In late June 2017, Channel NewsAsia asked Transient Workers Count Too for a commentary article with the suggested theme of “whether we think migrant workers are an integral part of Singapore society, following reports of how many have to head back given the slowing economy.”

The article we submitted (in early July) is below.

After we sent in our draft, CNA asked for a series of changes, one of which was that our commentary ought to have “also considered macroeconomic priorities and realities, and societal ramifications” — code in Singapore for speaking within the box as drawn by the government.

We declined their offer of space.

Here is the aborted article (original version):

With regard to low-wage foreign workers, the themes of ‘showing appreciation’ and ‘promoting integration’ are commonly voiced. Although the intentions behind them may be laudable, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) thinks they are largely beside the point. They risk being distractions from dealing with the more pressing issues faced by those who build our city, clean our homes and help man our industries.

Integration is salient when a migrant community is meant to stay on and become a permanent part of a society. It is not when the community is only here for the short term, with no prospect of becoming Singaporean residents or citizens.

Showing appreciation hardly substitutes for the salary they do not get even when owed to them, or for the medical care and injury compensation denied them.

The latter are among the issues we must address. Our recently launched research study, “Labour Protection for the Vulnerable”, highlights the many gaps in our systems that leave foreign workers in the lurch. It is one thing to have laws in place – and even then, our study has found many loopholes in legislation. It is worse when operationally, there exist so many administrative blind spots and latent bias that fairness and justice become elusive.

For example, foreign workers with salary claims are made to represent themselves in tribunals and hearings, when language, educational level and grasp of law are huge challenges for them. There are no safeguards against employer claims of employees’ consent to reduced salaries, when so-called consent had been coerced from workers.

Inherently, as non-resident non-citizens, foreign workers have weak bargaining power vis-a-vis employers, but the troubling thing is how the thrust of our rules further weaken their position rather than, in the interest of fairness, compensate for it.

This is extremely short-sighted. Leaving the door wide open to cheap and exploited labour contradicts the policy aim of raising productivity. So long as employers continue to have easy access to a cheap workforce on whom they can make unreasonable demands such as excessive working hours and no rest day, there is no incentive to change.

Recruitment costs from certain source countries like Bangladesh are going through the roof. TWC2 has come across many workers who have had to pay amounts equivalent to two or three years of basic salary. The debt burden they bear undermines their bargaining power and leaves them vulnerable to exploitative demands.

We might say that such recruitment fees were paid outside Singapore jurisdiction, but if its effects are visited on our economy and negates our aims of improving productivity, we would be foolish to shrug our shoulders and do nothing.

To address the failings we have identified, TWC2 has made many recommendations over the years. The ones which we think should be implemented urgently, are these:

  • No employer should be permitted to hire foreign workers unless these workers have written employment contracts that meet stipulated minimum standards, and no subsequent amendment to the terms of employment adverse to the employee should be allowed unless the question of employee’s consent meets the highest level of scrutiny.
  • All foreign workers already in Singapore should be free to change jobs within their industry sector without the need to obtain employers’ consent. Currently, workers have to seek employers’ rarely-given permission, and thus do not have a substantive option of resigning, since doing so means having to go home and pay agents thousands of dollars again to get new jobs. Once workers have job mobility locally, employers are less likely to be abusive and exploitative.
  • In source countries where extremely high recruitment fees are regularly imposed, Singapore companies should be barred from hiring through private, profit-making middlemen. Hiring should only be allowed via Singapore-licensed non-profit enterprises that recruit directly from those source countries without relying on layers of rent-seeking intermediaries.

In certain industries such as construction and manufacturing where investment in training and skills are needed to achieve productivity goals, we should also be tweaking the rules to favour those foreign workers who are already here and have acquired experience, over fresh hires from abroad. As things are, employers find fresh hires, with their lower salary expectations and weaker resistance to demands for kickbacks, more attractive than retaining experienced workers. To counter this tendency that hurts our economy’s broader interests, partially closing the door to fresh recruits should be considered.

TWC2’s chief concern is that the workers whom we bring in and who are here should be treated fairly. They should be paid what they have been promised and avenues of redress should be effective, not illusory. We do not take a view as to how many foreign workers should be admitted into Singapore or the maximum duration of stay. We fully understand Singapore’s land constraints. Nor do we see anything wrong with the principles behind a guest worker model — one where, in any economic slowdown, repatriation necessarily goes up.

But we argue that ill-treatment and exploitation of foreign workers ultimately contribute to a widening income gap even among local citizens, damage our national reputation internationally, coarsen our society and impede our own economic progress.