Sunday, September 23, 2012

Ministry of Manpower threatens: Civil society and the politics of fear

Jolovan Wham, a senior social worker, twice awarded for his work, was denied the Outstanding Social Worker Award in 2011, because two cabinet ministers had intervened in the process. The following is a critique of the behind-the-scenes machinations of the government when it is faced with a situation that might embarrass it, exposing the callous way in which the government treats both lowly-paid workers and the selfless NGOs who try to help them.

Does the Ministry of Manpower exist to genuinely solve problems or to stifle voices that expose the problems? Why are we, the people of Singapore, paying the PAP government and the civil service salaries that are multiples of those of their counterparts anywhere else in the world?  Merely to issue threats, suppress complaints and whitewash? Any thug from any tin-pot dictatorship can do that, and at a very low cost to the taxpayers, too.


by Jolovan Wham on Sunday, 23 September 2012 (source)

For decades, the state controlled alternative sources of policy deliberation and inhibited positive social action through laws that restrict speech, public assembly and the formation of civil society organisations. It co-opted trade unions through restrictive laws, maintained close oversight of varsity and research institutions, and controlled the discourse on politics and society by curbing press and publication freedom.

Through its power and influence, it exercised strict control over decision-making and dismantled alternative interest sites in the name of ‘nation building’. Prof Chan Heng Chee has called this a petitionary political culture. Underlying this petitionary framework, it dealt very severely with domestic critics in such a way that widespread fear was instilled in the population with enduring ramifications across the decades. The detention without trial of a number of civil society activists in 1987 is a key example.

In today’s political climate, the heavy handed tactics which has come to characterise PAP rule has been replaced by insidious and subtler forms of intimidation, which are no less effective in hindering the progress of civil society. The current saga involving the Catholic Church, Function 8 and the Ministry of Home Affairs is an example of this. After Archbishop Nicholas Chia was summoned by government officers and the Home Affairs Minister himself to a private meeting, a letter of support he wrote to the Function 8 members, who were the organisers of this year’s ISA rally, was quickly withdrawn. The government has no doubt been successful in arm twisting and instilling fear in the Archbishop.

Social interest groups such as NGOs and Voluntary Welfare Organisations, also experience the same types of intimidation and pressure. In the past month, I have been assisting over a hundred migrant Chinese factory workers in a Panasonic plant located in Bedok. They complained of overly low wages ($500 basic per month), and having paid excessive recruitment fees of up to $7000. Panasonic held the passports from the workers and they had signed contracts in English which they did not understand. Despite attempts to discuss their concerns with the management, their grievances were still not addressed. The workers decided to pen an open letter to Panasonic and I helped them to publicise it.

Within a few days, the Ministry of Manpower sent a high ranking senior civil servant to meet with us to discuss their ‘concerns’ about my organisation’s working relationship with them. They were unhappy that we had assisted the workers to publicise the contents of the letter, and that this no longer made us a ‘credible’ partner to work with. We were told that the government had considered giving us funding for their anti-trafficking programme but we had ruined our chances of obtaining those funds because of our ‘bad’ behaviour. Instead of acknowledging and addressing the workers' complaints, the Ministry of Manpower has decided to blame and castigate the NGO which highlighted the workers’ concerns.

Two days ago, another senior civil servant from the Ministry of Manpower heard that the workers were considering strike action and warned us that if they did, I would be held personally responsible for it. I was also asked to disclose the names of the leaders of the disaffected workers. On the same day that we received this phone call, I was informed by the workers that the MOM had gone down to the factory to interview them to find out their concerns. It has been more than a month since the workers had publicised their problems, but I had not heard of MOM conducting such interviews to hear them out until two days ago. This must have been done out of fear that the workers may go on strike and escalate the current diplomatic row between China and Japan, rather than a real interest in addressing their concerns.

If the government wants genuine engagement with civil society, it needs to respect our civil liberties to advocate, lobby and shape the society that we want. It should respond to our concerns and the people that we serve not because it is politically expedient but because there are urgent and genuine problems that need to be addressed. What is the point of a ‘national conversation’ if we have no say in how that conversation will be conducted, and if we are only allowed to behave in a way that is acceptable to them? The government needs to start treating its citizens and civil society as equal partners in development. Resorting to threats, warnings, and funding cuts undermines their credibility and makes a mockery of this engagement process.


I am a social worker with the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), a NGO that looks into the rights and welfare of migrant workers. This is written in my personal capacity.




The following is the response from the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) to the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) statement on the Facebook posting by HOME’s executive director, Mr Jolovan Wham.

You can read Mr Wham’s posting here, and MOM’s statement here.

The statement by HOME

3rd October 2012

HOME’s response to MOM’s comments

HOME is pleased that NGOs are recognised by MOM for our tireless efforts, and we appreciate the efforts of MOM to collaborate with us to improve the welfare of workers. We are also re-assured by MOM’s clarification that an official warning was not issued to us even as displeasure was expressed by their directors on three separate occasions. We regret the public disclosure of these conversations between HOME and MOM on a personal Face Book wall.

I wish to clarify that HOME was not aware of funds available for the TIP programme until my meeting with the MOM director. I was genuinely surprised that we were not invited to apply for this funding, especially since HOME is an anti-human trafficking organization that has been acknowledged internationally by Mrs Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State.

Incidentally we had just completed our research on the labour trafficking of domestic workers without any TIP funds from the government. We will soon make an application with hope for an approval for the funding of our anti -human trafficking programme.

As we respect the efforts of MOM to resolve the concerns of the Panasonic workers, we also empathise with the plight of these workers. They paid approximately $7000 to their agent in China to get work at Panasonic. When they found out that the local agency ollected S$3000 a head from the Chinese agent in excess of two months’ salary equivalent, three workers lodged a complaint at MOM. Despite the local agent’s own admission via video recording, the attending IO dismissed the complaint and accepted the agent’s explanation that the $3000 payment receipt included a refundable portion back to the Chinese agent upon the completion of the probationary period of the worker. We hope that MOM would call on the local agent to substantiate his explanation with payment and receipt records to show that the workers were not overcharged in Singapore.

HOME is appreciative of MOM's support to us over the years, and its assurance that we will continue to collaborate as equal partners in the interest of the welfare of migrant workers in Singapore.

Bridget Tan
President and Founder


Report on Panasonic and its PRC workers

The Real Singapore, Oct 5, 2012 (source

In late Aug, TRS reported that a group of over 100 PRC workers at Panasonic Refrigeration Devices Singapore Pte Ltd had started a petition to draw attention to their grievances working at the Panasonic plant.

The PRC workers complained that their basic pay of $500 is too little. They claimed that they have to work illegally, exceeding the legal limit of 72 hours of overtime a month before they can earn a decent salary to make a living. Also, insufficient overtime notice was given to workers resulting in them unable to plan their own activities properly.

They also said that each of them had to pay $6000 to $7000 fee to an employment agency, purportedly designated by the company, in order to get the job.

Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) has been trying its best to help the PRC workers after it was approached by them seeking help.

In his Facebook posting, Jolovan Wham, Executive Director of HOME said, “My colleague and I spoke with the management but we were unable to achieve anything out of the discussions. The workers also failed in their negotiation for better working conditions. Finally, they have decided to send in a petition.”

Panasonic later refuted the charges, according to local media reports. A Panasonic spokesman said all entry-level workers get a minimum of $760, including allowances, and not $500 the PRC workers have claimed. He said that Panasonic complies with the Singapore law on overtime work, and workers are given one week’s notice.

The spokesman said, “They have the right to accept or reject the overtime arrangement.”

Since the PRC workers’ online petition came to light, MOM said it has been interviewing the affected workers and working closely with Panasonic’s management and union representatives (UWEEI).

MOM has investigated the local employment agency and found that the recruitment fees were in fact paid to employment agents in China, which lie beyond the reach of Singapore’s laws. The workers themselves also admitted that the recruitment fees were never paid to the local employment agency.

However, following MOM’s advice, Panasonic management has provided a copy of the employment contracts in Chinese to the PRC workers. MOM said that Panasonic has also ensured that they are abiding by the overtime limits stipulated in the Employment Act. MOM added that except for possible past breaches of overtime provisions in the law which require time to investigate and close, all other allegations of employment irregularities had been attended to and resolved. MOM is currently looking into the possible past overtime breaches by Panasonic.

Following MOM’s statement, HOME then issued another statement (above).

HOME affirmed that the PRC workers did indeed pay approximately $7000 to their agent in China to get work in Panasonic.

However, when the PRC workers found out that the local employment agency had actually collected $3000 a head from the Chinese agent in excess of two months’ salary equivalent (i.e, $760 x 2), three workers lodged a complaint to MOM.

Despite the local agent’s own admission via video recording, the attending investigation officer from MOM dismissed the complaint and accepted the agent’s explanation that the $3000 payment receipt included a refundable portion back to the Chinese agent upon the completion of the probationary period of the worker.

In other words, what the local agent was saying is that if a PRC worker successfully completes his probation and continues to stay in Panasonic to work, the “deposit” (i.e, $3000 – $760 x 2 = $1480) will be “refunded” back to the Chinese agent, thus ensuring that the local agent will not flout the rule (i.e, cannot collect more than 2 months’ salary equivalent of introducer fees).

If the worker fails to get confirmation and has to be sent back home, the $1480 presumably will be used by the local agent for attending to these administrative matters. And presumably, there is a contract between Panasonic and the local agent to ensure that the local agent will find a replacement for the errant worker and handle his repatriation matters.

HOME said in its statement, “We hope that MOM would call on the local agent to substantiate his explanation with payment and receipt records to show that the workers were not overcharged in Singapore.”

Now, assuming that if everything has gone well in the first place and all the, say, 100 PRC workers were confirmed and that the petition issue did not crop up at all, would the local agent be refunding $148,000 (i.e, $1480 x 100) or RMB740,000 back to the Chinese agent?

Also, since Panasonic, an MNC, would have a sizable HR dept, why not do away with all these employment agency middlemen and go to China to recruit workers themselves?



Secret tape exposes Panasonic Singapore’s Employment Agent practices: here


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