Message to mark
International Migrants’ Day, 2011

by Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2)

Migrants on temporary work permits have long been the backbone of Singapore’s economy. Today, there are 870,000 migrant workers in Singapore comprising two in seven workers in the Singapore workforce. These workers keep our houses clean, take care of our families, sweep our roads, build our homes and city, trim the trees and bushes that line our roads, ensure that the grass that make up our green fields is kept short, and toil away in our shipyards and factories at hard but necessary jobs that Singaporeans no longer want to do.

We join the global community on this day in celebrating International Migrants’ Day paying tribute and thanks to the immense contribution that migrant workers have made to our lives and the economic development of our country. Migrant workers on work permits in Singapore lead a hard life. In wanting a better life for themselves and their families, they have no choice but to endure separation from their loved ones. Their spouses and children are not entitled to dependent visas and their parents are not entitled to extended social visit passes unlike other migrants who are holders of professional employment passes. Nor are they,  in choosing to work here, entitled to form a family; migrant workers who are found pregnant or have married a Singaporean or a permanent resident of the country without official permission face immediate deportation.

All humans are born free but we know for a fact that migrant workers in this country are bound and shackled in many ways. First, the labour migration framework that is set out to encourage the flourishing of business curtails their autonomy as free workers in multiple ways:

  • Their right of stay in the country is wholly dependent on the sponsorship of an employer who is given the unilateral right to cancel the work permit of a migrant worker and repatriate him or her without notice.
  • Migrant workers are not allowed to seek work and transfer to another employer without the permission of their existing employer thus having no job mobility unlike other workers.
  • This gives employers opportunities to exploit, opportunities that some cannot resist.
  • A particularly egregious aspect of the situation in Singapore is the use of repatriation companies to get rid of workers who hvae rightful claims that employers do not want to honour.
  • The framework also discourages employers from building healthy relationships with migrant workers based on mutual trust as the former shoulder the risk of losing a security bond worth $5,000 should they not be able to repatriate migrant workers whose work permit have been terminated or those who breach the conditions of their work permit.

Second, migrant workers are shackled and bound by debt that they have taken up to service exorbitant fees charged by labour agents and employers in seeking work and in renewing their contracts in Singapore. The pressure of servicing the debt, which is equivalent to up to a year’s salary, compels them to put up with unfair treatment at work, unreasonable, and at times illegal demands by employers.  In the absence of action to enact a fairer system of recruitment and hiring, and taking to task employers and other individuals that break the rules on kickbacks, migrant workers continue to be victimised.

Third, migrant workers are shackled and bound by the prejudicial mindset of employers, employment agents and the larger public that curtails their freedom and right to live as free individuals with dignity. This prejudicial mindset has led to a line being drawn between migrant workers and the rest of the population justifying the idea that migrant workers are deserving of less. This has led to mean actions and behavior such as physical and verbal abuse of migrant workers, inhumane treatment and unfair judgments and negative stereotypes of their personhood.

When TWC2 was first registered as a society in 2004, the objective was to self-destruct within a span of time as by doing so would signal that we would have successfully achieved our vision of promoting fair, dignified and respectful treatment of migrant workers. Seven years on, the work of the organisation has instead expanded mainly in response to the needs that we see on the ground. As we continue to extend a helping hand to migrant workers in need, we see injustice at every turn. On International Migrants’ Day, we urge every level of the society to take a pause from their hectic pursuits and pay tribute to migrant workers for their invaluable contribution to Singapore. Without them, our economy and households will collapse. More importantly, we also urge everyone to reflect deeply on the root causes of the injustices faced by migrant workers and make it our concern so that together we can take bold steps to effect change and evolve into a more caring and compassionate society that does not take lightly the abuse of the fundamental human rights of another human being.