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Fighting for foreigners

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore
Fighting for foreigners
With election season upon us, immigration might once again come to the fore. While Singaporeans complain that immigrants crowd our streets, place strain on our infrastructure and depress our wages, political parties are unlikely to speak up for their rights. And that's a pity and a mistake.

You see them everywhere: in construction sites across the island, clearing the rubbish chutes in public housing estates, mopping and washing in food centres and markets. They can also be found in factories or driving our buses. Today’s Singapore is a country that runs on the labour of migrants.

Immigration has stoked a fire among the electorate; feeling cramped and stressed on an island with a population has almost doubled since the late 1980s, Singaporeans are beginning to resent the presence of foreigners.

Foreigners – or “foreign trash”, as some would call them, playing on the government’s term of “foreign talent” – are blamed for many things in Singapore, from clogging up our public infrastructure to depressing wages. In this environment of Us and Them, a clear line is drawn: there are Singaporean workers, and then there are foreign workers.

This has led to a strange segregation when it comes to the matter of labour rights. Migrant rights activists from organisations such as the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) or Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) are often accused of prioritising foreigners over their fellow countrymen. Workers have complained of wage differentials according to nationality, with Singaporeans earning the most. 

Even the government makes the distinction: when they introduced the Progressive Wage Model – a sort of industry-specific minimum wage – it was made clear that this would only affect Singaporeans and Permanent Residents. Migrant workers from countries like India or Bangladesh would not be covered by this model.

It then follows that, during election season, candidates play up the pitfalls of liberal immigration policies, accusing the current government of hurting Singaporeans by bringing in foreigners. Yet nothing is said of the rights that foreign workers also deserve.

To many, this seems only right. It’s only natural that the government takes care of its own first, they say. Why spend so much time worrying about foreign workers when the locals are suffering? Besides, foreign workers can't vote.

The answer, of course, is that the plight of Singapore’s blue-collar workers cannot be divorced from that of low-wage foreign workers. And it’s high time that we all recognised this fact, so that we can better hold the government to account, and during elections vote in politicians who will do better for everyone.

A government that does not care about all workers, does not care about workers.

A Bangladeshi worker toiling away on a construction site or in a shipyard could earn as little as S$480 (US$342) a month. Their wages are often deducted for food or housing; employers are also known to deduct arbitrary amounts, telling the worker that the money would be squirreled away as “savings” that would be returned upon the end of his time in Singapore. It’s totally illegal, and the workers often never see that money again.

But as long as they receive some sort of steady pay, these workers tend to remain silent about such deductions. They have little choice: most of them borrowed money to pay the recruitment and training fees – some workers I’ve spoken to paid about S$8,000 (US$5,703), but there are reports of those who paid even more – to get a job in Singapore in the first place. To complain would be to risk repatriation before the worker has even broke even. So they accept the conditions given to them: compulsory overtime, underpaid hours, arbitrary deductions and other living conditions no Singaporean would ever accept.

The vulnerability of these migrant workers means that they are easy to exploit. The fact that they are easy to exploit makes them cheaper and more attractive to employers. If there are any issues, the worker’s work permit can simply be cancelled and the individual repatriated. Why offer better conditions to attract Singaporean workers when it’s so easy to simply hire and fire migrants as and when one needs to? Truly unscrupulous employers can even demand kickbacks from migrant workers to renew their permits, thus earning a little extra money on the side.

One might argue that these workers are doing jobs that Singaporeans wouldn’t want to do in any case. But that doesn’t excuse us from taking responsibility for the way that these workers, who build our homes and clean our streets and keep our industry going, are being treated in our country. And it would be naïve to imagine that perpetuating this attitude of disregard for labour rights won’t spill over into the way we think about resident workers and their rights as well. (Also, there are Singaporeans who continue to perform low-wage work, such as cleaners and labourers.)

Beyond that, though, the ready supply of a cheap and easily cowed workforce takes away the incentive to really increase productivity through the use of technology and machinery. Many lower-income jobs in Singapore are still labour intensive because it is simply cheaper to keep bringing in migrants to do the work than to fork out the money for machinery and trained operators. And surely at least some of the trained operators, engineers and technicians required in upgrading a company’s productivity could have been Singaporean?

No matter how you look at it, it makes no sense to separate the problems faced by foreign workers from the rights of all workers. Exploitative conditions benefits neither worker; not the foreigner who is working for pittance, nor the Singaporean who is struggling to survive in his or her own home country. It only serves to prop up a system of increasing inequality, and that's not a society one should vote for.

#human rights, #labour rights, #immigration, #migrant workers, #singapore, #asia, #immigrants