At a symposium organised by the Asia Research Institute, TWC2 head of research John Gee said that whilst globally, there had never been better protection in law for migrants’ rights, yet in many respects, their actual position was going backwards. Even in Singapore, he felt there has been progress, but placement costs represent one area in which things have gone backwards, and migrant workers have faced “deteriorating conditions”. In this aspect, he agreed with other panelists who described the trend as a “downward spiral”.
Researcher Grace Baey, who also volunteers with TWC2, noted that placement fees that used to be about $4,000 for the first job in the 1990s have now become $8,000 to $10,000. Previously, employers also respected workers’ right to annual leave.
In her paper, she revealed the results of a recent survey which showed that construction workers from Bangladesh needed an average of sixteen and a half months to discharge the cost of the placement fee. Two thirds of placement fees are funded through borrowings, so the cash demands are real and pressing, not just a matter of accounting. Her paper will be published online soon, at which time we will update this article to provide a link.
On average, workers found that they were able to provide less for their basic family needs and savings than they had hoped when starting out on a job. They ended up having to put aside more for loan repayments than they expected.
The symposium was titled “Migration and Construction in Asia”. It was kicked off with a multimedia presentation and a short video documentary (‘Gone home’) by Beyond the Border, Behind the Men, an arts group that aims to raise awareness about Bangladeshi workers in Singapore. The three-woman team travelled to Bangladesh in June 2014, visiting Munshiganj a district where many workers leave for Singapore. A booklet ‘Stories from Munshiganj’ containing still photographs of people they met and interviewed during their visit was placed on every seat.
An amusing fact emerged: there’s a market in Munshiganj called ‘Tekka market’, named after the same market in the Little India area of Singapore where migrant workers congregate.
Dr C.R. Abrar of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit, Dhaka, gave a talk about his research into internal migration of construction workers in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, pointing out its seasonal and cyclical nature. He began by recalling an incident some years ago when he was visiting Singapore with his wife and which got him interested in migration. He and his wife were out shopping when they met a Bangladeshi worker who approached them for advice as to what clothes to buy for his three-year old daughter. The young father had no idea. Abrar soon discovered that the young man had never seen his daughter; she was born after he came to Singapore. The encounter made a huge impression on him.
Abrar spoke about the lack of safety equipment and safety consciousness in the construction industry in the three countries he studied. When accidents happen, compensation, if any, would be negotiated informally. The key problem was that the industry was layered with contractors and subcontractors, and it is very easy in such a structure to deny responsibility for what happened at site. Moreover, internal migrants are poorly documented, which leads to a lack of social protection, and even proof that they were employed by the people they worked for. Without such documentation, it is very hard to insist on accountability on the part of employers and contractors.
He mentioned that in India, there is a law that says one percent of a construction project’s value must be paid into a fund for social protection of workers, but the fund is not proving useful in practice. As the workers are seasonal, transient and casual, it poses huge challenges identifying the intended beneficiaries.
On trans-national migration, Abrar noted from the example of the Bangladesh-Malaysia agreement that government-to-government agreements may not work either. The flow of workers has dwindled to very low levels, with Bangladeshis largely replaced by Nepalis in Malaysia. He didn’t fully explain why recruitment in Bangladesh has essentially seized up, beyond alluding to either inefficiency or corruption inherent in the government bureaucracy, or both. But he did raise the question: If a government, which is supposed to be the regulator, gets into the recruitment business, who regulates the government?
As the last speaker, John Gee was mostly taking up points that other speakers made earlier. However, in so doing, he focussed audience minds on a few key issues relevant to Singapore.
On the question of agent fees and indebtedness, he cautioned that increasing workers’ wages, difficult as it may be in itself, is no panacea. The chief aim of agents being to extract as much by way of fees as they can, if wages go up by 30 – 40 percent, so will their charges. It is essential to tackle the issue of middlemen, he stressed.
He also pointed to the gap between law and reality. Non-implementation of laws is a serious issue. “Standards may exist in law,”, he said, “but those standards may not be the case in reality”. He indicated a few areas, such as the injury compensation process, where implementation left much to be desired.
Echoing Abrar’s point about the layering of contractors and subcontractors, John noted that such a structure allows “people [to] shrug off their responsibilities.” But it can be easily corrected. He urged that labour standards be written into project tender documents and project contracts. “Government can set an example,” he said, “since they are responsible for so many big projects.” We should not allow the “passing of the buck” when workers suffer abuses and poor work conditions. “Standards must be written in” and “we must make the change at the top.”
Fourthly, John argued for the empowerment of workers. In particular, their work visa should not be tied to an employer — in effect, Singapore’s version of the much-reviled kafala sponsorship system. Workers need knowledge, but knowledge, whether about safety standards or their dues in terms of salary, cannot be translated into action if workers have no assurance of their rights being enforced or the security of employment. Job mobility — the same way that citizens can quit a bad employer for a better one — is essential. “If you empower them, they [the migrant workers] can be a considerable force in improving conditions.”
During question time, Ng Yiqin, a member of Beyond the Border, Behind the Men, spoke about a few men she met at a barbecue while visiting Bangladesh for their project. The men had been attending a skills training centre hoping to land a job in Singapore. However, the training centres take on far more trainees than there are testing slots. One man who had paid about $10,000 to the training centre, was still waiting for a testing slot twelve months after competing the training. “The others were in a similar situation,” she said. The tests are conducted by Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority.
The symposium was held on 28 November and moderated by Prof Brenda Yeoh of the Geography Department of the National University of Singapore. About 150 people attended.