Foreigners By Chance, Friends By Choice

18 March, 2016

The Global Situation of Migrant Worker Mistreatment

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Earlier in January, The Guardian revealed the appalling mistreatment of domestic workers by rich Middle Eastern employers in the UK. This included withholding salaries and information, providing minimal food- even physically abusing them by scalding them with hot irons. In Hong Kong, a woman was also found guilty of starving and physically abusing her Indonesian maid, even to the extent of fracturing her teeth. She was later charged with a 6-year jail sentence and HK$15,000.

Such cases are not isolated incidences. In fact, the list of atrocities towards migrant workers is a worrying trend that has persisted and accumulated globally.

Even in the United States, a beacon for human rights activism, international news agencies have reported migrant worker exploitation in industries like agriculture and construction, where attempts to fight against unfair employment conditions and hazardous work environments were quelled with deportation threats.

Migrant Worker Mistreatment in our Backyard

Singapore has not been spared either.

On our own shores, the local labour landscape has been tarnished with cases of migrant labour mistreatment.

In 2013, STOMP reported an astonishing case of employer neglect- A migrant worker from Myanmar who passed away after a work accident, was abandoned by his superiors and left to die along Upper Circular Road. His supervisors failed to even phone for help.

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Last December during a raid, the Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC) discovered deplorable living conditions of foreign workers, who were padlocked in a makeshift dormitory consisting of container units. Apart from extremely limited living and moving space, the investigation found that only one paltry toilet and four showers were provided for an estimated maximum number of 100 workers.

More than a mere hygiene and space constraint problem, such horrendous living conditions are life-threatening. In fact, fires have broken out in illegal dormitories and killed several foreign workers in recent years, highlighting the dangerous environment that they live in. In today’s modern and developed Singapore, it is ironic that foreign workers are still subjected to such abominable living conditions that hardly differ from those of the migrant Chinese coolies during the 60s and 70s.

We cannot ignore the elephant in the room- with such terrible cases of exploitation occurring in our own backyard, we have to take action against inhumane employment contracts and prevent further social and labour degradation in Singapore.

The Issue with Existing Efforts to Reduce Migrant Worker Mistreatment

At present, existing volunteer movements have emerged in Singapore to boost the welfare of migrant workers and express the country’s appreciation towards their contributions. Last year, in celebration of International Migrant Workers’ Day, the Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC) organised a large-scale picnic and photo exhibition in Little India for 5,000 foreign workers. The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) has also developed two help centres catering to foreign workers from Myanmar and Indonesia respectively, providing counselling services in legal and employment matters.

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In addition, individual “guerrilla”-type initiatives have also surfaced. For instance, 70 youths handed out free ice-cream to foreign workers in the aftermath of the 2013 Little India riot- a shocking event that alerted the nation to the rising tensions between migrant workers and locals.

These well-meaning movements should persist and continue to develop to boost migrant-local social bonding and interaction, and to recognise the efforts of foreign workers in Singapore. Yet, unfortunately, such initiatives only provide temporary alleviation of the suppressed distress faced by these foreign workers.

Morphine injections only ease the pain from cancer; they do not eliminate the tumour.

As such, the root cause of the problem must be targeted, instead of merely developing solutions that mitigate the effects of migrant worker mistreatment. At this juncture, questions and doubts will inevitably surface: Where do we begin? How do we start? There is no solution to completely eradicate all traces of worker mistreatment. Even if legal crack-downs are developed to harshly punish employers involved in migrant worker exploitation, 24/7 monitoring is not possible, and cover-ups and threats towards workers persist.

Yet, action must be taken.

Targeting the Root Cause of Foreign Worker Mistreatment: Fair Contracts, Fair Employment

In spite of the uphill challenge present, it is critical to advocate and enforce fair contracts and employment terms. This means paying workers on time, refusing to short-change them of overtime work, providing them with leave/off-days- overall, respecting the rights that they deserve. We are all human beings, and therefore we all have the basic right to be treated humanely.

  1. Key Employment Terms (KETs)

Firstly, implementation and adherence to key employment terms (KETs) is necessary to combat the unjust manipulation of vague contracts. At present, not every company provides migrant workers with stipulated contract terms pertaining to daily working hours, overtime rates and leave entitlements. Due to a lack of awareness of their employment rights, migrant workers are exposed to exploitation, which may render them overworked and underpaid.

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After lobbying efforts by the Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC) in relation to KETs for foreign workers, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has issued guidelines for employers to comply with. As of 1 April 2016, it will become mandatory for employers to provide workers with their KETs within 14 days of the employees’ work commencement date. By implementing and enforcing these guidelines by law, this concretises employers’ legal compliance towards upholding fair employment rights of migrant workers in Singapore.

  1. Itemised Payslips

Secondly, legislation must be passed to protect workers from errant employers who deliberately delay their salary payments.

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This unfair situation is exacerbated by the existing tight financial constraints faced by these foreign workers. To work in Singapore, migrant workers have to first seek an agent in their home countries, who typically charge them exorbitant placement fees ranging from $8,000 to $10,000. Clearly, these impoverished workers do not have the financial means to pay such hefty fees, and thus resort to obtaining a loan from these agents. With a meagre monthly salary, many foreign workers work over a year to pay back their debts, before even having enough to send home to their families- and the leftover amount is barely enough for these workers to survive amidst Singapore’s escalating living costs. Consequently, such delayed salary payments add further strain on foreign workers’ financial capacities, and is a critical issue to be addressed.

Will judicial assistance help in this issue? Unfortunately, migrant workers face lose-lose situations in fighting cases against their employers. Regardless of the trial outcome, foreign workers with terminated employment contracts will be sent back to their home countries, with little hope of returning to Singapore- unless of course, the placement fee is paid for, which once again entrenches them in debt. Moreover, from the get go, foreign workers are already placed at a disadvantage when fighting in such cases, given that companies can easily “produce evidence” that they did pay their workers.

This pressing salary issue is a recurring problem that must be nipped in the bud before it escalates. Out of approximately 4,000 cases handled by the MWC in each of the past few years, the majority of cases are salary-related. In fact, the MWC even had to intervene in cases where strikes almost broke out, stemming from the desperation faced by workers to obtain their salaries to finance demands from their agents and families back home.

With the updated Employment Act to be enforced from 1 April 2016 onwards, employers will be required to provide migrant workers with itemized payslips. Unfortunately, while the Employment Act covers the majority of local and foreign workers, foreign domestic helpers are not included in the Act, and this raises a potential concern regarding this pertinent salary issue as well.

With the bleak economic outlook looming in Singapore, a drop in business may cause employers to default on paying their migrant workers their salaries on time, which may lead to an increase in salary-related cases handled by MOM and the NGOs.

  1. Helplines and Outreach Centres

Apart from pressing for KETs and fair remuneration practices, the MWC collaborates closely with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to examine and implement better protective measures for migrant workers. For instance, to extend its helpline for migrant workers, the MWC has developed a mobile outreach unit (Forward Response, Engagement & Intel Deployment Asset, or FREIDA in short) to offer help to workers located in areas further from the city centre, as well as two walk-in centres, of which one serves as a temporary shelter as well.

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In addition, the Centre has also presently established a 24h hotline to provide immediate assistance to migrant workers in need. This number is printed on work permit card holder sleeves and distributed to all migrant workers who obtain these work passes. 

  1. Skill Upgrading and Job Mobility

The MWC has also been embarking on plans to boost the skill and productivity of workers, and extending their work permit periods. This benefits companies economically as well, since changing workers every two years incurs retraining costs. Furthermore, migrant workers with longer experience and better productivity also contribute to the overall efficiency of the company, thus warranting greater consideration in providing opportunities for them to upgrade their skills.

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The MWC is also advocating improved job mobility of skilled migrant workers. Presently, workers who wish to switch employers have to obtain the permission of their current employers. For the more fortunate ones with better employer-employee relations, the norm is for the worker to transfer to another company during downtime periods, and return to the original company when orders kick in. Alternatively, employers can provide a 90-day notice to allow the foreign worker to leave and search for other work.

The MWC is presently striving to push for amendments to this practice, particularly for skilled migrants whose abilities may be stifled by existing unreasonable employers. In fact, in October last year, the Singapore Contractors Association (SCAL) initiated its Foreign Construction Worker Directory System, an online job portal catered to develop better job and skill matching between employers and foreign workers.

All is Not Lost

While Singapore’s less-than-ideal treatment towards migrant workers seems to portray a dismal perception on our protection of foreign workers’ rights, not all is bleak. Joint survey statistics from the MOM and MWC shows that 9 in 10 workers are content with their work in Singapore, and the emergence of NGOs like MWC, Centre for Domestic Employees (a bipartite collaboration between MOM and NTUC which was recently launched in January 2016), Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and HOME have helped to handle minority cases of grievances and worker mistreatment.

Despite the oft-reported stories of employers abusing their foreign undercharges and retaliatory practices, there are good stories to be told as well.

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One heart-warming story reported by STOMP highlighted the close 28-year relations between a Filipino domestic helper, Ms Marny Coronado Pera, and her employer, Madam Yap Sock Hoe. Besides financially supporting Ms Pera to return home 3 times during family crises, Madam Yap also helped her son to find employment in Singapore, even aiding him for 7 years. In December 2015, Madam Yap received the Foreign Domestic Worker Employer of the Year award by the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training (Fast) and the Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore).

In April last year, videos and articles of two foreign workers endangering their lives to save a three-year-old girl from falling off an HDB block went viral. They were later lauded with the Public Spiritedness Award by the SCDF to recognise their brave actions.

Local organisations have also volunteered help to boost the living standards of migrant workers in Singapore. For example, local catering firm Select Group embarked on an initiative to distribute food packets to foreign workers of Kranji Lodge 1 dormitory. Grassroots efforts have also emerged to show their appreciation for foreign workers, such as the ThankU50 movement which was developed by five friends to distribute goodie bags to foreign workers.

Next Steps

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With increasing efforts taken to improve social relations between locals and foreign workers, it is critical for Singaporeans to avoid becoming jaded from pessimistic reports. Positive stories do exist, and sharing these anecdotes reduces the negative social stigma associated with foreign workers in Singapore.

There are existing efforts by the government, NGOs and employers that have maintained migrant worker satisfaction and prevented the down-spiralling of local-foreign worker relations.

However, we need to acknowledge that the responsibility for the working environment and conditions faced by migrant workers also falls on our shoulders as a society.

We cannot deny nor avoid the presence of superior-inferior divides when it comes to employment, however, by recognising that we are all human beings with fundamental genealogical similarity, this confers us the responsibility to protect and preserve each others’ basic human rights. While our society is not perfect, by each small step taken to correct blemishes and flaws, we can strive and collaborate together to achieve stronger ties in society and safeguard each others’ rights.

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Zhiqiang & Tingyi

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