This sad festive poem was written by Rea Maac, who has worked as a domestic worker in Singapore for 7 years, and was a finalist of the recent Singapore Migrant Poetry competition.
Memories of Christmas
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
Everyday HOME hears from foreign workers anecdotal reports of violations to their basic working and living conditions. HOME recognises the need to understand the actual facts of a working population that makes up 85% of the building and construction industry and have hence designed an empirical research study to capture the truth. HOME is hence investigating through a quantitative research study the living and working conditions of Chinese migrant workers who make up 200, 000 of the 300,000 foreign working population in building and construction. Despite their apparent protection under Singaporean labor laws, the working violations reported to HOME have included deception with recruitment fees leaving workers paying off debts for a long period of employment, withholding payments and late payments, forced signatures on documents that are not understood or translated, withholding relevant employment information (including payslips, leave entitlements), pressure to work on rest days and the confiscation of personal documents including one’s passport. The violations in living conditions include the lack of adequate ventilation, electricity, lack of running water and overcrowded living spaces. These violations inhibit migrant workers’ ability to seek justice in order to improve their situation and leave them vulnerable to exploitation. It appears that without accurate information, Singaporeans are not aware of the realities of working in the construction and building industry. There is not a united voice for these workers and therefore they have no power to demand equal rights.
The ‘Sustainable Population For A Dynamic Singapore’ whitepaper (2013) stipulates that foreign workers are a required sector of the Singaporean workforce in order for Singaporeans to be able to enjoy a good quality of life. “As Singaporeans upgrade themselves into higher-skilled jobs, more of the lower-skilled jobs will have to be done by foreigners” reported the population plan for Singapore. Despite the need for foreign workers, the report stated that Singapore does not want to “be overwhelmed by more foreign workers than we can absorb” as the island cannot accommodate too many and they will depress wages and reduce the incentive for firms to up skill their staff and raise productivity. They fear as the workforce growth starts to plateau by 2020, using local resources better is the only way to sustain the economy. Singapore is hence caught in a double bind, requiring the assistance of foreign workers yet not wanting these workers to affect the general workforce. It is therefore important to understand what this population are experiencing and ensure their basic rights are addressed for the benefit of Singapore’s future. It also explains the potential lack of adequate focus on this working population.
In order to gain a better understanding and to raise public awareness of the situation for migrant workers, data is currently being collected with another 100 surveys before we reach our 400 person sample. As each questionnaire must be entered we are calling on volunteers with experience in SPSS to help us enter the data to find out the true experiences of Chinese migrant workers living and working in Singapore.
Thirty year old Khairul has been working in Singapore since 2009. The oldest son in the household, he left his home in Bangladesh and came to Singapore in hopes of making money to support his family. He has one older sister and three younger brothers. On the 31st of April in 2014, Khairul arrived in Singapore to start a new job. Khairul’s work involved the installation of smoke detectors. He worked from May to July in 2014. To his dismay, he was not paid his salary. He was owed approximately $3,900.
On the 1st of August 2014, he lodged a complaint with Ministry of Manpower (MOM). His case was brought to the Labour Court. These legal proceedings continued all the way until the 6th of January 2015. These five months were hard for Khairul. Since his work permit had been cancelled, he was issued a special pass and not allowed to work in Singapore.
Unfortunately, Khairul’s case at the Labour Court was dismissed on the 6th of January 2015. His employer had produced signed salary vouchers and witnesses who claimed that they had seen Khairul receive his salary. Claiming the salary vouchers had been forged and witnesses pressured into submitting false statements, Khairul decided to study the possibility of filing an appeal to the High Court.
The law entitles a worker to file an appeal to the High Court within 2 weeks upon the judgment issued by the Labour Court. For Khairul, this would be on the 20th of January 2015. Within these two weeks, Khairul had to seek advice on the matter and find a legal representative who would submit the appeal on his behalf. He told his employer of his intentions to file an appeal.
Despite that, his employer bought an airplane ticket for Khairul to return home on the 14th of January. A special pass expiring on that date was also issued by MOM. Without a work permit or a special pass permitting his stay in Singapore, he would have to leave Singapore and be unable to file his appeal to the High Court. In effect, the window for his appeal submission had been halved.
HOME assisted him to request an extension of his stay in Singapore to MOM, so that he would have sufficient time to consider an appeal to the High Court; but this request was rejected. Even though he has the right to file an appeal, he could not do so because the Ministry of Manpower did not legalise his stay in Singapore and insisted he depart the country . No reason was given.
With his hands tied and still desiring to submit an appeal, Khairul remained in Singapore. As a result of overstaying his special pass, Khairul was fined $100. HOME assisted him to procure the financial resources to find his own way back home. He was unable to file an appeal with the High Court.
Employers don’t like it when their foreign domestic workers file a complaint against them with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Many will repatriate their domestic workers to punish them for their actions. Others go a step further and seek revenge by filing their own complaints, often by accusing them of theft. In most cases it is the employer’s word against that of the domestic worker. Investigations take a long time, in which the domestic worker is not allowed to work, nor leave the country. She is punished whether the claim is substantiated or not.
This is the story of Ellaine, who’s employers were dedicated to get their revenge, and punish Ellaine ‘to the end of her days’ for filing a salary complaint. For them, one unsupported accusation was not enough.
Ellaine had been working for her employer for three months when ‘madam’ lost a golden ring. She asked Ellaine whether she had seen it, and they searched the house together. The ring wasn’t found, and madam left it at that.
Four months later, Ellaine approached her employer, as her passport required renewing. She needed money to pay the associated fees. The employer insisted Ellaine pay for it herself, but Ellaine did not have much cash, as her employer was withholding her salary. Ellaine decided to run away and approach HOME for help. HOME referred her to MOM, who settled Elaine’s salary claim swiftly. When the employer met Ellaine at MOM, she demanded to search her belongings. She found nothing.
That was not the end of the story. Ellaine’s employer now accused her of stealing the golden ring. Since there was no evidence to support this, the case was closed by the police. Still, that was not the end of the story. The employer subsequently accused Ellaine of molesting their eight-year-old son – in the bathroom. Again, for lack of evidence, the police closed the case. Ellaine was told she would be able to go home within a few days, as soon as her former employer had bought her a ticket.
And the employer refused to buy the ticket. Instead, seven months after Ellaine ran away to settle her salary complaint, her employer once again accused her with theft of the ring. Ellaine was interviewed once more by the police, by a different, less friendly officer this time. Afterwards, Ellaine was notified by letter that her case was under investigation, and that she had to remain in Singapore on a special pass for the time being.
By then, it had been eight months since Ellaine had been able to work, and make money. She wanted to go home and spend time with her family, especially her young son and ailing father.
But her former employer was tenacious. In a text message to Ellaine’s cousin, he stated: ‘I will not cancel her work permit for the rest of her days. I am prepared to pay levy, she will be stuck here for another 18mths without salary.’
HOME assisted Ellaine with legal support, and nine months after she left employer, Ellaine’s case has finally been resolved. She is happy to go home.
HOME hopes the Singapore police will be just when employers try to seek revenge on their domestic workers by accusing them of crimes, look at the facts, and not allow a single employer to ruin a domestic worker’s life simply by piling up unsupported claims ‘to the end of her days.’ Not only does the domestic worker lose months of time and income, as she has to remain in Singapore without the opportunity to work during the investigations, but it also wastes valuable police time, that is better spent at investigating crimes that in fact have been committed.
Ellaine’s name has been changed for privacy reasons
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.
This International Migrants’ Day 2014, we stand in solidarity with workers all over the world in their struggle for dignity and human rights. Migrant workers make important contribution to their countries of origin and destination. However, in Singapore, HOME has been witness to the afflictions of thousands of migrant workers, who continue to be exploited because of their nationality, class and gender.
We have upheld that ‘Domestic Workers are Workers‘ and should receive the same protections as all other workers in Singapore. No domestic worker should be made to work every day of the year without a day off, without limits to their working hours, without overtime pay, and other standard employment rights.
It is a shame that Christmas Day and other holidays is the right of all workers except domestic workers. In spite of efforts to improve their wellbeing, many of them continue to be abused, marginalized and discriminated against. Even though a law has been passed to ensure weekly days off for domestic workers, HOME’s experience has shown that significant numbers are still denied this basic labour right and attempts by domestic workers to claim it has resulted in instant dismissal and repatriation by their employers. The lucky ones who are granted days off are still required to perform household chores, or have to return to their employer’s homes only after a few hours of freedom.
The continued exclusion of these women from the Work Injury Compensation Act and Occupational Safety and Health Act means that the household is still a potential minefield for domestic workers. This year, HOME assisted two domestic workers who suffered debilitating injuries from falling out of a window. They were immediately dismissed and repatriated when the doctor certified them fit for travel. It was only with the persistence of HOME and our partners that we were able to secure compensation for one of the injured women. The fate of the other injured worker is still uncertain.
Construction work remains a dangerous occupation for migrants, in spite of many years of work site safety campaigns. In the first 3 months of this year alone, 19 workers died because of a work accident. Workers in all sectors continue to be vulnerable to heavy recruitment debts, excessive hours, earning wages as low as $1.50 per hour and living in decrepit quarters. When protests against such conditions occur, repatriation thugs are brought in to get rid of such “recalcitrant troublemakers”. There is usually little recourse for workers in such situations.
If they are HIV positive, they are immediately deported without post counseling or referral treatment services. The work permit and security bond system encourages slavery like conditions and human trafficking: passports are taken from workers and job mobility is mostly not an option.
The voices of migrant workers are muted even before they get hoarse. They are not allowed to register associations or form their own unions. Any industrial action will result in immediate deportation and revocation of their work permits. The Controller of Immigration and Work Passes have sole and arbitrary powers to decide the fate of a migrant worker residing in Singapore, with no statutory avenues of appeal. This is deeply unjust.
The SMRT strike in 2012, the Little India riot last year and the fire at a Geylang shop house this year which killed 4 have clearly shown there are many challenges before migrant workers can fully realise their rights. The road to dignity will be an arduous one, but HOME pledges not to lose hope and to persevere in the long march to freedom from slavery. Happy International Migrants’ Day!