Rights are not mere advisory!

The following is the script of my speech in the Speakers' Corner on 13 December 2008 in support of Maruah's call to make a commitment to treat all workers with dignity:

There are an estimated 200,000 contract and part-time workers in Singapore. In 2005, both Mr. Lim Swee Say and Mr. Lim Boon Heng called for more protection for contract and part-time workers. They even urged government to crack down on employers who exploit them, and also pointed out that labour laws cover such workers as well.

Both argued that these workers should at least get their CPF, medical needs, annual leave and training. Mr. Lim Swee Say also added, “A growing number of contract workers may be deprived of these because of market practices”.

What is strange is that both Lim Boon Heng and Lim Swee Say are part of the government and yet they “urge” the government to protect the contract and part-time workers, who are often the lower-income workers?

As rightly pointed out by both men, these contributions to CPF, medical needs, annual leave and training, are not just the aspirations of the contract/part-time worker, it is but a RIGHT enshrined not just in the international labour rights declaration but also in the labor laws of Singapore.

So, if they are enshrined in the labor law of Singapore, how did the ‘market forces' determine that these rights could be ’taken-away’ from the workers?

Contract workers are often employed in jobs such as production operators, office cleaners, store-men, and security guards. They earn very low-wages and are in a very vulnerable position and are not able to negotiate terms and conditions with their employers. Very often, being ignorant of their rights as well, they accept their conditions of employment as 'standard' practice.

In 2007, a total of 35 employers were prosecuted by the Ministry Of Manpower for Employment Act offenses. The CPF Board prosecuted 181 employers for CPF Act offenses in the same year. But the question remains, “how many of those prosecuted were prosecuted for violating contract workers' rights?”

The government, the employers themselves and the unions have a duty to protect the rights of contract and part-time workers by:

1. Ensuring that Singapore's employment laws like Central Provident Fund Act, Employment Act and Workmen's Compensation Act are included in the contracts.

2. Ensuring that all contract workers have a written contract, which specifies their rights like appointment, working hours, salary, benefits, etc.

3. Not awarding a project to the highest bidder, but check if the bidder has sufficient cash outflow. This will prevent the problem of financially distressed employers not paying their contract workers.

4. Abolishing the law which says that a contract worker has got to be in employment for a minimum of 6-months before he or she can qualify for employment benefits.

And these pointers should not be mere guidelines or 'advisory', but should be enforced as regulatory as it is already enshrined in the labor laws of Singapore.

Many contract workers, work as 'equals' with permanent workers and there is usually very little difference in their job scope and responsibilities. The contract workers also give the employers great flexibility in the management of their businesses, especially in times of economic uncertainty. As such, the contract worker and his contributions has got to be valued at least as much as the permanent worker.

International labour rights calls for the right to work with equal pay with just and favourable conditions and for remuneration that ensures an existence of human dignity with protection against unemployment. This also extends to the right to form trade unions and to rest and leisure time, including periodic paid leave. All of which builds to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of the employee and their family. These rights are also those of the contract workers.