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Opinion

Singapore must rethink how it treats migrant workers

Coronavirus outbreak highlights poor pay, crowded dormitories and prejudice

| Singapore
Migrant workers look out from their balconies at a dormitory on Apr. 6: the pandemic calls for a examination of the attitudes toward migrant workers.   © Reuters

Catherine James is the Executive Director of the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics, or HOME, a Singapore-based charity dedicated to empowering and supporting migrant workers who find themselves victims of abuse and exploitation.

The surge in COVID-19 cases among Singapore's migrant workers, who account for 86% of its confirmed infections, has shone a spotlight on their low-wage lives in large, overcrowded dormitories.

It has also exposed systemic weaknesses relating to their lack of access to health care, unpaid salaries and, more worryingly, their reluctance to report abuse or violations, fearing retaliation from their employers. This fear has bred a compliant migrant workforce, which finds it difficult to assert its rights for better working and living conditions, and we are seeing the effect of this in the coronavirus outbreak.

Recent weeks have witnessed an outpouring of support for migrant workers. With more than 280,000 under the blanket Stay Home Notice, ensuring their well-being is challenging, yet the dedication of volunteers and front-line workers donating essential supplies like food, masks and phone top-ups has been unwavering.

But the government, companies and people of Singapore need to take this as a wake-up call: it is no longer acceptable to keep migrant workers in these conditions. The pandemic which has already reshaped many facets of our lives calls for a deeper examination of the attitudes toward migrant workers in our society.

HOME's experience as an independent NGO working on migrant issues for the last 15 years has shed some light on why such discriminatory attitudes remain deeply entrenched in our society. We have found that many Singaporeans and employers believe it is acceptable to discriminate against migrant workers because it is a privilege for them to work in a first-world country like Singapore.

Domestic workers who reach out to HOME often complain of verbal abuse by their employers, long working hours and being denied their rightful weekly rest. We have heard from employers that workers should be grateful to earn salaries which are much higher than they would be in their countries of origin and that their families would be suffering if not for the opportunity to work here.

A migrant worker has his temperature checked before leaving a dormitory on Apr. 17: many Singaporeans believe it is acceptable to discriminate against migrant workers.   © Getty Images

What is little known is that migrant workers typically borrow huge sums of money at exorbitant interest rates to pay their recruitment agents, sometimes as high as 8,000 Singapore dollars ($5,700) or more, to come and work in Singapore. For these workers, typically from the construction and marine sectors, working hours are long and compounded by travel time to work sites from the city fringes where they live. Some of them earn as little as S$300-400 a month.

Regulations that selectively apply to migrant work permit holders only serve to reinforce discriminatory assumptions about them. Based on our experience, migrants working as conservancy cleaners in public housing estates earn on average S$500-S$800 a month, as opposed to a Singaporean cleaner who is guaranteed a minimum wage of S$1,200 under the Progressive Wage Model.

A 2019 study by the International Labor Organization and U.N. Women called "Public attitudes toward migrant workers in Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand" corroborated some of HOME's anecdotal observations.

The study reported that 52% of the survey respondents from the general population in Singapore thought crime rates had increased due to migration. Heightened police presence in areas where migrant workers congregate; barricades which prevent them from entering residential zones; and banning domestic workers from using facilities in condominiums are evidence of how our attitudes have reinforced discrimination and stereotyping.

Any lasting change in our social norms and attitudes requires an understanding of these realities faced by migrant worker communities. As a first step, we need to channel the current outrage and solidarity into developing a collective awareness of their lives in Singapore. Communities which know and have ties with migrant workers are less likely to discriminate against or abuse them. We need to have these difficult conversations.

There are still so many unknowns about this virus and critical decisions need to be made fast, in very uncertain situations. This underscores the need to work with actors representing divergent views and embracing new ways of working, one that engages government, businesses, media and civil society organizations. This can provide valuable insights for our pandemic response strategy and allow for operational improvements to deal with a rapidly evolving situation.

Any sustainable change in societal attitudes and our migrant worker policies also requires an honest examination of our policy-making process, the drivers for city planning and how well they foster interaction instead of segregation.

Singaporeans can either choose to remain in the background or start a movement, changing public discourse so that online chatter is no longer dominated by discussions on the "unhygienic lifestyles of workers" but with views that are more favorable toward integration and are based on empathy.

This is what will determine how we emerge out of this crisis, where Singaporeans are aware of both their individual and collective responsibility.

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