Although the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination adopted by the United Nations and opened for signature and ratification in 1965, Singapore only signed it in 2015 and ratified it in November 2017.

The scope of the Convention is set out in Part I (articles 1 to 4).

Article 1 says:

In this Convention, the term “racial discrimination” shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.

Article 2 adds:

This Convention shall not apply to distinctions, exclusions, restrictions or preferences made by a State Party to this Convention between citizens and non-citizens.

Even though it is entirely understandable that a State can make distinctions between citizens and non-citizens, Singapore further subdivides non-citizens into numerous categories with vastly different rights and privileges (or lack of) between them. These categories tend to map over national or ethnic origin and, we would argue, fall foul of the Convention.

For example, foreign domestic workers, who hold Work Permits and who are almost all from Indonesia, Philippines, Myanmar, India and Sri Lanka, are regulated differently from other Work Permit holders in, say, construction or services. Domestic workers are denied the protections of the Employment Act and the Work Injury Compensation Act.

Even among Work Permit holders in construction, some nationalities are commonly shoved into dormitories – with the Ministry of Manpower virtually arm-twisting workers to stay in the dormitory that their employer has chosen — while others are free to rent apartments or stay wherever they want. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, those workers (and those nationalities/ethnic groups) that tend to be directed to dormitories have, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, been confined for over a year with tight controls over when they can go out for leisure.

Certain industry sectors are only open to Work Permit holders from certain countries. Take the Services sector, for example, which term includes transportation, retail, wholesale, restaurants and hotels. The Ministry of Manpower states explicitly on its website that only people from Malaysia, Greater China, and South Korea can take up Work Permit jobs in Services. Someone from Sri Lanka, Ukraine or Vietnam cannot. Singapore has hard-coded a differentiation by national origin in its policies.

Then there are huge differences between Employment Pass holders and Work Permit holders. One group can have their families with them in Singapore, but the latter cannot. In fact, the latter cannot even register a marriage with a Singaporean citizen or Permanent Resident, without prior approval from the government.

And as many people know, the distinction between an Employment Pass holder and a Work permit holder maps over more than qualifications and earning potential; it often maps over colour and national origin too.

Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics submitted a joint report to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for the 2021 reporting cycle. The PDF is attached and can be downloaded by clicking the icon at right.

In early December 2021, the CERD Committee in Geneva issued its report and recommendations for Singapore. It contains a substantial section on migrant workers, which we quote below:

Migrant workers

23. The Committee is concerned that:

(a) The Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, which governs employment conditions of migrant domestic workers, lacks adequate protection of their labour rights;

(b) Migrant workers are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by their employers mainly because their work permits are tied to their current employers who have to give them consent for changing jobs;

(c) Female migrant workers are subjected to mandatory testing for pregnancy and infectious diseases, and are deported upon failing these tests;

(d) The online reference channel allows former employers to provide unsubstantiated feedback about migrant workers, which can jeopardize their future job
prospects;

(e) The right of migrant workers to form and join trade unions of their choice is curtailed under the Trade Unions Act, which requires, inter alia, trade union officers who are not Singaporean citizens to seek prior approval from the Minister of Manpower;

(f) The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act may have intimidating effects on the defenders of rights of migrant workers;

(g) Migrant workers who live in dormitories have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and that their movement has been restricted heavily and for a longer period than the general public;

(h) Employment in the services sector, unlike in construction, marine shipyard or process sectors, is permitted only to migrant workers of certain nationalities;

(i) Insufficient measures have been taken to reduce wage discrimination based on nationality (arts. 5 and 7).

24. Recalling its general recommendations No. 25 (2000) on gender-related dimensions of racial discrimination and No. 30 (2004) on discrimination against noncitizens, the Committee recommends that the State party:

(a) Ensure the protection of labour rights for migrant workers, particularly migrant domestic workers, including through regulating their employment under the Employment Act, taking into account particular vulnerability of female migrant domestic workers;

(b) Effectively address the issue of abuse and exploitation of migrant workers, including by allowing them to change jobs without requiring consent of their employers, imposing stricter penalties on perpetrators of such abuse, and providing migrant workers with unhindered access to justice, including to free legal aid, and effective remedies without fear of being arrested, detained or deported;

(c) Put an end to the practice of mandatory testing of female migrant workers for pregnancy and infectious diseases and their repatriation based on the test results;

(d) Eliminate the online reference channel that allows former employers of migrant workers to leave unsubstantiated feedback;

(e) Ensure the full respect of the right of migrant workers to freedom of association, including the right to form and join trade unions of their choice;

(f) Ensure that the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act is not applied in a manner that has intimidating effects on the defenders of rights of migrant workers;

(g) Improve living conditions of migrant workers, especially of those living in dormitories, and prevent and prohibit the adoption of discriminatory measures in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, in full respect of their right to freedom of movement;

(h) Take necessary measures to ensure that the existing employment restrictions on “source countries or regions” with regard to the services sector do not amount to discrimination based on nationality;

(i) Intensify its efforts to eliminate wage discrimination based on nationality.