The Straits Times carried a feature report 18 July 2015 about Bangladeshi estate cleaners living in trash collection centres, commonly referred to as ‘bin centres’. Reporters visited eight such places across the island. The news story can be found by clicking the thumbnail below:

life_in_the_dumpsAmong the bin centres visited by the newspaper were two within the purview of Nee Soon Town Council. When contacted by the newspaper, a spokesman for the town council said, “All our contractors rent units and dormitory rooms for cleaners as their permanent living quarters.”

The newspaper also wrote:

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said it is aware of instances where foreign workers choose to move out of their provided accommodation for various reasons, without their employers’ knowledge.

In such cases, employers should update the ministry of any change in addresses and ensure that their workers are housed in conditions that comply with the relevant agencies’ rules.

The logic behind the above response is remark-worthy.

1.  If workers move out without the employers’ knowledge, employers (despite being in the dark) are to inform MOM of workers’ new addresses.

2. Bin centres have no formal addresses and clearly do not comply with habitation rules, but employers are to inform MOM?

In a nutshell, what the feature story uncovered is that block cleaners might have made their own decision to live in bin centres at their place of work, and their employers and town councils might have turned a blind eye to it over the years. When pressed, the authorities resort to boilerplate answers that serve to deny responsibility. As for why cleaners have made this decision, the article hints at reasons of convenience e.g. distance from official quarters and the lack of transport options especially when they have to work in the middle of the night.

Naturally, it raises the question why employers did not provide a holistic solution to accommodation, rest hours and transport, and why MOM does not require employers to think through the problem.

Tam Peck Hoon provided a far more insightful analysis of the issue in a letter published in the Straits Times 22 July 2015. She wrote:

We welcome the spotlight on the welfare of Bangladeshi cleaners in Housing Board estates (“Life in the dumps”; last Saturday).

Efforts to deal with the issue of workers sleeping, eating and resting in bin centres need to fully consider why workers have ended up there in the first place.

Bangladeshi cleaners in HDB estates typically work 12-hour days, every day. They do not get rest days. Those who clean the wet markets may work 16-hour days. They are on call 24/7 and may have to attend to residents’ demands at odd hours.

It was briefly mentioned in the article that cleaners may be resting in bin centres because these centres are closer to their workplace and less crowded than employer-provided housing.

The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics has heard of instances where workers are housed in remote locations, crammed conditions, and/or prohibited from cooking at employer-sponsored housing.

There are other disturbing dimensions of their working lives that need to be highlighted.

Bangladeshi cleaners’ recruitment fees are extremely high ($8,000 to $12,000 or more), while their starting basic salaries are as low as $400 a month, which is less than the foreign worker levy employers have to pay.

Workers are sometimes asked to pay $2,000 to $3,000 to renew their contracts, thus adding to the men’s considerable debt burdens.

It is vital to consider the broader context of “choices” made by migrant workers, and juxtapose any such judgments with the grim reality that workers may “prefer” to rest or reside in objectionable surroundings because of a lack of decent alternatives.

Raids to remove and prohibit workers from bin centres are surface interventions that may appear to solve the “problem” without substantively improving workers’ well-being.

Interventions to resolve poor living conditions must also take into account the exploitative working conditions of men who perform daily essential work in our country, and the grave asymmetries in bargaining power that lead many to live in the dumps in a country renowned for its high living standards.

Tam Peck Hoon (Ms)
Legal, Advocacy & Awareness
Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics

She is right to caution against ‘surface interventions’ that don’t really improve workers’ lives.