Thursday, October 11, 2012

Ministry of Manpower: impotent, incompetent, and/or indolent? (The case of Panasonic Singapore)

Secret tape exposes Panasonic Singapore’s Employment Agent practices

Published by The Online Citizen on October 9, 2012 (source)

By Kumaran Pillai, Choo Zheng Xi & Leo Khaw
Video editing by Terry Xu -
Editor's Note: Article updated as of 12 p.m. 9 October 2012 to reflect a fuller translation of the contract signed by the PRC worker with the Singapore Employment Agent (EA).
The contract attached in our article states that the worker has "paid a sum of RMB 15000 to the Singapore intermediate agency to arrange my entry to Singapore Panasonic"
Questions about MOM enforcement of Employment Agencies Act offences are raised

A secretly filmed tape has exposed the local employment agent (EA) of Panasonic Singapore admitting that he collected up to S$3,000 from People’s Republic of China (PRC) workers.
The tape, which was secretly recorded by a dissatisfied PRC Panasonic staff member, is the latest development in a labour dispute involving what TOC understands to be about 100 Panasonic workers dissatisfied with poor wages and working conditions.
The exposé raises the question of whether Panasonic’s EA has breached the Employment Agencies Act as well as new questions about the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) willingness to prosecute offences under the Employment Agencies Act.
At face value, the tape appears to contradict a public statement by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in a Facebook posting on the 28th of September 2008 in which it said:
We had investigated the employment agency (EA) and found that the claims of excessive recruitment fees were unsubstantiated. In fact, the workers admitted that the recruitment fees were never paid to the local EA – all the fees were paid by the workers directly to their employment agents back in China, which lie beyond the reach of our laws.
In the embedded video below, the local agent admits several times that he received RMB 15,000 (approx. S$3,000) per worker, which was transferred to him from his Chinese counterpart.
In other words, this suggests that the original fees were paid to the EA in China, who then remits the money to the Singapore EA.
At one point in the video, the PRC worker taking the video confirms: “So here in Singapore you receive a sum of 15,000 (RMB) from us”?
The agent confirms: “We take 15,000 (RMB)”.
Lack of will to investigate possible breach of the law?
Part of the Employment Agencies Act has been drafted with an eye to prevent unscrupulous EAs from exploiting foreign workers by charging excessive fees in exchange for their placement in a job.
By law, EAs are not supposed to be charging more than 1 month’s wages from foreign workers to place them in a job in Singapore.
Section 23 (1) of the Act reads:
Where any employment agency personnel of a licensee, directly or indirectly, charges or receives for his services any sum greater than the prescribed fee, the licensee and the employment agency personnel shall each be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $5,000 and, in respect of a second or subsequent offence, to a fine not exceeding $5,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or to both.”
(emphasis added)
According to the subsidiary legislation of the Act, the prescribed fee in force at present is one month for every year of the foreign worker’s employee work pass validity. The monthly wage of most of the Panasonic PRC workers is about S$500.
From the Act, it is clear that the Singapore Act envisions a situation where a Singapore based EA collaborates with a foreign based EA to charge exorbitant fees for placing a foreign worker in a job. This is apparent from the words “directly or indirectly”.
However, to date, MOM has not addressed the complaint of EAs overcharging despite the evidence provided.
A follow-up post by migrant worker’s rights group HOME suggests that a complaint filed by the Panasonic workers under the Employment Agencies Act was not given due consideration. In the post, HOME stated:
The Panasonic workers allege that the Investigating Officer (IO) seeing to their complaint dismissed it on the basis of the EA’s explanation that the S$3,000 payment from the Chinese EA to the Singapore EA included a refundable portion to the EA upon completion of the worker’s probationary period.”
TOC understands that this explanation was accepted by the MOM investigation officer without documentary proof by the EA that the funds were actually remitted back to the Chinese EA.
In any case, the question arises as to why the Chinese EA would remit any part of the S$3,000 to the Singapore EA in the first place, only for the Singapore EA to then remit a portion of those funds back.
About 90 Panasonic workers have signed a petition to MOM and the Chinese Embassy demanding a full investigation and recovery of their monies.

Editors Note: The date and time of the video is out of sync as they didn't adjust the date and time of the device prior to the recording.
Moreover, some of the workers had paid to the local employment agent and a signed copy of their agreement in Mandarin is as attached below.

Transcript of the above Agreement as follows:
I , (name of worker), on the 10th May 2012 at the point of leaving China for Singapore, have paid a sum of RMB 15000 to the Singapore intermediate agency to arrange my entry to Singapore Panasonic and all relevant insurance. I understand all details concerning my work in Singapore, company policies, labour laws, company welfare policy, wages, declaration of agreement and all relevant documents. I will also abide by all the documents that I have signed, together with the legal regulations.
I, myself upon reaching Singapore, will have the Singapore agent to go through the explanations of what had been said to me when I left for Singapore from China.
In the event that I should make any complaints, all will be based on what I have signed in this declaration letter, together with the employment contract signed with the Singapore employment agency. Any issues outside of the content of the contract would not be entertained.
If I should quit my job and leave the country due to personal reasons, it would be deemed as a breach of contract. All responsibility and economic damages will be borne by me. The Singapore and China agent will need not return the agent fees. The Singapore agent will reimburse me RMB 10000 If I do not pass my medical check-up and have my entry application rejected.
I reiterate once again that I am very clear that I have signed this declaration letter without having being misled; deceived, threatened nor enticed to do so. I cannot go back on my agreement once I leave the borders of China and arrive at Singapore, if I do; all economic damages and responsibility will be borne solely on me. I hereby certify that the information disclosed herein is true and correct.


TOC’s Response to MOM Statement on Panasonic Singapore foreign workers

Published by The Online Citizen on October 11, 2012 (source)

By TOC Team -

TOC notes the Ministry of Manpower’s response to our article of 9 October 2012 entitled “Secret tape exposes Panasonic Singapore’s Employement Agent practices” on 10 October 2012 at 7.32 p.m..
TOC regrets that MOM has chosen to take the view that the purpose of our article is to “undermine public confidence” in ongoing MOM investigations into the practice of Employment Agents (EA) overcharging People’s Republic of China (PRC) workers.
Nothing could be further than the truth. It is TOC’s objective to see that the aggrieved PRC workers are fairly treated and any offences against them thoroughly investigated.
Our article was crafted through several direct interviews with affected parties and relates their account of what transpired in the course of the MOM’s investigations.
In this regard, it is unfortunate that MOM has chosen take aim at the messenger instead of dealing with the issue.
We are disappointed that MOM's response to the signed agreement exhibited in our article focused on how they had not sighted the document earlier, instead of what this document means.
In addition, MOM seems to imply that the workers and/or TOC have withheld this document from MOM despite the fact that this document supports the claim of overcharging. MOM should more appropriately query if the EA should have disclosed this document to MOM.
MOM should take a neutral and independent stance in investigating complaints. Its conduct in this case, and its response to the TOC article, suggests that improvements can be made in this area.

Now that an agreement detailing the overcharging by the EA has surfaced, MOM should detail the steps it will take in light of the signed agreement that appears, on the face of the contract, to suggest overcharging by the EA in question.

TOC further hopes that MOM can explain in more detail the “supporting documents” the EA referenced in its public statement produced to back up his claim that he remitted a portion of the money to a PRC sub-agent and more fully justify it’s decision to discontinue investigations.
TOC is open and willing to dialogue with MOM in a civil and constructive manner to resolve the issues highlighted in our articles and are willing to share our resources with MOM with a view to prevent the exploitation of foreign workers.
 MOM Clarifies Investigation Outcome Involving Employment Agency and Workers from Panasonic Singapore

There have been a few online articles and postings that have distorted the facts and questioned the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) investigation into a case involving foreign workers from Panasonic Singapore and an employment agency (EA). These inaccuracies and allegations have cast serious aspersions on the integrity of MOM’s officers.
Contrary to what was stated in one post, there have been no claims lodged by 90 workers of Panasonic with MOM. Four workers from the company filed a complaint against the Singapore EA in February 2012 at MOM. The workers provided MOM with footage that was secretly recorded from a pinhole camera, that captured their conversation with the said EA.

The total footage ran for more than 51 minutes, and came in 8 parts. Our officers scrutinised the video footage extensively and concluded that an investigation was warranted. We then proceeded to call up the EA for an interview. This was in March 2012.
In the video, the workers were shown a copy of the receipt for RMB$45,000 (S$9,000) which led them to conclude this proved that from what they paid as recruitment fees in China, the Singapore EA had received S$3000 per worker as placement fees. This was the crux of the allegations against the EA. During our investigations, the Singapore EA explained that the receipt was actually a record of the transaction between his PRC main agent and another PRC sub-agent. He also added that out of the RMB$15,000 (S$3,000) for each worker received by his PRC main agent, he would receive S$1,000. He also produced supporting documents to back up his claim. There is no evidence to show that the Singapore EA had collected more than S$1,000. Therefore, MOM is unable to proceed further on the alleged over-charging offence under the Employment Agencies Act (EAA). We have forwarded the particulars of the PRC main agent to the PRC Embassy to ascertain if there might be additional information that we could follow up on. However, MOM found that the EA failed to issue receipts to the workers, which is an administrative lapse under the EAA, for which the EA was issued with a composition fine which has since been paid.
TOC also posted a copy of a ‘signed agreement’, dated May 2012, between “some of the workers” and the Singapore EA. This was to support the allegation that S$3,000 was indeed collected by the Singapore EA. This was surprising as the document was never surfaced to MOM during our investigations into the claims by the 4 workers in February 2012. We are curious as to why this piece of 'evidence' seemed to be withheld from MOM.
Such unfounded allegations against MOM that attempt to undermine public confidence in our investigations are certainly unhelpful. The Ministry takes all claims and complaints filed by any worker seriously. Each case is dealt with in an impartial manner by reviewing all evidence, and we have never hesitated to take appropriate action against anyone who breaks the law. Workers or members of the public with information on possible offences should approach the Ministry directly for assistance. They can also contact MOM at (65) 6438 5122 or e-mail All information will be kept strictly confidential.


Ministry of Manpower threatens: Civil society and the politics of fear (here)


Insolent boss and indolent MOM

TWC2 facebook,  Oct 17, 2012 (source)

"MOM officer very hot," said the worker. But was still impotent. What happened was this: the worker who related his story at the Cuff Road Food Programme, had been injured and needed an MRI for a proper diagnosis. The hospital said he needed to get a letter of guarantee (LOG) from his employer to guarantee payment before they could carry out the procedure. The employer refused to provide one. The worker complained to his case officer at the Manpower ministry (MOM), who contacted the employer and tried his best to insist that the company abide by the law and issue the guarantee. The employer plainly refused. Even the worker could see that his case officer was highly frustrated ("very hot") by the employer's outright defiance.

Yet, MOM has all the powers under the law to enforce its will. How did it come to this that employers can defy it with assured impunity? Is it a well-known record of non-prosecution? The case officer probably feels disempowered because other senior officers have adopted a policy of closing one eye to worker abuses and not taking employers to task.

The result is that employers now do not pay the full cost of hiring foreign workers. They can defy the ministry and refuse to bear certain costs -- in this case, medical care. If employers were made to bear the full cost of foreign workers, it might have made foreign workers a little less cheap, and in some small way reduced the cost disadvantage suffered by Singaporean workers.

The frustrated case officer finally told the worker to go anyway for the MRI and pay out of his own pocket but advised him to keep the receipt. Presumably, the officer intends to help the worker recover the cost at the final stage when injury compensation is calculated.

But, after the accident and being out of work since then, the worker is totally broke. He does not have the cash in hand to pay for the MRI first. So the officer's suggestion is no solution.

The system (of letters of guarantee) is meant precisely for such situations, to ensure that workers get timely medical treatment, and employers pay (as required by law). And why is the system not working? Because MOM officers in charge of enforcement have destroyed the system by their own inaction. Foreign workers suffer. Singaporeans suffer.


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