In the wake of the Little India riots and the crackdown that followed, MARUAH organised a public forum on Monday at the Marketing Institute of Singapore to discuss these topics. Titled ‘Foreign workers, Justice and Fairness,’ it was chaired by MARUAH’s Vice President Mr Siew Kum Hong.
MARUAH President Ms Braema Mathi spoke about justice for foreign workers. She said the riots have “given us many moments for reflection” on what Singapore wants for migrant workers.
“What kind of society do we really want?” she asked. If Singapore wanted a common value system for citizens and migrant workers, she elaborated, then justice must be “accessible to all.” However, current law gives the state “a clear route to deportation” but not “a clear route to justice”.
She felt the authorities were jumping to conclusions without involving the public. “What is the evidence that have put all these foreign workers in different tiers: advisory, deportation, to be charged? Who made the decisions? This has to be a transparent and open process.”
Mr Siew decried the courts’ inability to check government power. “In most common law countries, the courts have determined that they can review administrative decisions. In Singapore, we have gone down a different path. The government has changed the law, saying the courts do not have this power. The courts have retreated. As a lawyer, this offends my sense of justice.”
Unfair labour practices
Dr Russell Heng, President of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), described the exploitation of foreign workers, homing in on low-wage South Asian male manual workers. Employers could arbitrarily set low wages and substitute contracts for less favourable ones, he argued, because Singapore does not have a minimum wage law and no recourse for migrant workers.
Should workers lodge complaints, the Ministry of Manpower’s response is left to the frontline official’s discretion. Thus, he said, Singapore law is both “inadequate and inadequately enforced”.
“There’s a lack of symmetry of power between employer and the foreign worker.” Dr Heng said employers could send workers home without proper reasons, while workers had to work to pay off the debts incurred to come to Singapore. While Dr Heng stressed that exploited workers were in the minority, he highlighted that TWC2 alone deals with 2000 cases a year.
Mr Jolovan Wham, representing Workfair Singapore, was afraid the riots would open the door to greater “social control mechanisms” in the name of security. Employers and the government, he said, could use the riots to justify measures that would further restrict the mobility of foreign workers.
Mr Wham also discussed repatriation companies. Employers hire these companies to “abduct” nuisance foreign workers and hold them until they are repatriated. While this practice is technically illegal, Mr Wham believes the government condones such behaviour.
Social activist Dr Vincent Wijeysingha recalled a time when he questioned a Ministry official about repatriation companies. “She said, ‘they provide a useful service’.”
Lack of information
Discussing the availability of data concerning migrant workers, Mr Wham lamented that information “just comes out in dribs and drabs, it’s not contextualized and not segregated.”
Mr Siew expounded on this theme, saying that the government maintained information asymmetry to give themselves an advantage during policy debates. “The government will only answer the questions they want to answer. Until we have a Freedom of Information Act in Singapore, our ability to get information is held hostage to what the government wants.”
Mr Alex Au, speaking as a member of TWC2, said civil society could gather data without relying on the government, but it was a labout-intensive exercise. “We at TWC2 have plenty of ideas to do research, we just don’t have the manpower.”
The citizen and the foreigner
In the question and answer session that followed, law student Seraphina asked, “Is it better for foreign workers to work here and get paid, if only a pittance, or should they not work and not be paid at all?”
Mr Heng replied, “I think the reality is rather more nuanced than that. Singapore needs foreign workers, and whoever we let into this country we should treat fairly and equally.” Individual workers were driven by their personal decisions, he said, and many could not find jobs at home. “In those countries where they are coming from, NGOs and governments also have a job to do…to take ownership of their problems and ensure their workers are treated equally.”
Mr Wham felt local workers also benefited from proper treatment of foreign workers. “One of the reasons local workers are displaced is because migrant workers are easy to exploit. These problems are interconnected.”
He argued that migrant workers will be able to accept working for long periods at low pay, and companies would prefer to hire them over Singaporeans. “I have seen workers who are paid two dollars an hour. How is the Singaporean worker able to compete with these kinds of wages?”
“Talking about costs…is the mantra the government has used,” Ms Mathi replied. “That is the wrong discussion by our political leaders. What we need to talk about is how to do the right thing by the citizen and the foreigner.”
Mr Vincent Law from non-profit group HealthServe rounded off the presentations with a prepared statement. The riots sparked the examination of issues pertaining to the “invisible workforce”, Mr Law said. “Give them their dues, give them a sustainable policy to live and to work and to assimilate them into our society.”