Straits Times Managing Editor Han Fook Kwang penned a longish op-ed in the Sunday Times of 15 December 2013. While written in the wake of the riot that occurred a week earlier in Little India, the essay addresses wider concerns, calling for a more layered understanding of the men and women who come here to work, their backgrounds, aspirations and work conditions, and for a more self-reflective look at how Singapore engages with them.
It picks up a point that TWC2 has argued: “integration” which tends to connote a higher degree of social interaction and even some measure of cultural assimilation is a low-priority luxury:
[Foreign workers] know their stay here is transient, and prefer to be among themselves and do their own thing.
But even if Singaporeans do not want to mix with these communities, we ought to have a deeper understanding of who these people are, what brought them here, how they are doing and what issues they face.
Citizens here take pride that this is a multiracial country without harmonious relations among races and say that this is a value that defines the nation.
But this claim rings hollow if they want to have nothing to do with, and care not about, the well-being of hundreds of thousands of workers from the different nationalities here — Indians, Bangladeshis, mainland Chinese, Filipinos, Thais and Indonesians.
— Sunday Times, 15 Dec 2013, A world apart and invisible?
The article goes on to point out that migrant workers aren’t the poorest of the poor from these countries. They tend to have completed school and some even have college degrees. They are here because despite the education they have received, job opportunities in their home countries aren’t good.
Han points out that workers are charged “exorbitant fees” by agents for their jobs here.
With a monthly salary which can be as low as $700, many have to take up to a year just to repay the loans they have had to incur.
Citing what he had learned from a conversation with TWC2, Han highlighted the chief issues faced by these workers, including unpaid salaries, unilateral deductions, and unauthorised work for other companies (i.e. deployed by their employers to other work locations).
One contentious issue that activists have raised is the law that binds a worker to the company that hires him. He cannot leave unless the company agrees to the request. If he quits, he will likely be sent back, which will be financially ruinous for most.
Critics argue that this makes workers vulnerable to exploitative companies, which know they have the upper hand in any dispute.
Han argues that as Singapore restructures its economy to operate at a higher level, “the role played by its large foreign workers’ population needs to be reviewed.” This aim will require the “right conditions and incentives” and a change in our attitudes.
But if we continue to treat them as low-skilled economic digits, with whom we want to have as little to do as possible, they will deliver accordingly.
Then we deserve to suffer the consequences.