In April 2019, two construction firm directors were fined for housing foreign workers in an overcrowded illegal dormitory in Singapore. 17 rooms with 116 bed spaces were discovered in the premises, which meant that each occupant had roughly 2.57 square metres of space for themselves. The firm saved an estimated S$27,230 to S$84,980, but at the expense of the well-being of the workers who had to live in these appalling conditions.
Sadly, this is not the first time such an incident has occurred and is unlikely to be the last. There are approximately 534,300 construction workers and Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) in Singapore, making up almost 10% of the population. Yet they are amongst the most marginalised groups in society and tend to be treated badly.
Thanks to NGOs such as the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), more foreign workers are able to come forward about the issues they face. In recent years, there have been an increasing number of cases come to light on the struggles they face.
Migrant workers are essential to the economy. Yet, how much do we really know about their lives in Singapore?
Arriving in debt: The beginning of a vicious cycle
Coming to Singapore is not easy. Bangladeshi construction workers typically pay up to $20000 to an agent in order to get a job here. It is therefore not surprising that in many instances, workers and FDWs may have to borrow money to come here in the first place. And worse, they are often not fully compensated for the work they do, so repaying this debt is hard. The average worker’s salary may be declared as S$1,200, but in reality, it is closer to as little as $18 a day, as their employers make deductions to pay for levies and housing. To get more overtime pay, most of them also work 12-hour days with only one or two days off a month.
Their initial debt makes them vulnerable to moneylenders who in turn threaten their families in order to receive the money owed to them. This indebtedness forces workers to keep silent about issues concerning their welfare so that they will not be at risk of losing their jobs.
The struggles faced by immigrant workers in Singapore
One of the biggest risks that migrant workers in the construction sector face is the possibility of getting injured. If a worker gets injured and is granted a long medical leave, he becomes a liability in an industry that relies on cheap labour. The risk of getting fired if one is unable to work for too long therefore adds pressure to downplay injuries.
Additionally, employers themselves occasionally attempt to cover up the extent of a worker’s injury. The Work Injury Compensation Act allows workers to take a certain number of days of medical leave in a year, while still receiving their salary. Under Ministry of Manpower (MOM) regulations, if a worker is hospitalised for more than 24 hours or receives more than three days of medical leave for an injury, the incident has to be reported to the ministry. In cases of more severe injuries, the worker will be assessed for any possible permanent incapacities, in which case a larger compensation will be awarded to him. This has to be paid by the employer.
Oftentimes, this results in workers being given insufficient days off for medical injuries. Those who have dared come forward have shared stories of how private practitioners refuse to give adequate medical leave to workers, despite some of their injuries being severe. Compensation for their injuries is also not guaranteed, despite being promised they would and it being part of the law.
In April, a doctor was suspended for providing insufficient sick leave for an injured worker. The incident came to light because the worker approached HOME for help with wage compensation issues. In worst case scenarios, injured workers are forced to leave when their Work Permits expire, before their compensation claims are resolved.
Another issue that has recently come to light is the inadequate food being provided to workers. With salaries that are already so low, catering tends to be the cheapest option; food is delivered to them at their worksites or dormitories. In most instances, the employers themselves arrange for the catering. A typical meal tends to be two or three pieces of chapati (flat bread), with a side of lentils, or curry. Alternatively, workers receive white rice and curry, with one portion of meat and vegetables each.
To save on costs, caterers tend to deliver both breakfast and lunch at once. This is despite the requirement for time-stamps on pre-packed and catered meals, which ensures that the food is consumed within four hours of cooking. As a result, food is often stale by the time it’s meant to be eaten, and a large amount is wasted as it is inedible. Keeping in mind that their jobs are usually physically demanding, insufficient food can be highly detrimental to a worker’s health.
Foreign Domestic Workers
FDWs also face their fair share of issues when moving to Singapore. An FDW typically receives training in the relevant domestic chores that she has to perform, and these training costs are then deducted from her salary to pay the agencies. This means that an FDW can go up to 6 months without actually receiving a salary. Similar to other migrant workers, many FDWs commonly put up with unsatisfactory working conditions due to the debts that they owe.
According to HOME, the three most common issues for FDWs are being overworked, suffering verbal abuse, and salary disputes. Indeed there have been an unsettling number of cases recently of employers abusing their domestic helpers. These instances range from starving their helpers, to actual physical abuse.
Additionally, there is no mechanism in place for an FDW to receive an increment in her salary, unless her employer offers.
It is challenging to monitor and regulate how employers treat their helpers as everything occurs within the privacy of the home. It can be difficult to ascertain whether helpers are being overworked, treated humanely, or given adequate days off. There have also been reported instances where helpers’ passports are withheld, and they are made to work punishing hours to cater to multiple members of the family in one household.
In some of the cases, helpers were not allowed access to handphones. Conditions akin to forced labour and trafficking aside, this also means that they are unable to access information on what avenues are available for them to seek help. For every FDW that manages to break away from an abusive household, it is unclear how many more are still trapped.
Changing mindsets: Getting them the help they need
In a paper titled, Precarious Work and its Complicit Network: Migrant Labour in Singapore, it is stated that responsibility is diffused, such that workers are made more vulnerable to employers. Where then, should the responsibility lie, to ensure the welfare of migrant workers?
For example, the Employment Act, which covers most local and foreign workers, does not extend to FDWs. This is meant to be practical, so that employers can have more flexibility in determining their helpers’ working conditions in the household. However, on the flip side, this also increases the FDWs’ dependency on their employers for adequate salaries, food and living conditions.
Fortunately, the government has recognised the need to have mechanisms in place to ensure worker safety. MOM has come up with regulations such as the Workplace Safety and Health for the construction sector. For example, employers are required to provide foreign workers with proper accommodation that meets the statutory requirements. Employers who fail to do so face a fine up to S$10,000 or a jail term of up to 12 months or both, for each charge.
Work injury compensation insurance is also mandatory. Those who do not purchase such insurance can be fined up to $10,000, jailed for up to 12 months, or both. There have been instances where employers were charged for failing to do so.
There are also organisations that have been established to help migrant workers and FDWs. The aforementioned HOME and TWC2 are doing a noteworthy job in advocating for migrant workers’ rights.
Aidha is an NGO that grew out of a pilot programme of the Singapore Committee for UN Women. They put the emphasis on empowering FDWs and low-income women through financial education. Many domestic workers spend their off days at Aidha studying money management, or how to start their own business.
The Migrant Workers Centre also provides humanitarian assistance and aid for migrant workers in trouble. In 2018 alone, more than S$500,000 in financial assistance was provided. This amount goes to providing meals and ex-gratia payments for workers who are unable to recover their salaries.
More avenues to express themselves are also being given to workers. The Migrant Workers’ Poetry Competition is a contest that sees foreign workers submitting poems describing their experiences in Singapore. At the end of the competition, winners are invited to recite their poems, hence literally and figuratively giving them a voice to air their grievances.
We also see more instances of both traditional and social media featuring foreign workers in a positive light. There have been numerous pictures and videos of foreign workers helping local Singaporeans, whether it be something as simple as holding an umbrella for commuters to get on the bus in the rain, or returning lost handphones without wanting any compensation.
Recently, highly acclaimed Singaporean film “A Land Imagined” provided a glimpse into the lives of these workers. The story, about the disappearance of two construction workers, dared to depict the reality of living and working conditions for migrant workers in Singapore. The film serves as a reality check for many who are unaware of the appalling conditions that workers have to face here.
What then should be done to improve their lives? It ultimately boils down to greater enforcement of workplace health and safety regulations. Ensuring that the workers have adequate days off, proper food and housing conditions, and avenues to seek recourse for wage disputes is essential. Checks to ensure no misconduct on the part of private practitioners are also necessary. More efforts to educate the public on how to improve its treatment of migrant workers and FDWs could also be considered.
Though there’s still a long way to go, there seems to be a greater awareness about the plight of migrant workers in Singapore, thanks to increased discourse on the issue. With greater awareness created around this, it can be hoped that elitist attitudes towards migrant workers will give way to greater understanding and appreciation of the struggles they face whilst helping the country’s economy.
Photo: Kevin Utting
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