The country will know in six months the causes of the Little India riot and whether “unhappiness among foreign workers” led to that. But, no matter whatever the findings are, a closer look at foreign worker issues in Singapore is mandated.
A Committee of Inquiry (COI) has been appointed by the home affairs ministry to establish the factors and circumstances that led to the riot in Little India on December 8, 2013. It will also look into how the riot unfolded and how well the authorities responded. Moreover, the COI will also “consider whether current measures to manage such incidents in areas where foreign workers congregate such as Little India are adequate, and recommend any further measures to improve their management and reduce the risk of such incidents”.
But it’s not clear whether it will look into, what according to Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2)- a non-profit advocacy group working for fair treatment of foreign workers in Singapore, are “festering grievances” of the foreign worker communities here.
TWC2 argues that “while we can understand that there are festering grievances, it is not possible at this stage to say what part these feelings played in the explosion of random violence. Nonetheless, it would still be good for the authorities to pay more attention to such grievances”.
TWC2 shares the list of these grievances. “The foreign worker communities here have been at the receiving end of employment unfairness for a long time. Many do not receive correct salaries, or have no way (in the absence of payslips) to check whether they have been correctly paid. Some have not been paid for months. Other workers have been denied proper medical treatment by their employers. Yet others have seen their friends repatriated suddenly without receiving full salaries or injury compensation.”
On the question, whether there has been instances of friction between the police and foreign workers in Little India, TWC2 elaborated, “Perhaps not the main police force, but the auxiliary police could have antagonised many foreign workers in the last few years. The auxiliary police have been hired to patrol void decks and related areas, and quite aggressively chase away migrant workers who naturally wish to enjoy the shade and the space. TWC2 has also noticed that they issue summonses quite liberally for minor infringements such as littering. While we don’t condone littering, education is key, not overzealous policing. Foreign workers likely see the actions of the auxiliary police as harassment. It won’t be surprising if they confuse the auxiliary police with the main police.”
Newzzit, in fact, did a detailed story last year on migrant labour woes in Singapore, Miseries migrate as well, for an Indian daily The Hindu. “The most important reason for exploitation of foreign workers is the employer-sponsored work visa policy prevalent in Singapore, which gives employers excessive power and control over their workers,” Debbie Fordyce, coordinator at TWC2 had told us then.
The issues were exactly the same at that time as well, duly noted in our story.
“It starts with having to pay high agency fees to secure a job in Singapore. Once here, the workers are made to sign contracts limiting their civil liberties and agreeing to receive lower wages than promised. Additionally, the prevalence of unpaid salaries, long working hours with no offs, forced dangerous work leading to injuries, employers refusing to bear the cost of medical treatment, poor accommodations, passports routinely withheld, and above all, forced repatriation to their home countries without the employer settling their claims, make migrant workers one of the most vulnerable section of Singapore society.”
So much so, that even the High Court of Singapore in a 2011 case [Lee Chiang Theng vs Public Prosecutor SGHC 252] had said, “Foreign workers are unquestionably not chattel like the slaves of less enlightened times” and are “especially vulnerable”.
Measures taken since then
To be sure, the ministry of manpower (MOM) did brought in some amendments to the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA) in November 2012.
These included establishing a new administrative penalty regime with Commissioners of Foreign Manpower authorised to impose a penalty of up to S$20,000 per infringement; creating new offences and infringements with higher penalties so as to commensurate it with potential profits by errant employers; and adding new presumption clauses as well as enhancing investigatory powers to step up enforcement.
But to quote MOM itself, “This round of EFMA amendments do not make ‘major’ changes to the existing employment responsibilities of employers. Law-abiding employers do not have cause for concern. In fact, the amendments will level the playing field for honest employers, as MOM can step up enforcement against errant employers.”
The amendments didn’t talk much about worker well-being. Although, MOM has since indicated that it is “working on the second tranche of the EFMA review, which will focus on improving the well-being of workers, and ensuring a fair balance of rights and responsibilities between employers and workers”.
TWC2, on October 30 this year, had submitted its suggestions to MOM, which included mandatory written employment contracts and pay slips, salary payment via bank accounts, documentation of loans and salary advances, curbing wrongful detention of workers, prohibiting kickbacks, restrictions on bringing new workers, and medical compensation while awaiting resolution of work-injury related matters.
Most importantly, TWC2 argued for “dismantling of the present system tying a work permit holder to an employer” and giving “a worker coming out of one job up to 6o days on a new kind of ‘Job Search Special Pass’ during which he or she can look for a new job locally”.
On question whether the recent riot will exacerbate negative sentiments about foreign workers among Singaporeans, hearteningly, TWC2 expressed confidence that it will not be so.
“In our interactions with low-wage foreign workers, they have rarely expressed experiences of xenophobia or prejudices against them, and instead have received kindness from Singaporeans. They are generally quite comfortable within Singapore society even if many of them have job-related frustrations. ‘I like Singapore,’ they often say, ‘but I just don’t like my boss,’” TWC2 noted.