By Debbie Fordyce

In trying to help injured and out-of-work migrant workers, we at TWC2 find ourselves dealing with a multitude of issues piling onto the same man at the same time. Some of them, such as injuries, are easier to see than others. Others, such as non-payment of salaries, are straightforward enough to grasp. Both are amenable to some action on our part even if quite often, neither we nor the Ministry of Manpower are able to deliver complete solutions.

But underlying these objective problems faced by the workers are emotional health issues caused by financial stress and the oversized responsibility placed on their shoulders as family breadwinners, especially when they are away from the love and support of family for extended periods. These are compounded when they are out of work.

Parents, siblings, spouses and children are often completely dependent on this man or woman to provide financially. The worker may be giving up his (the male pronoun shall serve both genders) own needs and surrendering himself to the demands of the employer to provide basic necessities, housing, schooling etc for the family. When the money isn’t enough, the family may suspect him of hoarding or using it frivolously.

He is likely to have borrowed heavily from extended family for the recruitment costs and those lenders are likely to be hounding the worker’s family for repayment, causing rifts and distrust. The worker may feel his own family doesn’t appreciate his sacrifices while he’s not able to explain that the boss isn’t paying, or is deducting, or that he’s injured and can’t work. He doesn’t know who to trust while he’s here, how to borrow more to tide him over, how to sustain himself. Often the intense need to provide for family means that workers see no future for themselves as all the money they send home is used up and they have nothing left to create a better life when they return home.

A recent story about Alam Mohammad Shahin (Life and happiness for some, a downward spiral for Alam) puts a face to this.

The mistreatment and low salaries that are the lot of many migrant workers would never be tolerated if applied to Singaporeans. Recruitment fees for low wage jobs, inability to switch jobs, hefty levies that continue to force down wages, unexpected deductions, no enforcement on salary slips and salary payments, etc, would cause a huge outcry if this affected Singaporeans. People justify these inequalities by saying the migrant workers knew what they were signing up for, they made bad decisions, they should have been more careful, and on the other hand these jobs are better than what they’d find at home and they should be grateful. While each may be partly true, there is insufficient appreciation of the desperation and lack of alternatives that surround these prior factors. A casual observer or commentator may not truly understand what it feels like to suffer the misrepresentation and coercion involved in hiring and employment practices, and, after coming to Singapore, the daily indignity of having to bow to exploitation and the corrosive fear of losing that hard-won job. Reasons for workers putting up with this are rarely well understood.

Instead, there is needless focus on segregation and integration. Segregation is too often mistakenly seen as a problem for foreign workers, and providing greater inclusion as the solution. Nobody seems to ask why integration is so important when these workers are not allowed the right to settle here permanently and become citizens.

In any case, the workers themselves do not see social segregation as a major problem, nor greater inclusion as the answer to the problems they face. Their problems are about abusive and unequal treatment, financial traps and the absence of a social safety net.

These days Singapore is talking about inequalities, and yet leaving out these workers entirely. Should they be part of this conversation?