Asshattery 101: Exploiting foreign workers for political gain
So far in this election season we've already seen sexism and xenophobia rear their ugly heads. But tonight's rally by the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) at Bukit Panjang delivered a new turd: the use of exploitative labour policies for political point-scoring.
Speaking at the rally, incumbent Member of Parliament Liang Eng Hwa criticised the proposals of his opponents from the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). In particular, he criticised the SDP's promise of a minimum wage for all, including foreign workers.
Imposing a minimum wage for migrant workers such as foreign domestic workers (FDWs, often also known in Singapore as "maids") would diminish the disposable income of Singaporean families, Liang said.
"Do you want that?" he asked.
"No!" came the reply.
It's common for political rivals to criticise each other's election promises, but it's both astonishing and disgusting that Liang would stoop as low as this for political gain.
As of December last year, there are over 222,000 FDWs in Singapore. These women come from countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and India to live and work in households across Singapore. They literally pay a high price for this opportunity – agency fees that amount to several months' worth of salary deductions. An FDW I met recently said her S$370-a-month (US$260) salary was taken from her for a total of 11 months: seven months as previously agreed, and four extra months because she had switched employers twice after being verbally abused under harsh working conditions.
For an average monthly salary of S$450 - S$550 (US$316 - US$386) an FDW's duties can include caring for your children or elderly parents, doing your laundry, cooking your meals, cleaning your floors, washing your cars and watering your plants. FDWs are required by law to live in their employers' homes, so many employers behave as if they're on call 24/7. It wasn't until 2012 that the government agreed to give FDWs a mandatory weekly rest day, but even then a survey carried out by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) in 2014 found that 40 per cent of the women surveyed had less than a weekly day off.
These women – and other low-wage migrant workers such as estate cleaners and construction workers – form the foundation of Singapore's economic success today. FDWs fill the gap left by working Singaporean women in a society that believes the responsibility of domestic and caregiving work should fall to a woman – any woman – in the household. With such a mindset informing policy, the state fails to provide adequate childcare, eldercare and disability benefits to support families. There are even domestic workers who have taken over caregiving and nursing duties for people with disabilities or elderly patients with dementia, because their salaries are cheaper than other long-term care options.
FDWs are massively underpaid for the work that they do, and receive little protection under the law. They aren't even included in Singapore's Employment Act – legislators in 1968 said that the labour they perform is “not amenable to regulations by ordinary labour legislation" – which means there is no legal cap on their working hours, no right to appeal against unfair dismissal, and no maternity leave (in fact, an FDW who falls pregnant faces repatriation unless she gets an abortion).
It's thus morally abhorrent for Liang to not only oppose the implementation of a minimum wage for FDWs, but to use it to score political points at an election rally.
The middle class Singaporean family's concern about their ability to afford domestic help is a real one, but that's because other caregiving options in Singapore are priced out of their reach. Singapore's reliance on low-wage domestic workers is not a normal feature of developed countries; it is not usual for middle class families in countries like the US or UK to have "maids" to wait on them hand and foot.
The need for such exploited workers here is not a sign of a healthy, advanced society, but of the failure of the state to provide ordinary citizens with adequate options when it comes to long-term care.
As a member of the incumbent governing party persuading citizens to allow them to retain their hold on power, Liang should have been proposing measures to increase household incomes as well as provide affordable support services. Yet he chose to perpetuate a highly exploitative system built upon the abuse and underpayment of low-wage workers.
In essence, Liang and his party are passing the buck of social welfare – the responsibility of the governments they have formed for over 50 years – to an already-marginalised group of workers.
What a vision for a better Singapore.
I've written a number of articles about low-wage migrant workers, including FDWs. Here are a few of them: