“COI into Little India riot suggests sensible and practical ways to improve their lives ” says the subheader to a column by journalist Radha Basu in the Sunday Times of 6 July 2014. The article focussed on the recommendations contained in the Report of the Committee of Inquiry (into the recent riot) to improve the situation faced by non-domestic foreign workers, noting that:

Even so, the committee clarified that while work or housing woes were not the cause of this riot, “this is not to say that a riot may never occur on this basis”.

That’s something the authorities and employers should heed, given the growing numbers of foreign workers in Singapore.

The report highlighted the high employment agency fees migrant workers have to pay. Basu wrote:

Such costs often put the workers into heavy debt for significant periods of time.

She cited that fees could be as high as $9,000 and pointed to TWC2’s 2012 survey which showed that a fifth of Bangladeshi workers could be returning home without even recovering recruitment costs. At an average of $7,500, the upfront fees came to more than 17 months of a beginner’s average basic pay.

She also pointed out that there could be a model from Malaysia worth copying:

Bangladesh, a source country for a growing number of foreign workers here, already has a database on its nationals who are eager to work in Malaysia as part of a bilateral arrangement with that country.

A semi-government agency has been set up to manage the recruitment, and prospective employees can submit their CVs at those centres free of charge. Such a scheme could be explored in Singapore too.

The article noted how wages of foreign workers have stagnated over the years, leading them to work unsafe long hours to earn enough.

But migrant workers’ groups like TWC2 and Home still see cases of workers who earn as little as $16 a day before overtime, much as they did a decade ago.

The Sunday Times has been shown payslips of workers who still earn $2 or less an hour for construction or marine work, which is physically demanding, difficult and dangerous.

The poorest Singaporean workers, meanwhile, can easily earn $5 or more an hour – $40 a day – for jobs that are far less demanding. This yawning gap must be narrowed.

One such payslip is discussed in greater detail in an article on this website. See Two dollars per hour. Moreover, the article mentions TWC2′ salary survey which found that one in three workers were not paid their correct salaries.

The Sunday Times article concludes:

Some Singaporeans have long held the belief that if foreign workers don’t like what they get here, they are free to go back.

But such attitudes don’t just lack humanity; they could hurt labour productivity and Singapore’s plans to renew itself by building a new airport terminal and a new waterfront city and relocating its world-famous port.