifetime of debt, and put their very lives at risk from creditors too. So, they remain silent – and this is exploited by employers who abuse them.
2. Such abuse are so common that employers perhaps feel that it is not possible for the enforcement agencies to detect each and every case. So, there is a high chance of the employer not being found out.
3. The gains are just too much – employers stand to gain substantially from the abuse they mete out to these workers. Cases of employers who bring in hundreds of workers only to leave them jobless and later have them repatriated and pocket hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even millions, have been reported too. The sentences meted out to them IF they were caught in the first place, is well worth it. What’s a few months in jail when you still gain substantially from exploiting these workers?
4. Most importantly, these workers have few rights which are guaranteed by law and enforced by the relevant authorities. Without these legal rights, and the knowledge of them, workers continue to be under the thumb of abusive employers.
But most of all, employers continue their exploitative ways simply because they can get away with it. Why do you think Tay left the worker by the side of the road to die? Because he thought he could offer some lame excuse and get away with it.
Recognition of workers’ rights is severely lacking. The very fact that Tay was sentenced to 6 months jail for hiring an illegal worker, and sentenced to 3 months jail for leaving the same worker to die by the roadside, says everything about how we view these workers.
Leaving them to die attracts a less severe punishment than to hire them illegally.
Now, there is just something very disconcerting about this.