Singapore — To promote the inclusivity of migrant workers into mainstream society as well as shared experiences between the two communities, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) students joined members of an arts group to translate an English-language movie into Bengali.
Using Bengali subtitles, the students and artists presented a screening of “The Pursuit of Happyness” to foreign workers who were also learning English and computing skills at SDI Academy, a social enterprise using digital technology to upskill immigrants.
The effort aimed to provide these linguistically-diverse workers a glimpse of what it would be like to be fully-included in a country where English is the main spoken language.
The idea of translating and screening an English-language movie was mooted when the art collective’s head Kari Tamura Chua reached out to administrators in different universities to highlight the personal stories of migrant workers in Singapore. A goal of doing this was to present these workers as capable and creative individuals, contrary to how they are stereotyped as unskilled labourers.
“The whole point is for the audience to draw parallels between themselves and the migrant workers,” said Chua, who is spokesperson for Sama-Sama (Malay for “same same”), a migrant worker social justice movement that works with Healthserve, an NGO which gives foreign workers free medical, legal, social counselling and support, and outreach events.
In a video uploaded by Sama Sama, a worker who attended the screening said that he could only understand about 70% of the English subtitles. However, with the addition of Bengali subtitles, he understood the movie better and enjoyed it more. He was very thankful to the students and the art collective for initiating such an endeavour.
“Many of us get to watch movies of our choice anytime we want to, and we may take that for granted,” says Chua.
“Just having a lack of subtitles may mean that others can’t enjoy a movie the same way that we do,” she adds.
With this inclusion effort reportedly being rare, there remains a sentiment among foreign workers that they are not really counted as part of mainstream society.
Rich country, yet, reliant on low-wage migrants?
The Singapore Tourism Board rams a specific image of the city-state — luxury lifestyles, world-class attractions, and first-rate food. It’s one of the wealthiest nations globally, yet, its economy depends on over one million non-resident, low-wage temporary migrants who compose a third of Singapore’s four-million-strong labour force.
These workers are concentrated in industrial sectors like construction, shipbuilding and repair, as well as care-giving and household work, where they make up almost the entire labour force. They have been frequently recruited from their country of origin by agents or sub-agents of construction companies or care-giving agencies. They have been promised a well-paying job in Singapore and then assisted with permits, travel and accommodation for a recruitment fee that is high in comparison to their average income. Sometimes, the fee is withheld directly from their salary – even lowering the workers’ wages to the point that there’s no money left.
“Most of the these people are well-educated. They would have never done the same job in their country,” according to Debbie Fordyce, who manages the TWC2 Cuff Road Project, a meals programme for transient workers from Bangladesh and India who have ongoing claims with the Ministry of Manpower or their former employers. “They had aspirations and hope to find in Singapore a better life. But some of them get trapped in the employment’s debt and cannot find another way to pay off other than keep on working here.”
“Their life in Singapore comes under some rigid restrictions,” added Fordyce. “They don’t have the right to change their employers once they are here, there is no minimum salary – when there is salary at all – and they often work beyond the maximum working hours. They are not permitted to stay here even if they were to marry a Singaporean, they are not allowed to choose the place that they live and they are not allowed to remain here over a certain number of years,” Fordyce bewailed.
Foreign workers and labor mistreatment
Many foreign workers have been subjected to labor abuse and exploitation via debts owed to recruitment agents, non-payment of wages, constraints on movement, taking away of passports, and sometimes physical cruelty and sexual abuse.
In addition, the work permits of migrant workers in Singapore are tied to a specific employer, leaving workers defenseless against exploitation. Unfortunately, foreign domestic workers are still excluded from the Employment Act and from many major labor protections, like the limits on daily work hours. Labor laws also show prejudice when foreign workers are barred from organizing and registering a union or serving as union leaders without precise government authorization.
If these are the current scenarios, can it still be said that migrant workers are no longer left out?