Commentary by Jamie Lin Weirong

Humanitarian organisations such as TWC2 have long been advocating for the proper treatment of foreign workers in Singapore. The appeals against the abuse of foreign labour often revolve around notions of ‘justice’, ‘fairness’ and ‘dignity’, principles with an obvious enough value. Though these workers might not look like us or speak like us, though they have voluntarily arrived here to be at the mercy of our laws and practices, though they are willing to work long, hard hours for low pay, they remain, first and foremost, fellow human beings, and like us deserve fair and dignified treatment. They ought to be seen as ends in themselves and not only means to our ends.

Humanitarian organisations work on at least two fronts: the provision of relief to workers that have been ill-treated, and the call for the enactment and enforcement of laws to reduce further ill-treatment. Yet, if the value of these humanitarian principles are as self-evident as they appear, why does it seem that government agencies and construction companies need to be persuaded to respect them? Why does exploitation remain widespread and enforcement lacklustre? This article suggests that despite appearances, these principles are far from universal, and that the natural functioning of both the state and businesses requires that their priorities be on other values instead.

A Society of Systems

To understand these points it would help to think of society as made up of systems. Modern society is a complex entity whose effective functioning relies on its division into smaller systems, each dealing with a specific task. The assumption here is that complexity is managed by ‘differentiation’, or compartmentalising and simplifying roles that each system fulfils, similar to the way bureaucracies divide and organise labour into specialised tasks.

Each system focuses primarily on its own role: the economic system, for instance, is concerned with the economic, the legal system with the legal, the political with the political and so on. Of course, there are divisions within systems as well, such as within the economic system where you can have different industries and further, different corporations and firms, but the fact that they are all part of the economic system means that the way they function is, by and large, rather similar.

Every system has a specific principle (or usually a set of principles) that organises it, telling it which aspects of society to pay attention to. Systems rarely share principles, which means that they are more or less closed off from each other. Principles allow the system to deal with reality’s complexity by dividing it into areas that are relevant to its functioning and areas that aren’t. So for instance, if we take the economic system to be organised by the principle of profitability, then the entities dealt with by the system, entities such as natural resources, employees, infrastructure and so on, are meaningful chiefly in the degree to which they affect the bottom line.

Adhering strictly to this principle allows the economic system to be highly efficient because resources and effort are directed to address only that which is truly important. Complicated corporate decisions that could potentially involve an impossible amount of factors, for instance, are simplified to involve only those that concern profitability. These simplifications allow a potentially infinite amount of social demands to be dealt with using a finite amount of time and resources. They allow systems to specialise and to flourish.

The issue of the exploitation of foreign labour can be situated at the intersection of three systems: the economic (construction companies and their affiliates), the political (the state and its apparatus), and the humanitarian (NGOs such as TWC2 and HOME).

The Economic

Businesses have to generate profits to remain competitive. Although they can and often do have other interests such as employee welfare, ecological sustainability or corporate social responsibility, the fact is that consistently making a loss results in bankruptcy, and bankruptcy naturally invalidates all these other plans as well. Therefore, the organising principle of business has to do with profitability, not always out of a malicious self-interest, but because it is the primary means of perpetuating the business.

When it comes to construction companies and their policies, exploiting foreign labour unfortunately makes a lot of economic sense. The combination of the lack of a minimum wage and a relatively strong Singaporean dollar results in low wages that still have the ability to attract foreign labour. The plentiful supply via our reasonably open borders means that such an asset is both cheap and replaceable. In the event that a worker ceases to be cheap (for instance in a case of injury compensation) [footnote 1], it is economically ‘sensible’ for companies to seek to evade responsibility. This is enabled by the ease with which replacement workers can be found and the somewhat irregular enforcement on the part of government agencies. This same economic logic also accounts, at least in part, for the workers’ low wages, inadequate housing and welfare, unjustified salary deductions and so forth. The profit motive is exhaustive in its effort to lower costs and increase revenue [footnote2].

With limited resources and capabilities, entities within the economic system have to be proficient at assessing the demands being made upon them, focusing primarily on what ensures their subsistence. For these reasons, it isn’t that companies don’t understand appeals for ‘dignity’ or ‘justice’ being made; rather, it is the fact that these principles, even if valuable, have little traction in an arena where considerations of profit are what ultimately matter. Within such a perspective, it is difficult to see workers as human beings needing care and welfare instead of abstract representations of costs and returns. It doesn’t help that the principle of profitability isn’t concerned with a minimum amount of profit, but the maximisation of profit within legal bounds, which usually means that every effort is made to increase returns and reduce costs.

In order for humanitarian appeals to be effective, they must speak a language the system understands. If businesses care mainly for monetary gain, then financial penalties or rewards are the most effective means of inducing compliance. This is in part why efforts to have the state pass and enforce laws to monetarily penalise errant companies (or reward compliant ones) are so important. These efforts stem not from an over-dependency born of paternalism, but a belief that laws are a straightforward way of translating the humanitarian language into an economic one.

The Political

The state, too, has its own organising principle(s). At least in the case of one that is democratically elected, a government needs to be concerned with its re-election. Again, it can and does pursue many other policies besides this, but because they would mean very little if it didn’t win a consecutive term, it needs to ensure continuity above all. And to do so, it has to pay particularly close attention to issues that concern the voters.

With such a goal in mind, one can perhaps understand why the exploitation of foreign labour is not as high a priority as NGOs think it should be. The issue is first at one remove from the voter population because as foreigners these exploited individuals are without a vote. In addition, their plight remains largely concealed from voters, for abuse can be discreet. Late salaries, unlawful deductions or the evasion of injury compensation payments are not visible problems, and the language barrier means that there is little, if any, dialogue between locals and workers. Enclaving workers in designated areas ensures that their poor living conditions or general impoverishment is removed from the view of most Singaporeans. And the fact that these difficulties rarely attract the attention of the mainstream media only makes things worse. All this means that the majority of Singaporeans – the same majority to whom the state pays the most attention – are left unaware of what these workers face.

Here the same problem is present. It isn’t that the state doesn’t understand the humanitarian appeals for such as ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’, but that to them, these considerations have to remain secondary. e state has limited resources, which are in its opinion best deployed to meet the needs of those it considers important [footnote 3]. Again, the idea is that systems use these principles to filter the complexity of society’s demands, so that they might focus their efforts on that which truly deserves their attention. And that which deserves attention usually has some sort of concrete connection to selfpreservation.

The state doesn’t have the resources to handle everything that comes its way, so until these issues of exploitation begin to directly involve a large group of Singaporeans or represent their views or concerns, they will likely remain a peripheral concern [footnote 4].

The Necessity of Translation

Humanitarian organisations often use a language based on human rights, appealing to such as ‘dignity’, ‘fairness’, ‘justice’, and the like. While on the surface these concepts might seem to have a degree of resonance within public imagination, their influence on systems is limited to a rather general appeal to conscience or goodwill. Within these arenas, they will always remain subordinate to interests that centre around self-preservation. Indeed, far from being universally held, these ideals too are largely system-specific, particular to such as humanitarian or philanthropic organisations.

It is, of course, the hope of these organisations that in time to come, a respect for these ideals will eventually inform the functioning of society as a whole. But until then, if humanitarian appeals seek to be effective within other domains, they must be made legible. To discourage exploitative business practices, exploitation must be made an unprofitable practice. Or conversely, an adherence to ethical labour standards must be made profitable. An ethical business is simply a business for which ethics makes good economic sense. Similarly, to encourage more decisive state intervention, the general public must know and care about these issues. If they are an important concern in the hearts and minds of Singaporeans, they will naturally become a priority of the state. Left untranslated, however, these humanitarian ideals appear as more or less ‘noise’ in other domains, as vaguely good or worthwhile beliefs, yet ones that will always command little attention or action.


1 As workers often earn a daily salary of less than S$30, medical fees in the event of an accident (whether a one-off payment for procedures or partial monthly pay during recuperation) can easily raise this cost severalfold.

2 That the construction process comprises various stages where supply-side entities bid for contracts means that ensuring competitive costs is a particularly important goal. The practice of contracting and subcontracting the work involved allows these companies to specialise and become very proficient at what they do, but at the same time it also means that profit margins are squeezed at every stage, increasing the likelihood of exploitation. A similarly intricate supply chain (along with company secrecy) was what made it difficult for watchdogs to evaluate the labour conditions of Apple’s suppliers in their investigations following the incidents at Foxconn factories.

3 Even if one assumes the state to be interested, diverting resources to address the foreign worker situation may not be very well received, for voters – particularly those who are themselves trapped in less than ideal working conditions – might prefer the state to attend to the concerns of locals before assisting those others who presumably have a smaller stake in society.

4 The article has described the political and the economic systems as having only one governing principle. This is a simplification for the means of illustration. It is more likely that they are governed by a set of related principles, depending specifically on the interests of their stakeholders. Yet the crux of the analysis – the mechanism by which each system’s judgments and priorities rest on these principles and the necessity of translating principles so that one system may be intelligible to another – remains very much the same.