Here are five reasons why the exploitation of low-wage migrant workers hurts Singaporeans’ interests.
Wages are depressed
When employers get away with paying extremely low wages, or worse, promising low wages, but in actual fact paying even less than that through all sorts of illegal deductions, there is a general lowering of wage levels for low-skilled Singaporeans. While certain industries see almost no Singaporeans in them, e.g. shipyard and construction labourers, others contain a mix of Singaporeans and foreign Work Permit holders, such as in cleaning services and manufacturing. Singaporean wages cannot be isolated from Work Permit holders’ wages as a result. There is no incentive for employers to pay decent wages to low-skill Singaporeans when they can get away with desultory salaries for foreigners.
Labour churn, low productivity and large numbers
Some employers (and they aren’t few) make money out of the placement fees that workers pay upfront for their jobs. This is illegal but the kickback practice remains widespread. The result is that these employers have no interest in retaining workers. The greater the turnover of workers, they more money they make.
A high churn rate means employers have no incentive to train and upskill their workers. That in turn means that productivity in industries that rely on migrant labour remains low, which in turn means they need large numbers of workers to perform a job when fewer, higher-skilled workers could do the same. The result is an unnecessarily large number of foreign workers here to achieve the same output.
Large numbers and social cost
Large numbers of foreign workers create visible social costs, e.g. crowding on transport systems, demand on healthcare services. They also create less visible costs. For example, large number of foreign workers treated badly by their employers naturally generate large numbers of complaints, which then means large government departments (and government budgets) having to deal with disputes.
Labour churn and social friction
High turnover rates of foreign workers mean that workers have little time to adjust to Singapore’s social norms. The shorter their stay in Singapore is, the less likely they are to pick up any English. Nor do they have enough time to learn about expected social behaviour. The gulf can mean misunderstanding and social friction. Workers who have been in Singapore for five years or more fit in better.
Damage to Singapore’s reputation abroad
Eventually, workers return home. They will be the source of much casual information about Singapore and Singaporean businesses in their villages and hometowns. Especially given the large numbers that come through our city-state, the impact on Singapore’s reputation abroad should not be underestimated. When Singapore companies then go and invest in these countries, the resulting “bad press” can be detrimental to their fortunes, even if these companies had not been responsible for any exploitation here at home.
It is not in Singaporeans’ interest to turn a blind eye to exploitation of migrant workers. Our own society, economy and well-meaning businesses pay a price for it.