The Little India riots have left people questioning the government’s white paper on population, particularly its stance on migrant workers.
In a 2011 survey of 1000 Singaporeans, the International Labour Organization found that nearly 70% feel the authorities are doing enough to prevent exploitation of migrant workers and about 85% felt the government should have more restrictive policies towards immigration.
While 82% believed migrant and national workers should be treated equally, around 58% said migrant workers cannot expect to have equal pay for the same work and 78% said unathorised migrant workers cannot expect to have any rights at work.
However, close to 90% of respondents felt that migrant workers were needed to fill labour shortages and about 78% thought migrant workers made a net contribution to the economy. When assessed with the KAP Barometer, which measured knowledge, attitudes and practices, just 39% of respondents demonstrated support for migrant workers.
Despite these results, activists and non-government organisations are pressing for better migrant workers rights.
During a forum on 23rd December, Dr Rusell Heng, President of Transient Workers Count Too, discussed the ways employers exploited migrant workers. These included arbitrarily setting low wages and substituting contracts for less favourable ones when the workers arrive. “The law is inadequate and inadequately enforced,” he said.
On his blog, former Nominated Member of Parliament Mr Calvin Cheng wrote that immigration was necessary to meet the challenges of an ageing population and shrinking workforce, and to develop Singapore’s infrastructure. However, he added, “the best way for the Government to convince the population of these facts is not to merely present its vision for a rosy future, but to be honest about the costs involved.”
Among these costs include assimilating migrant workers. Mr Cheng felt the government now had two choices. The first is to be “completely honest” about the population policy’s costs with the people of Singapore. If the people find these costs too much to bear, the government should develop a “Plan B”, accounting for an aged, not ageing, population with a small work force and small immigrant population.
“There is no perfect solution and both sides in the debate must be honest about the costs of the options available,” he pointed out.
Dr Eugene Tan from Singapore Management University offered a different view. “While Calvin views the government has now having two choices, I see it as a dire situation where the Government has no choice.”
He said the government had to present the costs of the current population policy and prepare the Plan B. “The harsh reality is that Singapore cannot do with zero immigration. This might be hard for some to accept. But can we even dare to think of there being no foreign domestic workers, no foreign construction workers, cleaners, no foreign nurses, no foreign bus drivers?”
Addressing the costs of immigration, Dr Tan asked if it were fair for Singaporeans living in Little India to “be subjected to an influx of ten of thousands of workers every weekend”. Likewise, he wondered if it were fair to refuse to meet the “psycho-social, recreational, and other needs of the foreign workers who slog six days a week”.
Dr Tan cautioned that there are trade-offs to increased and decreased immigration, and questioned whether Singaporeans are prepared for the trade-offs that come with decreased immigration. He asked whether there would be enough Singaporeans to fill construction jobs, even with significantly higher wages for locals – and if so, whether Singaporeans would be prepared to “foot higher bills for everything”.
As for Dr Heng, his focus is not on “complex demographic issues” about which TWC2 “has no special expertise”.
Instead, he says, “TWC2 holds that for whoever Singapore as a society – meaning government and people – has allowed to come and work here, be it one or one million, Singapore should treat them fairly and with civility. If Singapore society falls short on that, that is where TWC2 sees it has a job to do: to ensure foreign workers’ rights are protected.”