TOUGHER laws against errant employers of foreign workers were passed yesterday, but not before 16 MPs asked hard questions in the House.

The MPs wanted to know whether measures to protect vulnerable foreign workers were adequate. They were also worried about the impact of the new laws on companies and whether the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) had enough resources to enforce them.

Replying, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin assured the House that the targets are employers "who are irresponsible and abusing the system", and the vast majority of employers do not have to worry.

On protecting foreign workers, Mr Patrick Tay (Nee Soon GRC) questioned whether the harsher punishments would weed out heartless employers who exploit workers, while Dr Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC) wanted to know the extent of malpractices committed by employers.

Abuses exist but the problem is not "chronic", said Mr Tan, adding: "Most Singaporean employers are fair and reasonable."

Still, he assured Mr Tay that the MOM will hit errant employers hard: "With the new regime, enforcement will be swifter and financial penalties will be high enough to disgorge their illegal profits, and hence deter employers from such wrongdoings."

The minister gave his nod to suggestions from two MPs - Mr David Ong (Jurong GRC) and Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) - who called for whistle-blowers to be protected. "Whistle-blowing will play an important part in uncovering some of these cases, and this is certainly an area that we're working out details on," he said.

Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) was concerned that employers who hire illegal foreign workers face a shorter maximum jail term than foreign workers without valid work permits. He was also concerned that some illegal workers may be victims of human trafficking.

Mr Tan said that while some illegals might be innocent, Singapore should not let up on its tough enforcement approach. But "labour trafficking victims will not be prosecuted as illegal workers", he added.

The minister also warned that there are limits to enforcement: "We cannot police the recruitment practices of foreign employment agencies outside our jurisdiction, who are responding to the demand by their countrymen to come to work in Singapore."

Several members - Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam, and Nominated MPs R. Dhinakaran, Teo Siong Seng and Tan Su Shan - were anxious over the impact of the new laws on companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises.

Mr Zainudin Nordin (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC), who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower, urged the MOM to look at the mitigating circumstances when the law is broken: "Not every employer who breaks the law is an evil opportunist looking to squeeze the last buck from hapless workers."

Mr Tan assured the House that the new laws do not increase the burden on honest companies.

"In fact, our measures are aimed at helping to level the playing field for law-abiding employers by penalising unscrupulous competitors who undercut costs by bypassing the work pass framework," he said.

Rounding up his speech, Mr Tan said the changes were not the last chapter on the law.

Responding to a call from Nominated MP Eugene Tan, he said: "We are concurrently undertaking a separate review of this same Act to ensure an equitable balance of rights and responsibilities between employers and workers."

He did not elaborate on when the review will be completed.