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Despite appreciation of foreign workers by PM Lee, advocacy continues to be marginalised

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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday (4 Jan), shared a picture of a man sitting alone under a tree, who he thought was a foreign worker calling home on his cellphone.

PM Lee encouraged Singaporeans to spare a thought for the foreign workers who have left their families behind to work in a distant land. He pointed out that they build our HDB flats and MRT lines, keep our roads clean and parks green, and take care of our young and elderly.

He said that they “slog and save to support loved ones, but at least with the internet and cellphones they can keep in touch, and feel not quite so far away.”

Social activist and former Executive Director of Home, Jolovan Wham commenting on PM Lee’s picture said that there’s so much talk of “appreciation” but advocacy, human rights and the promotion of justice for migrant workers, continue to be marginalised activities. He urged the public to give NGOs that serve the migrant workers in Singapore their full support.

If you can’t read Mr Wham’s post, this is what he said.

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This is not the first time the PM has feted the contributions of migrant workers— and he should, because if all of them went on strike, our economy collapses. However, appreciation cannot stop at warm and fuzzy fb posts but should translate into concrete policies to make a difference in their lives, which his government is capable of doing but lack the political will.

I am glad that the years of hard work by groups such as HOME, TWC2 and Healthserve have led to more awareness and greater appreciation for the role migrant workers play. I remember back in 2003 when I started talking about the plight of foreign workers, esp construction workers, there was very little interest. The mainstream media wasn’t keen as well and I had to lobby hard for their stories to be told. I wrote as many letters as I could in the hope they would be published and their issues would be prioritised. With some great allies, I managed to make headway. Social media sites such as TOC were great and allowed me to say what I wanted uncensored. It started to change, slowly but surely.

But it seems like we have reached an impasse: there’s so much talk of “appreciation” but advocacy, human rights and the promotion of justice continue to be marginalised activities. Threats of funding cuts, and pressure from establishment forces are real. Even opposition parties aren’t keen because caring about migrant workers doesn’t get votes. Many fear being seen as “pro foreigner”, but do not realise that universal labour rights benefit voters too. This is why the work of independent NGOs is important. I am proud of what they have done with modest resources, a landscape hostile to public advocacy and absence of political patronage. Their voices are so important, because they push for real change rooted in social justice principles. Yet they remain fragile. Do continue to give them your support.

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