Going Beyond Cross-Cultural Communication

In response to the Little India riot, the COI had recommended, in December 2013 that government officials “should be given some basic training in cultural sensitivity and an appreciation of the role that foreign workers play in Singapore. In particular, training which covers basic or key words in the workers’ native languages would go a long way towards fostering greater understanding and communication. If the situation demands firmness in action, such officers should do so with respect, without acting in a manner insolent to the workers’ dignity.”

The government seems to have taken up this recommendation as reported in a story last month that it would be running cross cultural communications courses for its officers to interact better with migrant workers. Skills in listening, persuasion and negotiation will also be part of the lessons. According to the report, the course will cover topics such as the culture, habits, and traits of the six nationalities that dominate the foreign workforce in Singapore, mainly the Bangladeshis, Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, Malaysians and Indonesians.  

Since culture is complex, it would be interesting to know how the Ministry decides to conduct this training. Do nationalities and ethnic groups have specific habits and traits which are unique only to them? What about the gender, class and social identity of these workers? How would the workshops present such information?

In the years that HOME has run its shelters and help desks, we have heard from workers about officers who are rude, dismissive and insensitive to their concerns. Instead of cross cultural differences, what seems to be a bigger issue is that officers lack listening skills and empathy. Therefore, it is a positive development that listening skills is one of the components of the course. But more importantly, MOM officers need to address the reality that migrant workers often feel disadvantaged during mediations and investigations because of their nationality, lack of proficiency in the English language and the power imbalance between them and their employers. In these disputes, employers usually have the upper hand because they have access to resources such as professional legal advice, whereas migrant workers will not be able to afford such services.

The Ministry’s training needs to take the feedback of workers into consideration. Some of the key concerns we have heard over the years are government officials speaking Mandarin to ethnic Chinese employers in the worker’s presence, and officials appearing friendlier with the employer than with the worker during a dispute resolution. Showing empathy for the worker’s frustrations and emotional difficulties when workers file claims and during dispute resolution are important if MOM wishes to counter perceptions that government officers are biased against them. Workers will also be less intimidated if government officials do not scold them or dismiss their concerns, as some have been reported to have done.

When employment disputes are taken to MOM’s, it may take several months and even up to 2 years in cases which HOME sees before it is resolved. Migrant workers are not allowed to work during the period of their claims and in wage disputes, they usually feel pressured to accept less than what they are legally entitled to. Since many workers are sole bread winners, they are at a disadvantage in such situations. Therefore, providing employment and adequate social support such as, housing, food, financial assistance and counselling are important too.

Being sensitive to power dynamics and giving workers better bargaining power is important in order for workers to feel that the outcome of their dispute is a fair one. For instance, the employer’s unilateral right to cancel a work permit and repatriate a worker needs to be limited or workers will be reluctant to file complaints.

If we are interested in learning about the cultures of other nationalities in order to improve our communication with them, it is important for us to be critical of our own worldviews, values and assumptions. Understanding how our ethnicity, nationality and socio-economic class influence our perceptions of the world and the problems the workers describe to us is the first step in developing better cross cultural communication skills. Addressing the root of worker unhappiness has to go beyond communication skills. It has to be complemented with policies and laws which do not make workers feel marginalised, unprotected and discriminated against.

Image source: http://shanghaiexpatizen.blogspot.sg/2012/01/shanghai-impressions-part-one-language.html

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