Unseen, unheard and unknown: Migrant workers in Singapore

  • According to international non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch, foreign migrant workers in Singapore are subject to labour rights abuses and exploitation, especially the women who are employed as domestics.
  • As Universal Human Rights Month comes to an end, TheHomeGround Asia takes a look at whether migrant workers here are treated right. 
Taking a breather from his crowded unit, which housed 16 men at the height of the pandemic. (Photo source: Kevin Wong / TheHomeGround Asia)
Taking a breather from his crowded unit, which housed 16 men at the height of the pandemic. (Photo source: Kevin Wong / TheHomeGround Asia)

She hails from Unisan Island, located in the southernmost part of Nueva Valencia, Guimaras in the Philippines and has been working as a foreign domestic helper in Singapore for the last four years. 

Upon learning that her daughter has meningitis in August this year, she asked to be released from her contract so she could return but was flatly refused by her employers. The Filipina sought help from the embassy and with the aid of friends managed to raise the money to go home. 

Unfortunately on the last day of her quarantine, her daughter died. She never got to see the four-year-old for the last time.

As December, designated as the Universal Human Rights Month, closes, many people in the world, like this domestic help from the Philippines, still sadly face discrimination because of their race, national origin, sex, gender, religion, age, language or status.

The month marks the adoption of the universal declaration of human rights by the UN in 1948. According to Article 1 of the declaration, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

And in this pandemic that crippled the world, many governments have perhaps knowingly or unknowingly violated the rights of individuals. In the name of public health, migrant workers in Singapore are said to have paid a price.

According to the Covid impact report published by a Singapore-based charity Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), the pandemic has highlighted pre-existing challenges faced by migrant workers. As these workers are paid low monthly wages of between S$300 and S$400, termination of employment or cuts in pay during the pandemic have proven to be “catastrophic and long-lasting”.

During the “circuit breaker” period introduced last year, aid services run by the Ministry of Manpower and non-governmental organisation (NGOs) were drastically reduced. Migrant workers facing financial hardship were unable to reach out for adequate assistance, having to rely on a smaller group of people willing to help them. This may have resulted in migrant workers suffering from mental health issues.

As they are usually unaware of what their rights, they do not know how to seek redress. Many rely on NGOs such as HOME and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2)  to provide them with recourse and advice. 

Strengthening the protection of migrant workers in Singapore

Former president of TWC2, John Gee, who has been volunteering with the society since its planning stages in 2002 tells TheHomeGround Asia that migrant workers in Singapore do have some protections under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act. 

Under these regulations, employers are responsible for workers’ upkeep and maintenance, require workers to be paid on time and make employers responsible for the medical wellbeing of workers should they fall ill. 

“Most migrant workers are covered by the Employment Act, which sets out standard hours of work, maximum overtime, and various other rights, but this does not cover domestic workers,” he says. “These are all rather basic rights which some would see as fundamental for all human beings, that they are defined in a country’s laws should not be a matter for congratulation.”

He adds that as Singapore considers itself a first world country, it should compare its legal protections for migrant workers with other first world countries of its status. Even though other less developed countries in the region have “inferior protections” for migrant workers, Singapore should not use those countries as yardsticks of comparison for how it treats its migrant workers.

In any case,migrant workers are paid higher wages in Singapore than in neighbouring regions. 

“Protective measures are more likely to be enforced in Singapore than elsewhere and migrant workers who can get out and about when not working appreciate the safety and cleanliness of the country”, says Mr Gee.

Covid-19 and the foreign domestic help: The new normal or more of the same old?

Domestic workers are largely unseen and their struggles often unheard. (Photo Source: TODAY)

It is deemed by NGOs that foreign domestic workers (FDWs) are most likely to be abused, as in the case of the Filipina help from Unisan Island

Their work is “largely invisible and unregulated”, their plight is mostly “invisible in the private sphere of their employers’ households”, says the HOME report. It found a 25 per cent increase in the volume of calls to its helpline last year. The report found that more domestic workers were abused by their employers, overworked to a greater extent and more likely to be underpaid. Heavy restrictions on movement imposed by both employers and the government have also made it more difficult for them to visit their families abroad.

“Domestic workers who were disallowed from leaving their homes even for essential errands faced extreme stress as they were confined together with their employers while facing issues such as being overworked. Those who had their mobile phone usage surveyed also found it difficult to communicate with their loved ones, and those who were facing abusive conditions found it difficult to seek help.” says the spokesperson.

As migrant domestic workers are not covered by the employment act, they are not entitled to overtime pay and there are no clear guidelines for fixed working hours. With employers working from home during the pandemic, they are more likely to be overworked. They are also required to stay at home during their rest days and run the risk of employers asking them to work. Mr Gee adds that extra time spent at home had workers complaining of extra stress as they were under “constant surveillance.”

The pandemic also hurt outreach efforts by TWC2, according to Mr Gee. 

“We used to have a lot of workers — often 300 or so a day — come to our food programme in Little India…but numbers went down markedly because many could no longer get there,” he says.

He adds, “We definitely lose something by not having direct face to face contact. It seems less personal and information does not flow as easily. Conversations are more focussed and less likely to wander over into what may seem like side issues, but could nevertheless be important.” 

Domestic workers used to gather on their days off outside Lucky Plaza before the pandemic hit. (Photo source: TODAY)

Problems existed long before the pandemic

“The worst problem faced by domestic workers is that over one in three still don’t have days off. Many of the rest don’t have weekly days off, but only one day off a fortnight or each month”, says Mr Gee.

He adds, “Workers who have no days off and are not free to leave their employers’ homes are the most vulnerable to all kinds of abuse: physical, verbal, non-payment of salaries, under feeding, overwork and more.”

Some employers also fear that domestic workers “may get into bad company” if they were allowed to go out, says Mr Gee. 

As there are no clear structures to enforce days off for domestic workers, the problem has continued and been exacerbated with movement restrictions from Covid-19.

“Working hours (of domestic workers) are long: 14 and a half hours per day is typical. They are perhaps the lowest paid workers in Singapore…in relative terms, since they have monthly salaries and not a basic salary plus overtime for extra hours,” he says.

Both domestic workers and non-domestic migrant workers share a similar problem. They often encounter difficulties in repaying high recruitment fees. But domestic workers are paid lower than non-domestic workers, says Mr Gee.

Regardless, he believes that “(workers) should not have to pay middlemen to get a job, but only to meet expenses such as training and getting their own passports. Repayment of loans for recruitment fees makes a big dent in their initial earnings and makes them more fearful of dismissal”. 

According to him, migrant workers usually take a year and a half to pay off these fees. They are also either underpaid or not paid by employers.

“Some workers are promised salaries when recruited but are not paid when they arrive in Singapore. Sometimes, they are obliged to agree to reduced salaries, having little choice because they need to pay off loans,” says Mr Gee, adding that “recruitment of workers through lies about pay and conditions is very common”. 

TWC2 has also encountered injured workers whose employers attempt to evade medical costs or who refuse to compensate them.

He adds, “Some law firms, in cases involving workplace injuries, expect workers to repay them out of their compensation money. Workers can see much of their money disappear this way.”

However, migrant workers can rely on schemes such as the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme for pro-bono representation and often HOME would link migrant workers with pro-bono lawyers who are part of their network.

“While fortunate workers may obtain pro bono help from lawyers, the need for this far exceeds the number of lawyers willing and able to offer it,”, notes Mr Gee says.

Migrant workers: Tolerating the vulnerability

Migrant workers living in the dormitories were subjected to strict movement curbs and the only link to the outside were their mobile phones. (Photo source: Kevin Wong / TheHomeGround Asia)

Before Covid-19, the dormitories that housed migrant workers were usually overcrowded, sometimes with 16 or more living in a housing unit. “Toilets and washbasins were shared by many,” Mr Gee says. 

But with the restriction that came about due the spread of Covid-19, a maximum of 12 workers can be accommodated in a unit. 

“Worker dormitories have improved in general over the past 15 years, with more purpose built dormitories being created and certain standards being enforced, including in safety and numbers accommodated,”, says Mr Gee.

The spokesperson for HOME says many workers tolerate poor living and working conditions for fear that they might lose their jobs.

“All migrant workers are vulnerable to arbitrary dismissal. Their employers are not obliged to give them a reason for firing and repatriating them. They don’t have unions that will defend them against this treatment. This gives employers a powerful weapon to deter workers from complaining”, says Mr Gee. 

He explains that the dictatorial power employers have over workers, who are relatively powerless, underpins worker abuse.

Mr Gee points out that mistreatment of migrant workers is excused because of negative stereotypes (of being lazy, devious and untrustworthy) and the self-serving belief that workers are better off in Singapore than they were in their home countries. 

“General toleration of such attitudes allows many to be tolerant of behaviour towards migrant workers that they’d not find acceptable if applied to a fellow national,” he says.

In addition, societal structures reinforce a negative perception towards migrant workers.

“As a society, Singapore has grown less respectful of manual labour … (these low-paid jobs are) deemed unskilled or semi-skilled (and) they are also seen as low status, so citizens don’t want to do them,” Mr Gee says. “While society generally does not tolerate racial stereotyping, such behaviour is more likely to be tolerated when directed towards migrant workers.”

Singaporean couples with children and elderly relatives to care for, are typically unable to do so and need to employ domestic workers. “Some can hardly afford to and are under a lot of stress themselves. This can lead to bad behaviour towards domestic workers,” adds Mr Gee. 

Not all doom and gloom

Given pandemic restrictions on movement, some employers continue to be supportive of workers, allowing them to contact their loved ones over the phone, or simply respecting their days off spent at home.

TWC2 even largely assisted non-domestic workers through phone calls, says Mr Gee. 

It had a big drive early in the pandemic to top up workers’ phone cards and successfully raised nearly $1 million in phone-card value. Over 90,000 workers’ phone cards were topped up, which enabled them to keep in contact with their families while under quarantine.

“We and other NGOs delivered food at times to vary the diets of workers,” he adds. 

Furthermore, as an anti-COVID measure, authorities effectively enacted a rule that ensured all non-domestic workers’ salaries would be paid to bank accounts in their own name — a move which TWC2 had been advocating for years.

“This offered some reassurance that the salary due would be paid (to workers),”, says Mr Gee.

Paradigm shift needed 

“Whatever we feel as unacceptable if it was done to us; must be unacceptable if it is being done to migrant workers,” says Mr Gee as he urges society to act fairly towards migrant workers. 

The spokesperson from HOME adds, “For migrant workers to lead better lives, it is important for the local population to champion their rights. We must create a culture of empathy surrounding migrant workers, to understand the systemic issues that can lead to their exploitation.”.

Mr Gee hopes that conditions for migrant workers will improve in the near future. 

“We still think that conditions can be made better. One way forward might be to consider whether accommodation for migrant workers might easily be adapted to locals (albeit with lower density levels),” he says.

“Wages need to be improved, recruitment fees need to be abolished and workers need to be given more rest, recreation and socialisation as any other human beings,” he says.

Join the conversations on TheHomeGround Asia’s Facebook and Instagram, and get the latest updates via Telegram.

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