Singapore must do more to protect migrant workers from exploitation.
The outbreak of coronavirus cases in Singapore’s migrant worker dormitories brought widespread global attention to the miserable conditions that migrant workers often live in. By early April, several clusters had been identified in these dormitories, and strict isolation measures were applied to the dorms by the government. Around the same time, Straits Times broke the story that workers reported crowded, unsanitary conditions in dormitories with lack of access to protective equipment such as masks.
The pandemic and the initial failure of the Singapore government to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among migrant workers also sparked debate and discussion locally about what lessons must be taken away from this experience. While much of this discussion has centred on the living conditions of migrants, human rights advocates, intellectuals, and members of the public have called for more comprehensive reforms. Activists and NGOs that focus on the welfare of migrants pointed out that the outbreak was a symptom stemming from long-standing structural challenges that are faced by migrants in Singapore. Former diplomat Tommy Koh made a viral Facebook post condemning the treatment of foreign workers by Singapore, calling the pandemic a “wake up call to treat our indispensable foreign workers like a First World country should”. A petition asking for broad-based reforms to protect migrants from not only the health but also the economic effects of COVID-19 garnered 80,000 signatures.
While there is broad consensus in improving housing for migrants, further reforms to increase migrant rights or reduce Singapore’s dependence on low-wage migrant labour may be viewed with skepticism in some quarters. For example, Bryan Cheang, while sympathetic to migrant worker rights, argues that calls for Singapore to reduce low-wage migration by placing entry restrictions are misguided as migration is a way for individuals in poor countries to build a better life. He states, “the humane position to take on foreign workers is not to limit their numbers, but to allow them the opportunity to find work as they so choose”.
In fact, others could argue that any significant improvement to the living conditions or wages of migrants can only be achieved by incurring higher costs, thus likely reducing the demand for migrant workers. This would mean that some workers in poor countries who would have chosen to migrate to Singapore at current wages would not get the opportunity to do so, thus disadvantaging the least advantaged potential immigrants.
Yet some others may question whether Singapore has any obligations to migrants at all. After all, Singapore’s first duty is to Singaporeans, and conferring any privileges to migrants imposes economic or social burdens on Singaporeans. Perhaps Singapore should only offer as many rights or privileges as are enough to attract needed workers from their home countries, and no more. Prima facie such an opinion may seem too extreme. However, the notion of migrant welfare being in a trade-off with the economic benefits received by Singaporeans is very much present in national debates on this issue. In fact, the reality is not too far off from this philosophical position. Singapore already severely curtails the political, social, and economic rights of workers on Work Permits. They are denied any path to citizenship and even their intimate lives are tightly regulated. Their wages and living conditions are not only far from the average Singaporean’s, but also much lower than those of the worst-off citizens. Singapore grants close to the minimum rights and privileges it must to migrant workers to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship.
Proponents of the views outlined above can point to a very high apparent satisfaction among migrant workers about working in Singapore based on Ministry of Manpower (MOM) surveys. Business groups and trade associations also infer from Singapore’s high rate of retention of migrant workers, even after repayment of their debts, that workers view working in Singapore favourably. Furthermore, even amidst the pandemic, many migrant workers were appreciative of Singapore’s efforts to contain the spread; even laudatory posts about PM Lee were made on Facebook by migrants. All this is to suggest that perhaps the status quo, in which Singaporeans benefit from the low-wage migration, is not so bad after all. Migrants freely choose to immigrate to the country for their benefit, and increasing welfare further would only lead to fewer migrants getting the chance to benefit from this immigration.
However, each of the above views would have to admit that their arguments rest on the ability of the migrant to freely choose to enter into a contract with the state. To elaborate, migrants must choose to migrate to Singapore and potentially give up political and social rights in exchange for better economic outcomes. If, as the saying goes, a gun was being held to their head such that they had no choice but to exchange their labour for whatever Singaporean employers offered them, resisting the provision of more rights for migrants would be unacceptable. The truth of such a statement is obvious when there is a gun involved, but it is unclear how this is relevant to our discussion. Inspired (partially) by Blake’s formulation in Distributive Justice, State Coercion, and Autonomy, I construe it to be a similar infringement on the basic autonomy of a person if the choice open to them is only open if “someone else has made it the best option open… by making other choices difficult or impossible to pursue”. In other words, if a migrant worker chooses to continue working for (or not quit) an employer in Singapore only because the government and the employer have made it so that the other choices are difficult or impossible to pursue, then this would be a violation of the worker’s basic autonomy and it would be immoral to use the labour of this migrant. It is important to note that this is an extremely minimal criterion; it does not admit arguments claiming that the autonomy of a migrant is violated by their dire economic situation in their country of origin.
I aim to argue that current government policies do not do enough to protect migrants from such infringements on their basic autonomy. Therefore, even if one believes that Singapore has no obligations to migrant workers other than the bare minimum, one would be compelled to support reforms at least to an extent that such infringements can be prevented.
The various ways in which government policy, as currently structured, systematically makes workers vulnerable to exploitation from their employers have been articulated many times over by NGOs such as Transient Workers Count 2 (TWC2) and the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME). By making employers of workers on Work Permits responsible for the granting or cancellation of Work Permit, housing, food and medical treatment, and repatriation in addition to wages and employment creates a gaping power imbalance between employers and employees. Employers who wish to engage in wage theft or other illegal practices can intimidate and harass their employees into complying with outrageous conditions; workers are under constant threat of being fired. Sky-high agency fees paid by migrants to secure jobs in Singapore mean that repayment of their debts becomes so important that the prospect of losing their job by being out-of-favour with their employer is a non-starter. While the government has set fines in place to penalise illegal practices by employers, and provided pathways to redressal for workers, problems with limited right to work while on Special Pass deter many migrants from taking up their claims with the government. Finally, the levy imposed by the government on the hiring of foreign workers effectively amounts to an income tax on the migrants at possibly the highest rates in the country.
My aim with this essay was not to articulate a benchmark by which we judge migrant welfare; it was to sketch out a criterion so minimal that it would be alarming to us if we found that Singapore was not able to meet it. Even more alarming is the possibility that migrants may not benefit at all from coming to Singapore.
In the past two decades, MOM has taken many steps that build towards providing essential protections for migrants. Agency fees charged by licensed agencies subject to Singaporean jurisdiction were capped in 2011. In 2016, itemised payslips were made mandatory for all employees. In 2020, the government has committed to make better housing for migrant workers.
Yet some measures that would vastly reduce the odds of migrants being exploited — and increase their chances of redressal if they were — only require minor tweaks in the government’s policy but are unimplemented. For example, requiring employers to pay migrants only via bank account or pay checks. It reduces the possibility of wage theft from errant employers and provides a modicum of documentary evidence that workers may use to justify their salary non-payment claims to MOM.
All of us who benefit from migrant labour need to come together to demand the implementation of such measures urgently.
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 A relationship where the benefits to both parties are greater than or equal to zero.
 Michael, Blake. 2001. “Distributive Justice, State Coercion, and Autonomy.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 30, no. 3 (Summer): 270.