Migrant workers issues have been reported in mainstream local media and talked about on social media to no end. Everybody seems to have an opinion or two about the topic, as if it is as massive of an issue as naming a school with a Greek name.
It is (a massive issue).
It is perhaps one of the most salient socio-economic issues in Singapore, with a particular spike in interests after the SMRT labour protest in 2012 as well as the infamous Little India riot in 2013. Apart from these, there have been incessant reports on labour malpractices by employers towards their migrant workers: miserable living conditions, defrauding wages, and unhygienic foods, among many others. It is really quite a saddening non-revelation.
I had the opportunity and pleasure to visit the Migrant Workers Centre (MWC)—an NGO and a wing of the NTUC which champions fair employment practices and the well-being of migrant workers in Singapore—and speak with its Executive Director, Mr Bernard Menon.
We spoke extensively on both the macro and micro issues revolving around migrant workers. It went well beyond two hours and the session was filled with interesting anecdotes, funny retrospections, and grim realities. It is almost impossible to document the enlightening session with Mr. Menon in a single brief article but here are five major takeaways from the conversation I had with the man behind one of Singapore’s most talked about socio-economic phenomenon.
1. Migrant workers can rant in their native language in most parts when they call the MWC helpline
They are after all, MIGRANT workers. In such a distressed state, what feels better than to pick up the phone to call a helpline and to hear a native speaker ready to listen to your woes and sorrows, knowing that you are fully understood?
MWC employs workers for their language competency and the organisation’s staffs have language competencies ranging from Vietnamese and Burmese, to South Asian dialects such as Bengali, Malayalam, and Urdu. MWC believes strongly in comforting distressed migrant workers and help them in any way possible, and one of the best ways to relate to them is to speak their language. This in itself, brings down the language barrier which in turn prevents miscommunication that could potentially result in other problems.
2. Fear is a massive problem
Migrant workers are close to the bottom of the ‘employment chain’ and they have given up a lot just to be able to come to Singapore to work. They are pretty much at the mercy of many parties: their agents, the government, and above all else, their employers. When faced with problems, most migrant workers tend to keep mum in order to avoid employer-employee relations problems. Thus, if their employers conveniently withhold their wages, they will not take any actions out of fear that their complaints will lead to their repatriation. Their silence can go on for months before they finally decide to do themselves some justice. However, after months of wage backlog, it becomes increasingly difficult for the MWC and relevant authorities to expedite any decisive action against unscrupulous employers.
For that reason, MWC strives to empower migrant workers to take action by issuing cardholders with their helpline number to make it convenient for workers to dial them. MWC takes EVERY call by migrant workers, even if one asks which bus to take to get to Tekka Mall from Mustafa Centre.
3. Migrant workers will always be at the losing end
Most, if not all migrant workers, come from impoverished villages. As mentioned earlier, they have given up a lot to come to Singapore with hopes of a better life. Most come via agents whom entice them to go to the promised land (a.k.a Singapore). All they need to do is to pay an average of $9000 in fees which they will be able to earn back within 2-3 months of work (they were promised wages of up to $2000). It is only after landing in Singapore that they realised that they were blindsided and bamboozled. Not only are they poorly paid for laborious work, but they are also subjected to harsh living conditions, unfair labour treatment, social stigmatization, and a slew of other mistreatments.
Being at the bottom of the ‘employment chain’ and the social hierarchy, on top of being a non-citizen mean that these workers will always be at the losing end. Everybody in society has a role to play in alleviating the plight of migrant workers in Singapore.
If you can help them in any way at all, do it. Both parties have nothing to lose.
4. Singaporeans are relatively apathetic
As Mr. Menon puts it, we are not apathetic. We are relatively apathetic. We only care and show our deepest concern when something happens. It is only when the media flurries with reports of labour malpractices and abuse of migrant workers that Singaporeans come out to fight for migrant workers—on keyboards. There is little active advocacy in our part to make sure that migrant workers in Singapore receive the proper humane treatment. Granted, there is greater interest in migrant workers issues now. Schools are ready to educate their students on migrant workers and students are quick to do projects on this issue.
The question is, will this passion to fight for migrant workers—or any marginalised groups for that matter—die out?
5. Advocacy for migrant workers is a ‘war of attrition’
Mr. Menon likened advocacy works for migrant workers to that of a war of attrition. It takes a lot of work to push for policy changes in favour of migrant workers. Despite being arduous and difficult, it is not impossible to expedite positive changes for these workers. This is evident when MWC successfully fought for itemised and electronic payslips for workers, and the employment act will be amended to reflect these changes. The law will take effect in April 2016. Apart from itemised pay slips, the MWC has also pushed for job mobility within sector for migrant workers with the Foreign Construction Workers Directory System (FCWDS). The system helps these workers stay in Singapore with a paying job. The organization is also looking into helping raise productivity in migrant workers by upgrading their skills, which in turn creates value for these workers.
Ultimately, many more things can still be done for the migrant workers but it requires more hard work, determination, and patience from not only the people at MWC and other NGOs, but also from the larger public as well.
As we continue to fight for the rights and welfare of migrant workers, Singaporeans can also contribute by simply being kind. It goes a long way.