E-filing of employment claims a challenge for migrant workers

This letter was submitted to the Straits Times’  forum page and was published on 19 April 2019.

We refer to the State Courts' Media Release of 4 January 2019, "State Courts Launch Online Filing for Employment Claims".  Digitisation of employment claims raises greater barriers to accessing justice, particularly for marginalised groups such as low-wage migrant workers.

Firstly, the online forms are entirely in English.  The legalistic language used, while necessary for precision given the binding consequences of the forms, is impenetrable even for workers with basic spoken English.  Manual filing at least provided a human touch.  The purely written and impersonal nature of electronic forms is far more intimidating.

Secondly, migrant workers lack computer literacy and access.  They may be able to navigate social media on their phones.  But email and 2FA portals for online filing are too daunting.  Nor do workers have ready access to computers and scanners.

Migrant workers, unlike Singaporeans, lack family or social support networks and resource buffers to cope with technological and language barriers.  By the time their claims reach court, they have typically been unpaid for several months.  They struggle with basic expenses like food, lodging and transport.  Even internet café computers would often be beyond their means; the more so for services like translation.

Informal ad hoc assistance with online filing and form-filling may be available from VWOs.  But a well-designed dispute resolution system, which values access to justice, should not rely on external stopgaps to facilitate such basic access for an entire disadvantaged demographic.  The past three months’ experience has been that even an English- and computer-literate volunteer typically takes four hours just to assist a migrant worker with the initial electronic claim form.

Furthermore, even if such piecemeal help sufficed, the Employment Claims regime should not compel dependence on charity and goodwill.  Rather, it should enable workers to understand and take charge of their own case.  This is important partly because this regime prohibits legal representation.  Most fundamentally, empowering workers to access justice themselves is vital to respecting their dignity and humanity.