Migrant Workers in Singapore

April 09, 2010
Linette Lim

Meet Labu, a 26-year old Bangladeshi construction worker in Singapore. Labu is unable to work because of an injury to his right thumb. Without work, Labu goes without food. But that is not all - there is no insurance payout, and there is no medical care. There is no safety net for the likes of Labu, because the government is not obligated to protect their welfare. They are migrant workers.

I only started volunteering at Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) this year, so I cannot claim to know much about the situation. However, from what I have seen and learnt from migrant workers and TWC2 social workers thus far, it does seem like manpower laws allow errant employers to get away with not paying for medical bills resulting from workplace accidents. It does seem like people like Labu are treated as mere factors of production or labour units. Dehumanising them like this exempts one from treating them with dignity.

In Prime Minister Lee’s speech at the NTU Student’s Union Ministerial Forum in 2009, he stated that 55% of the non-citizens in Singapore are transient workers. The non-citizen population currently stands at 1.25 million. These transient workers are denied basic rights, like mandatory days off and minimum wage. Unlike foreign talent that needs to be wooed with incentives, these transient workers, mainly from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and the Philippines, are in large supply, and will agree to any terms of employment. This sets up opportunities for exploitation.

In their 2007 book on migration in East and Southeast Asia, researchers Piper and Yamanaka classify Malaysia and Singapore as migrant-receiving countries that “severely curtail pro-migrant actions”. The most liberal migrant-receiving area is Hong Kong, where minimum wage is guaranteed by law. Piper and Yamanaka also assert that Filipino migrants in Hong Kong are more likely to undertake collective action (in the form of organized protests) to oppose policies that threaten their economic rights.

Of course, in any discourse on the rights and treatment of migrant workers one should not solely examine government legislation. An issue of grave importance is how Singaporeans perceive these foreigners and how we want them to be treated. Many citizens are either apathetic or do not support equal rights for migrants. Some fear that giving their domestic helpers a mandatory day off will give them opportunity to ‘fool around’ with male company; while others claim that the low wages are justified by the foreign worker levy they have to pay. While these concerns are not unreasonable, there is a need for greater understanding and mutual respect between citizens and migrants.

Singapore in a recent UNDP report was ranked 7th in average incomes, using GDP per capita (PPP US$) as an indicator. Even though Singapore has a relatively higher average income than many OECD countries, we have not achieved similar human development, ranking only 23rd in the Human Development Index. Can this paradox of economic growth be applied to the Singaporean individual? Perhaps in our pursuit of economic well-being we have dehumanized not just migrant workers, but ourselves as well.

Once we stop seeing them as factors of production, we can relate to them as human beings, as brothers and sisters, or fathers and mothers who have come a long way from home to improve the lives of their siblings, children and parents. As I sat in Sutha's restaurant off Cuff Road registering workers that came in for free meals, I realised I have not felt this happy in a long time. I felt free, unjudged and completely at ease in the presence of the workers. We teased Abdul, one of the workers who was wearing sunglasses (due to an eye injury), saying that he now looks like a movie star. I entertained personal questions ("How much you earning?") and explained the concept of volunteerism, drawing smiles and thumbs ups. I impressed them with my vocabulary of twenty Hindi words (of which five are the words for the numbers 1 to 5).

The most important part however, was listening to their problems and offering solutions - in other words, making this wonderful place I call home a better place for them to live in. Barely literate and poorly educated, Labu needs more Singaporeans to stand on his side - to accompany him to the hospital, offer legal help, or navigate the convoluted hallways of the manpower building - and demand social justice.

Linette Lim is student from Singapore with a deep interest in traveling and writing about society and culture. She started writing about India during a 5-month work stint in Bangalore and Hyderabad and is plotting a return to India as soon as she graduates.
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