TWC2 receives numerous requests from students embarking on project work, or fulfilling other school requirements. While we are pleased that students are keen to find out more about migrant workers and to devise projects to make positive changes in their lives, we find that students often approach TWC2 with preconceived assumptions about the problems that affect migrant workers.

Students are taught that Singapore is a multi-racial, multi-lingual harmonious society, that we are empowered to find the job that suits us, and able to switch jobs if one doesn’t work out. We expect to find meaning and fulfillment in our work, to achieve our potential and we assume that the same is true for everyone in Singapore.

Not so for migrant workers. The restrictions of the work permit prevent the men and women from switching jobs, ties them to one employer, requires the domestic workers to live with their employers and the men to live where the company places them. They have no minimum salary and most are expected to pay massive amounts to recruiters for the job, causing them to hesitate to complain about illegal deductions or kickbacks before they repay the amount of their recruitment fees.

Here are some of the common misconceptions that students hold. Please don’t be deterred from engaging with migrant worker issues; rather, but think more comprehensively about what migrant workers need and want, and what can be done to assist them. The TWC2 website is a good place to start to learn more.

More inclusion?

A work-permit allows low-wage workers to enter Singapore but excludes them from attaining residency or citizenship in Singapore, from having family join him/her, from switching jobs, and from choosing where s/he lives. They are not allowed to remain in Singapore permanently and their capacity to exercise choice in Singapore is severely constrained. Work permit holders often pay thousands of dollars to recruiters and middlemen to secure a job in Singapore. Many sell land, or borrow from banks or relatives. Migrant workers therefore are heavily in debt when they arrive, and so are reluctant to complain about salary non-payment or underpayment or unfair working conditions lest they be terminated from the job, and return to a family ruined by the debt. Paying back this debt and ensuring that their families are better off than before they arrived in Singapore is the primary goal of migrant workers. Inclusion is rarely possible and is not the objective of the Singapore government, nor of the workers themselves.

Most workers have a positive impression of Singapore and Singaporeans. They say “Singapore very nice, only boss problem”. Migrant workers strive to support their families, not to be included in Singaporean society. If they do have a day off, they choose to spend it with people who speak their language, who eat the same food, and enjoy the same forms of relaxation.

Show appreciation?

Many students want to show appreciation for migrant workers as a way of improving their welfare. Migrant workers never say that they feel unappreciated. Rather they feel angry towards employers who do not pay them properly or who prevent them from accessing medical treatment for workplace injuries. They worry for their family when they’re required to wait months or years for the resolution of the claim process, but not permitted to work during that time. They don’t read xenophobic sentiments expressed online, and so they’re largely unaware of the negative attitudes.

Showing appreciation will not encourage workers to work more efficiently. Showing gratitude or highlighting the work and achievements of migrant workers is commendable, but it should not delude us into thinking that the failure of laws and regulations to protect migrant workers can be addressed in this way.

A win-win solution?

All Singaporeans benefit from the work permit system that controls migrant workers. Keeping wages low ensures that Singaporeans can pursue grand developments at minimal cost. Half of all Bangladeshi workers earn less than $20 a day and the employer may further deduct the costs of housing and food from his salary, often leaving the worker with very little to send home. Similarly, Singaporeans stand to gain from having a domestic worker who is on call at all hours. We stand to gain from the fact that domestic workers have little space or time to themselves but it’s hard to confirm that the workers themselves benefit. Most send money home to pay for basic needs and to repay recruitment fees, and have little or no savings to improve their lives when they return home.

Context matters

Studies that show what has worked for migrants elsewhere may not be applicable here. If migrants are allowed to remain and settle in Singapore, have their family join them, purchase HDB and send children to local schools, then inclusion is a reasonable goal. Given the various restrictions on migrant workers, this is of limited utility and may not be an appropriate objective.

You may also use these links to find out more about migrant workers:

You may also want to watch these videos men TWC2 has assisted with their work-injury cases:

On our website, you can also find regularly updated stories about the cases we see. You can also learn more about the work we do with migrant workers.