A year ago, in June 2020, TWC2 organised a delivery of standing fans to a dormitory. It was one of countless deliveries of essential items we made during the months-long lockdown of worker dormitories. The men were grateful and sent us several photographs of the fans being put to good use.

At that time, we didn’t think of writing this article. At TWC2, giving and service is something we do out of goodwill, not because we are out for any accolades. But the background in the header image and in the second of the next two photos is now suddenly pertinent, and this piece needs to be written.

Dorm residents receiving several fans for themselves and their mates

At risk of heat stroke without a fan

Behind their beds are corrugated iron walls. Elsewhere, it’s bare concrete. In our tropical climate when midday temperatures are routinely 32 degrees, sometimes reaching 35 degrees, the heat within these oven-like dorms might have reached 40 degrees and been unbearable.

The room — if one can call it that — is spartan in the extreme. One can barely imagine what the bathrooms or kitchens must have been like.

This is not new. Foreign workers have been housed like this for as long as we can remember. But this is now newsworthy — and only partly because of Covid-19.

Wanting to go home

The number of construction, marine and process (CMP) work permit holders declined by 60,000 (about 16 percent) in 2020. Relatively early in the pandemic, we had an exodus of Chinese workers. More recently, we’ve seen a steady attrition of Indian and Bangladeshi workers.

Whilst, as discussed extensively in our recent articles, e.g. this one, this and this, many workers had actually wanted to stay and continue working but were involuntarily sent home by their bosses — and we estimate that we lost about 10,000 to 20,000 workers this way, excerbating our labour crunch — thousands more really did want to go home.

Even now, when transfer jobs are easy to find and “agent fees’ virtually at zero, both attributable to the labour shortage, men still ask to go home.

The term “homesick” has been used, but it does a poor job of explaining the dynamics. Longing for home is a relative thing. It looms larger when the place you’re in fails to give you satisfaction. And larger still, when it is positively painful to be where you are.

Out of politeness, when asked why they still want to go home, the workers may say it’s their own wish and that they’re homesick, instead of itemising the many things that are intolerable about the host country.  Like someone tendering a letter of resignation from a job because the work culture is toxic, the words in the letter still espouse thanks to the company and superior for the opportunities, the learning experience and the support received while there.

It would be a foolish company to take these words at face value.

Ditto for a host country.

Low wages at home are better than imprisonment and injustice in Singapore

Workers are more transparent when talking to TWC2 than when they speak to ministry officials. We know the reasons why some workers (too many!) choose to go home even when transfer jobs are plentiful.

Their reasons?

  • Their dorms were locked down and they were effectively in interment camps for some six months;
  • During that time, many did not get any salary;
  • Even after the lockdown was loosened, their movements remained restricted and they were allowed to leave their dorms for only a few hours a week, which made it impossible to go out freely to visit shops, friends and places of worship;
  • In May 2021, they were locked down again and banned from leaving their dorms;
  • When they file a salary case, it takes as many as nine months to get resolution during which time the government insists that they remain unemployed;

In other words, even if they win their salary claim and get restitution, the lost earnings from the months of mandatory unemployment make a mockery of “justice”. Knowing this, workers soon see Singapore as a place that institutionally short-changes them.

And of course, as seen from the photos above, the housing conditions are miserable.

At the start of 2021, when New Year greetings were being exchanged, we received a note of thanks from a worker, via Facebook. But what’s significant is how he described his life in 2020: “Pandemic, work injury & imprisoned life in the dormitory for more than 9 month!”

And “No earning source to support family though they’re depend on me!”

Another worker we met at our free meals station said bitterly, “I come to Singapore to work, I did not volunteer to become a prisoner.”

As is well known, some companies have toxic work cultures, driving away talent. What we may be less ready to recognise is that an entire country can have a toxic environment driving away the migrant workers we need. It’s not something we can solve with a few standing fans.

It’s a systemic issue, rooted in how Singapore sees migrant workers as less than human with no rights. It’s also rooted in the view that it is totally justifiable (and even good for Singapore!) to pay third-world wages and insist on jail-like conditions while paying first-world salaries to the “expats” we want to attract — and our own elites.

We also confuse their desperation for paid work for their “love” of Singapore, deluding ourselves that we’re such an attractive place. This is a dangerous delusion, because once payment vanishes (e.g. through lock-down or salary abuses that are not rectified promptly) our attractiveness vanishes too. Even “sub-humans” can vote with their feet.