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MOM rebuts allegations of intimidation

Posted on Oct 1, 2012 6:28 PM Updated: Oct 3, 2012 12:02 PM
Mr Jolovan Wham (in blue) with migrant workers at Home’s office at Geylang Road. Mr Wham is the executive director of Home – a voluntary welfare organisation dealing with migrant worker issues. Credit: TNP Photo

The Manpower Ministry (MOM) has denied allegations of “intimidation” a social worker made against it, accusing Mr Jolovan Wham of making “baseless allegations”.

MOM was responding to Mr Wham, executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), who wrote in a note on Facebook – in his personal capacity – criticising MOM for its role in a dispute between Panasonic and its Chinese workers.

His note, titled ‘Civil society and the politics of fear’, was posted on Sept 23. In it, Mr Wham alleged that civil society groups, like Home, face “intimidation and pressure” by the state.

He cited his own experience in a recent case involving more than 100 Chinese workers who were working for Japanese manufacturer Panasonic in its Bedok factory.

On Aug 22, Mr Wham helped these workers start an online petition for higher pay and better working conditions, as well as for action to be taken against their employment agent for overcharging them.

In his note, Mr Wham said that within a few days of his helping the workers publicise their grievances, MOM sent a “high ranking senior civil servant” to Home.

According to Mr Wham, the ministry was unhappy with Home’s role in publicising the issue, and said the NGO’s actions “no longer made (them) 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,” said Mr Wham.

He related another incident that allegedly occured two days before the note was posted. According to Mr Wham, MOM heard that the workers were considering strike action and warned  Home that Mr Wham would be held “personally responsible” if they did.

“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,” said Mr Wham.

“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.”

MOM RESPONDS

Five days after Mr Wham’s note was posted, MOM issued its own response to Mr Wham, in a terse letter on its official Facebook page.

Firstly, MOM said that contrary to Mr Wham’s note, it “has been interviewing the affected workers and working closely with Panasonic’s management and union representatives... since August.”

Mr Wham had earlier said that he had not heard of MOM interviewing the affected workers until “two days ago” – September 21.

The ministry also gave an update on its investigation.

Mr Wham said the workers had complained of low wages and high recruitment fees.

Their passports were being held by Panasonic, and they had signed contracts in English, which they did not understand, he added.

But MOM said their investigation had found that the claims of excessive recruitment fees were “unsubstantiated.”

In fact, the workers admitted that all the fees had been paid “directly to their employment agents back in China, which lie beyond the reach of our laws,” said MOM.

On MOM’s advice, Panasonic also gave a Chinese version of the employment contracts to their workers, added the ministry. Except for “possible past breaches of overtime provisions in the law”, all other allegations have been resolved.

Singapolitics understands that the workers’ passports have also been returned to them.

Secondly, MOM said that contrary to Mr Wham’s claim, the ministry had not warned Home that Mr Wham would be held responsible if the Panasonic workers went on strike.

Rather, MOM had heard that “individuals were agitating the workers to carry out some form of collective action.” Since Mr Wham had been dealing with those workers, MOM checked with Home – specifically, its president Bridget Tan – to find out more.

“No warnings were issued in this conversation,” said MOM. It did not elaborate on what was said in its conversation with Ms Tan.

The ministry also addressed – if only indirectly – Mr Wham’s claim that Home’s actions had jeopardised its funding.

In its Facebook note, MOM made no reference to the first alleged meeting between the senior civil servant and Home. But it did say that “where possible”, it considers funding NGOs on a project basis.

Nor did MOM directly address Mr Wham’s allegation that it had threatened to withdraw funding from Home. But it did say it “has never received any formal application by Home requesting funding for trafficking-in-persons initiatives”.

MOM called on NGOs to engage the Government “in a professional manner based on mutual respect, trust and within the law.”

“We recognise and appreciate the tireless efforts of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), their staff and volunteers who are concerned about transient workers in Singapore,” said MOM.

“However, publicising unfounded accusations is counter-productive.”

In reply to queries from Singapolitics, Home said they would not be responding “at this point.”