Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) welcomes the recommendations made by the COI in relation to the rights and welfare of migrant workers. We are glad that the Committee acknowledges the important role that low wage migrant workers play in contributing to Singapore’s economy and community. However, for their contributions to be properly appreciated and acknowledged, they should be given adequate protection so that they are not abused and exploited. Singapore needs to go beyond the recommendations laid out by the Committee by introducing systemic changes in order to fully realise the rights of low wage migrant workers. In this regard, our comments on specific aspects of the report are detailed below:
Foreign workers are happy
The COI’s finding that every foreign worker they spoke to ‘testified emphatically that they were happy’ with their jobs and living quarters does not take into consideration the fact that the workers may have given socially desirable answers to the Committee for fear of negative repercussions. This is especially so for interviews with workers who were arrested and deported for their alleged involvement in the riot. It would have been more effective if worker’s rights groups and NGOs conducted these interviews.
High employment agency fees
We agree with the COI that greater bilateral cooperation is necessary between Singapore and sending countries to protect the rights of workers and regulate recruitment fees. Singapore should only approve the work permits of workers who have gone through legal recruitment channels in countries of origin. Even though hefty recruitment fees are paid in countries of origin, large amounts are often remitted to employers and recruiters based in Singapore as kickbacks. More oversight and enforcement in this area is needed in Singapore as the problem does not only reside in the country of origin.
Annual increment of salary for workers
We welcome this recommendation but it will not be effective without legislation or a change in mindset among employers. We agree that being paid adequately and fairly is important but legal protections should be enacted to prevent wage discrimination by nationality. Moreover, current policies such as high foreign worker levies are a disincentive for employers to increase their wages. Levies can go up to SGD$1000 for each foreign worker hired. Many employers are already recovering the cost of levies by collecting kickbacks from workers.
The National Wages Council should also state explicitly in their annual report on wage increases that their recommendations also include foreign workers in order to send a strong signal to all employers to take the wage increments of their low wage migrant employees seriously.
Education on employment processes
While education about rights is important, what is vital is that policies and laws which make it difficult to claim those rights should be changed. For example, the unilateral right of an employer to cancel work permits needs to be curbed and the worker’s right to switch employers freely has to be guaranteed. Without these changes, workers will remain reluctant to file cases of abuse.
Sensitivity in dealing with foreign workers
We agree that more training on sensitivity of law enforcement officers need to be done. Over the years, we have heard many complaints from workers that some government officers are rude and brusque to them. We also urge for these recommendations to be extended to employers, as many of cases of ill treatment and verbal abuse are often caused by errant employers.
Improvements to accommodation
The COI reports that housing available to foreign workers in Singapore ranks well in the world; however, we believe this assessment is only true in relation to dormitories which have been built specifically to accommodate foreign workers. According to media reports, there are approximately 150,000 bed spaces in such dormitories out of over 700,000 low wage migrant workers in Singapore, excluding domestic workers. Large numbers of workers continue to live in cargo containers, factory converted dormitories, shop houses, private apartments, HDB flats and temporary work sites facilities, including incomplete buildings under construction. These places are often cramped, unhygienic and full of pests. Their living conditions still fall short of international housing standards.
Role of employers and community support groups
We agree that more resources need to be poured into establishing welfare groups and agree that employer groups should consider setting up and funding support communities for migrant workers. Working abroad in new surroundings can be very stressful for many migrant workers and adequate social support is necessary. In addition, there is an important need for independent representation of workers by unions in order for their interests to be effectively promoted, as only 11% of all foreign workers are unionised.