Should Singapore Have Foreigner-Run Unions?

The Middle Ground wrote about the low proportion of foreign workers joining unions in Singapore and how there there is no union specifically for FDWs (foreign domestic workers).

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Before we go all out to lobby for the creation of unions to specifically serve the migrant workers and FDWs, let’s consider the following:

1. Can migrant workers and FDWs join unions?

Migrant workers can join unions if the unions represent the sector or company they work in. For example, cleaners can join the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees Union (BATU).

Migrant workers who are not union members or NTUC members can approach the Migrant Workers’ Centre.

There are no unions for FDWs yet, simply because FDWs do not work for a specific company or are limited to a few companies (like taxi drivers where the National Taxi Association can collectively bargain with Comfort, SMRT, Prime etc).

In this case, setting up a specific union for FDWs would be pointless, and advocacy groups are already speaking up to the government on behalf of the FDWs.

2. Can Singaporeans accept unions run by foreigners?

If hypothetically, we do set up unions specifically for migrant workers and FDWs, their leaders would also be migrant workers and FDWs. They may feel it would be in their best interests to lobby for minimum wages, right to citizenship, 7 days of annual leave and not more than 44 hours of work per week (to be on parity with the Employment Act) and organise strikes (which aren’t illegal by the way).

For Singaporean-run companies and Singaporean employers of FDWs, are we prepared to negotiate these issues with foreign union leaders?

What if one day these foreign union leaders also want to run for NTUC elections to rule the Labour Movement? Can we be certain they will put Singaporean workers’ interests over foreigners’?

3. What problems do migrant workers and FDWs face?

The problems migrant workers face in Singapore are lack of electronic payslips, unpaid salaries, hefty agent fees (from agents in their home countries and Singapore agents), being sent home too early before they earn enough to pay off these agent fees saddling their families in debt, hazardous workplaces, difficulty in changing employers, discrimination by Singaporeans, poor living conditions and integrating with the local population, amongst others.

FDWs face employer abuse, lack of experience working in a modern home with electrical appliances they have never seen before, communication with employer and family, lack of privacy, disputes over pay, loneliness, unwanted pregnancies, family expectations and more.

4. How can we ensure that migrant workers and FDWs are treated fairly in Singapore?

While there is much room for improvement for migrant workers rights, MOM can still go after companies which fail to treat their migrant workers properly. A tripartite effort among MOM, hiring companies and migrant worker advocacy groups to accredit agents which do not exploit and traffic workers could be looked into. Electronic payslips should be quickly implemented and heftier fines and payouts could be imposed on companies if workers are injured or killed. A national system to ensure skilled foreign workers can find new employers once their contract is up could be launched.

Although there are a few advocacy groups for FDWs, there is room to grow for mediation, cultural understanding and ‘workplace communication’ between FDWs and employers. Like it or not, every FDW-employer relationship is unique and impossible to regulate them all.

FDW and even employer training shouldn’t be limited to that initial orientation session. Advocacy groups could consider running joint FDW-employer courses and events.

Employers may be wary of existing advocacy groups who have taken a combative stance in favour of FDW rights (see how TWC2‘s ‘Mums and Maids’ video angered Singapore mothers), hence either advocacy groups need to relook their employer engagement strategy, or a new ‘neutral’ advocacy group should be set up to promote good communication and relationships between FDWs and employers.

It is good to ask questions that spark soul-searching among Singaporeans, however we need to prompt each other to think one step further to how we can improve our human rights record.

About the author

Jules Of Singapore

I’m Jules, from Singapore. I live and work here, and although it’s a great place to be, I feel there are many issues swept under the carpet. I’m also hoping to meet other women (and men) who actively want to discuss and further the interests of women who make up half our population, but whose voices are not amplified enough.

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