A street in Little India. Photo: Reuters/Ajlazeera

A street in Little India. Photo: Reuters/Ajlazeera

Aljazeera quoted TWC2 in its story dated 18 December 2013 on the Little India riot (Singapore soul searching follows migrant riot, by Tom Benner and Satish Cheney).

It quoted  TWC2 president Russell Heng saying: “We believe that chronic maltreatment and disempowerment can lead to a sense of frustrated alienation, which may set the tone in how migrant workers view authority.”

It also cited the stand of Workfair Singapore:

Vincent Wijeysingha, an activist with the group Workfair Singapore, said: “What we are saying is that given that we have had years of very exploitative conditions, isn’t it sensible to at least pose the question as to whether those (labour) grievances might have had some relationship to the riot?”

The activist group was handing out flowers to migrant workers, police officers and passers-by on Sunday evening at the site of the riot one week earlier.

The report tried but found it difficult to get responses from workers to the incident.

Most South Asian migrant workers approached for comment declined to be interviewed, citing fears they might get into trouble somehow.

However, one construction worker from Tamil Nadu, India, speaking on condition of anonymity, described his harsh life in Singapore briefly.

“I work about 10 hours a day in the hot sun, six days a week. The work is difficult but I have to do it for my family in India because they depend on me,” he said in Tamil.

“The accommodation is not good, but I don’t want to complain. I can adjust and I am okay with it. My focus is just to earn money and support my family no matter any hardship.”

Aljazeera mentioned that the government says there are existing channels for migrant worker grievances and that they have dealt with 3,700 employment related claims in 2013 so far. It also reported Acting Manpower Minister’s claim (made on Facebook) that most of the cases are usually settled within a month.

“We have about nearly 1 million foreign workers on work permits. These cases amount to less than one per cent of the workforce. Every problem is one case too many but neither should we generalise without basis,” he pointed out.

However, Workfair Singapore said that the number of complaints is not a true reflection of the exploitation faced by lowly-paid migrant workers.

In a statement to the media it said, “Many workers choose to work and live under oppressive conditions for fear of losing their jobs should they report to the authorities.”

“For migrant workers, this is exacerbated by huge recruitment debts and the inflexible work pass system which disallows them from switching jobs,” it added.

Again citing TWC2’s observations,

The vast majority – around 80 per cent – of guest workers hold low-skilled jobs that are considered undesirable by Singapore standards. Construction workers, for example, a field dominated by male workers from India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, earn a basic monthly salary of between S$460 and S$700 (US$366 and US$560), according to TWC2. The average Singaporean monthly wage is about S$4,433 (US$3,532).

TWC2 says migrant workers frequently pay thousands of dollars in agency fees to secure a job in Singapore, and are routinely shortchanged and threatened with deportation by unscrupulous employers.