Employers should not be held responsible for what their foreign worker hires do after working hours, observers told The Business Times yesterday - and there is nothing in Singapore's rulebooks to suggest otherwise.
In response to a BT query, a Ministry of Manpower (MOM) spokesman said: "Under the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations, employers of foreign workers, including foreign domestic workers, are responsible for the upkeep, maintenance and well-being of their foreign workers.
"All foreign workers, including foreign domestic workers, are expected to abide by Singapore law, including complying with their Work Permit conditions."
This comes after Sunday night's unrest in Little India, which yesterday saw 24 Indian nationals charged in court for rioting, and eight more arrested. If convicted, the 24 men face a maximum penalty of seven years' jail and caning.
Business leaders, activists and observers BT spoke to agree that employers should not, and cannot, be held responsible for their employees' actions outside of work hours - albeit for different reasons.
Some said such an expectation would be "onerous" and "unreasonable", while others point out that it would be downright "disrespectful" to even suggest such a framework.
Said Zainudin Nordin, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower: "Currently, employers are responsible for their workers during work hours, but there is no such policy for employers to be responsible for them after work hours. It would be unrealistic to put this responsibility on the employer as they cannot monitor what their workers are doing after work hours."
Beyond being infeasible, this would also be "unfair" to employers, said construction company bosses such as Excel Precast CEO Tan Bian Tiong, and Tat Hong Holdings CEO Roland Ng.
"What employees choose to do after the work day has nothing to do with the employer. If MOM puts the burden on us, it's very unfair - we can't restrict their movements, we're not the police," said Mr Tan.
Added Expand Construction chairman Von Lee: "Every person in Singapore . . . whether you're a citizen, foreign worker, or even a tourist . . . (is) still (governed) under the same laws. We shouldn't be treating foreign workers differently, each individual has to answer for their own actions."
Migrant Workers' Centre executive director, Bernard Menon, believes companies should be made accountable for their workers' actions only if they arise because of the employer's direct instructions.
For "workers' misdemeanours committed in their personal capacity", however, Mr Menon said "it would not be reasonable" to expect companies to take responsibility.
Meanwhile, Alex Au, vice-president of migrant worker group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), said that "to discuss the subject with such a perspective is to deny (foreign workers') agency as humans".
"TWC2's position is that migrant workers are adults and should be given due respect for their freedoms as adults. No other person or body corporate should be 'responsible' for them whether during work or off work," said Mr Au.
He also said that migrant workers "should not be treated like children or like household pets", where one speaks of responsible parties.
Construction company bosses seem to agree.
Said Mr Lee of Expand Construction: "We should treat all foreign workers with due respect as well (because they are fellow) members of our society. We cannot presume that everybody will not behave properly. I don't think we should even think in that manner for a start."
Added Excel Precast's Mr Tan: "(Foreign workers) have the right to move around freely. If we employers restrict their behaviour after work, people will criticise us and that will cause even more problems."