Foreign workers: What also needs to change

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By Gaurav Sharma

Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), Workfair Singapore and HealthServe asked the right questions at a Maruah forum on Monday night. Singapore does need better laws and even better enforcement to improve the situation of foreign workers in the country.

But equal emphasis is also needed on what Braema Mathi, president of Maruah, said about “justice and fairness” for foreign workers.

“I know many will not agree with me here but it is important for us to think what kind of society we are and want to become. Unfortunately, too many of us Singaporeans have bought into the rhetoric that everything in life is determined on a cost-benefit analysis, matters relating to foreign workers are no exception. For our society to progress, we need to break free from this paradigm,” she said.

Mathi was replying to a question whether Singaporeans are ready to pay higher home prices, if improving the living conditions and salaries of foreign workers translates into that.

Moreover, a quick poll of about 100 attendees also indicated that many among the audience would not be willing to pay a higher sum, which is probably a reflection of majority Singaporean opinion. Especially, since rising property prices have become such a hot political issue in the city state over last few years.

Society’s role

Essentially, what Mathi pointed towards is the broader question, whether the majority really cares about foreign workers’ rights in Singapore?

While the jury is still out on this one, few observations are in order.

There has been talk in some quarters about the need to house foreign workers in off-shore islands, which surfaced again after the Little India riot, in both offline and online chatter. Few, such as Mohamed Abdul Jaleel, a businessman who provides dormitories for foreign workers, have already come up with the concept of “floating dorms”. In an interview with The Straits Times, Jaleel discussed the concept, which he claimed can house 7,000 to 8,000 workers in a 10-storey structure. Moreoevr, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan in a written reply in the Parliament early this year had also noted that the government is “open to such an idea of housing some foreign workers at nearby offshore islands”.

Another case in point is the welcome directive by the Ministry of Manpower for a weekly rest day to be given to maids in Singapore from Jan 1 this year. The results of this directive, which came after much advocacy by various human rights groups, have not been very encouraging.

Clarissa Oon, in a recent commentary in The Straits Times noted: “Checks by The Straits Times with six maid agencies in January showed that 70 percent of their 400 or so new customers employing maids were not likely to give them rest days at all until they had proven themselves to be trustworthy”. Similar figures were quoted by TWC2’s immediate past president John Gee in his article published in July.

Cases of residents petitioning against building foreign workers dormitories in their neighbourhood have also been reported.

Companies’ role

Another issue that came up during the forum was the responsibility of sub-contractors and companies towards foreign workers they hire. James Gomez, who stood as a Singapore Democratic Party candidate in 2011 general elections, asked whether the panel can profile these companies and sub-contractors. “How many of these are Singaporean-owned and otherwise?” he asked.

As the panel expressed its inability to comment on the question, and with no data available from other sources, the question that still has to be asked is this: What role do the Singapore-owned companies play in looking after the welfare of foreign workers?

Government’s role

Finally, the spotlight was on the government’s role in improving the situation of foreign workers in Singapore. Even more so, since it is one of the major players in the construction sector of the country.

All the mega projects announced recently by the government require construction workers, which the sub-contractors source from other countries. So it is for the government to make sure all its sub-contractors treat their foreign workers fairly and with dignity. Such checks and measures can form a part of the contracts awarded by the government.

A point noted by Siew Kum Hong, vice-president of Maruah. “Internationally, when bigger companies, which care about workers rights and welfare, outsource or sub-contract to smaller companies, they make sure their work ethic and philosophy flow through. A good example are the steps IT-giant Apple took to improve labour conditions at its manufacturing sub-contractors facilities in China.”

Understandably, the most important comment of the night came from a young Singaporean lady in the audience who said that she feels “lucky” to be able to study overseas. “Because it helped me look outside of this paradigm [the one Mathi talked about] and realise how important it is to not view everything in terms of just profit and loss. Unfortunately, this attitude is pervasive among my generation as well. All my friends, who are doing well in school and colleges here in Singapore have also taken to thinking within this Singaporean paradigm.”