By Jolovan Wham
In the past week, the government has been scrambling to deal with the health risks caused by the haze to low wage workers. Low wage workers are often at the losing end because they have the least bargaining power to ensure their well-being and health is taken care of. The Ministry of Manpower and the Acting Minister for Manpower have made attempts to assure low wage workers that they will be protected. Statements such as the following have been issued:
Acting Manpower Minister Mr Tan Chuan-Jin assured workers that their employers must ensure their safety and health during the current hazy conditions. Calling on employers to be vigilant, mitigate risks and be flexible, Mr Tan said:
“Firstly, employers need to be vigilant. So what this means is they need to know their people and know the situation. Secondly, mitigate risks. You can reassign employees; you can relook the way they do things. Thirdly, employers need to be flexible. In these circumstances, you will find that some may go through difficulties in the course of the day, like some will need to attend to family members at home. I think employers need to be enlightened and flexible, whether there is haze or no haze.”
Mr Tan also cautioned that MOM can take action against employers that do not heed MOM’s guidelines. He said, “I want to emphasise that the Workplace Safety and Health Act remains in place. We have put out advisories. We expect employers to be responsible and to carry out mitigating efforts, and to look after their workers. If employees feel that the haze issues are being disregarded, they can call us. It will be something that we will follow up on.”
But the effective implementation of safety measures will be compromised as long as we don’t address other aspects of workers’ rights. We cannot isolate the issue of workplace safety from broader concerns about worker protection, which affects all low wage employees. This is especially so for those who perform heavy, backbreaking tasks outdoors.
Issuing directives to companies will have limited impact if there are no effective mechanisms for redress. It is easy for the authorities to urge employees to approach their companies if they are unwell or wish to stop work. It is also easy to ask them to lodge complaints about their companies to the Ministry. But what assurance does the Ministry have that these employees will not be penalised?
The following concerns need to be addressed:
1) The Ministry has said that it would work closely with Tripartite partners to ensure the heath and safety of workers. But since only 11% of foreign workers and 27% of local workers are unionised, what active measures will MOM take to work closely with the overwhelmingly majority that are not union members?
2) Our laws allow companies to easily terminate employment. This is especially so for migrant workers who are not allowed to switch employers. What assurance does MOM have that workers will not be vulnerable to wrongful dismissals?
3) What will MOM do to deal with fears that workers have about speaking up for fear of losing their jobs, especially those with heavy family responsibilities and debts or those who have paid large amounts of money to recruitment agents?
4) What will MOM do to ensure that companies who have issued stop work orders will continue to pay their workers for the period that they stopped work because of the haze?
Last Saturday, together with a few friends, I went down to a construction site at Geylang where approximately 20 men were working. The building was not complete and the workers were living in it. Needless to say, the environment was dusty and sandy with minimal amenities. The employer had only just issued the workers with face masks, due in part to the public outcry that construction workers were still labouring under high PSI conditions.
What is problematic is that our regulations allow employers to house workers in uncompleted building structures to deal with the nation wide shortage of accommodation for foreign workers. Such living environments will inevitably be dusty and squalid. When there is official endorsement that it is perfectly fine for them to live under such conditions, why should companies be bothered about protecting them from the haze?
Photos courtesy of Lim Jialiang