9 in 10 foreign workers satisfied?

For its International Migrants’ Day celebrations this year, the Ministry of Manpower and Migrant Workers’ Centre released the results of a wide scale quantitative study involving 4000 migrant workers.  The major findings of this report are as follows:

1) 9 in 10 FWs (87.7% of WP holders and 90.7% of S Pass holders) were satisfied with working in Singapore.

2) 85.7% of WP holders and 93.4% of S Pass holders would recommend Singapore as a place to work. Good pay, good working and living conditions, and sense of security were some commonly cited reasons.

3) More than 7 in 10 FWs (76.9% of WP holders and 71.4% of S Pass holders) planned to continue working with their current employers after their contracts have expired.

This is not a new study; in 2011, a similar survey was conducted which produced similar findings. As was the case with the 2011 study this current study has several methodological limitations which have affected its validity, reliability and objectivity, thus compromising the value of the results. The lack of key information was a major impediment in assessing the accuracy of the data provided in the report. For instance, how ‘satisfaction’, ‘good prospects’ and ‘sense of security’  are defined by the researchers, is not indicated in the study. It is also unclear what ‘good pay’ means. Without defining these terms and relating them to other factors (e.g. working conditions), it becomes meaningless as a research concept.

Demographic details of the sample such as gender, job sector, types of accommodation, length of stay, and nationality are not provided, even though this is basic data found in any published research. Without relating crucial demographic information of the respondents to the findings, the conclusions drawn are weak, erroneous and at best, superficial.  This missing data is crucial for accurate interpretation of the data collected. There was no information on how the interviewers recruited the respondents, nor was there a report on how statistical methods were used.

The report also claimed that the results are based on a random sample of the workers, when in actual fact, it was a convenience sample. This error creates substantial bias in the interpretation of the results. The questionnaire used in the study was also not published.

Crucial data on actual salary, debts owed, and placement fees which directly impacts the employment conditions of the workers are not captured even though low wages and high placement fees are the two biggest reasons workers cite for not recommending Singapore as a place to work. The different employment conditions across sectors such as cleaning, shipyard and construction work are also not factored into the findings.

It was also reported that 80.2% of work permit holders would choose to renew the contracts with their current employers, and this was an indication that they were happy with their employers and their employment situation. However, the reasons for renewing the contract were not revealed in the report. Workers may choose to extend their employment in Singapore with the same employer because work permit terms and conditions do not allow them to switch employers. Underlying conditions such as low wages, high placement fees and the additional cost of returning to their countries of origin and back to Singapore for work again often influence many migrant workers to choose to work beyond 1 contractual term. Even though 77.4% of work permit holders reported having a copy of their contract, it is not clear if the written contact is in the FW’s native language.

Conducting studies on any group of people requires content knowledge of the target population to identify relevant research questions, and the operationalization of key concepts; it should also allow for critical discussion of the findings, based on empirical evidence that is reliable. While we encourage the interest MOM has shown in learning more about the socio-economic situation of migrant workers, the study it commissioned could have been more rigorous as it did not fulfill basic social scientific and publishing standards; this should have been achievable, given the amount of resources it has compared to independent think tanks and NGOs.

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