Migrant workers in Little India on their day off. What worries do they share with their friends?

By Hana Y and other research volunteers

Recent coverage of migrant workers in Singapore has drawn attention to a multitude of problems, ranging from transportation to worksites, food quality, and the outbreak of the coronavirus. With multiple articles dominating the forefront of local news, Singaporeans have grown increasingly aware of and sympathetic towards migrant workers.

One such indicator of this attention has been an influx of requests from students, activism groups, and teachers to Transient Workers Count Too, requesting opportunities to help the men.

However, the solutions proposed by these groups are often centered on integrating the workers into Singapore society, and mitigating the harms of racist, discriminatory attitudes held by other Singaporeans. While these aims hold merit in their own way, this approach suggests a potential disconnect between what the workers are genuinely concerned about, and what Singaporeans believe to be their concerns.

In mid 2021, we set out to poll migrant workers from India and Bangladesh to find out what were the main priorities and concerns, from their point of view.

Due to the informal nature of this project, survey construction was straightforward. We wanted a short survey to ensure male workers would be willing to answer all the questions. Concerns (or stressors) can occur on a day-to-day basis, or it can affect an individual on a systemic level. From there, we crafted two sections, one for each level. One section comprised of two questions; the first question contained 6 options that required participants to choose 3 items they felt they were concerned about, and the second question was open-ended to capture additional issues or concerns we might have not considered. An example of the survey can be accessed at the end of the article.

These surveys were translated from English to Bengali and Tamil by our volunteer translators. To obtain a large sample, the surveys were advertised on our facebook pages, and participants were provided with a $10 top-up for their phones after they submitted their answers. We collected data from around 400 respondents, and after screening data for duplicate phone numbers (and therefore, duplicate responses), we had a total of 382 unique responses.

On the whole, the three concerns most commonly chosen by respondents for daily life concerns (bar chart above) were (a) the quality and standard of their accommodation, (b) being able to cook their own food, and (c) limited access to leave their dorm. Interestingly, “having local friends” was rated at the bottom of the list of concerns.

Top general concerns chosen (the second bar chart) were (a) receiving a full salary, (b) being able to change jobs, and (c) having access to medical care.

Open-ended questions for daily and general concerns were analyzed via qualitative methods. Answers were grouped into themes and categorized further if an underlying theme could be found.

Responses surrounding daily concerns covered a variety of items, ranging from family, covid, being able to leave dorms, and company-related woes.

Responses categorized under daily necessities centered around ubiquitous concerns. Simply put, the items in this category are believed to be encountered by the workers multiple times within a day and are necessary for surviving in modern society. For instance, workers are vocal about their dislike for the low-quality, cheap, tasteless catered food they consume daily.

Responses categorized under the movement autonomy theme were related to workers’ ability to travel within Singapore on their off-days, and their freedom to leave their dorms. Due to restrictions and movement control created in part to hinder the spread of covid, workers are not allowed to leave their dorms without permission. Responses mentioning the lack of freedom to travel within Singapore also allude to the mental health of the worker, with one response stating “We really need some freshness. More than local friends year 2 months (sic) we were not able to get some freshness. Just work and go back room work and go back room. Please we are mentally sick already.”

The last theme of daily concerns identified were related to the workers’ employment and work. Of this, workers expressed concerns about transport, financial matters, and their bosses and agents. Comments about transportation highlighted how the workers are shuttled to their work sites, usually in the back of a lorry. These modes of transport are unsafe and have resulted in severe accidents involving workers. Financial matters referred to workers’ concerns about their salaries and being able to earn money to send back to their families. Additionally, construction workers – the vast majority of which are migrant workers – are paid low wages, with some employers paying only a fraction of their designated salary.

Lastly, some responses recorded by the survey expressed worries about how their bosses think of them[1], and the fees they are required to pay when changing employers.

[1] Note that the within this context, employees are concerned about potential kickbacks demanded by employers. In Singapore, employers influence if a worker is able to have his pass renewed, apply for a job transfer, and other decisions that could impact their future job opportunities. Unscrupulous  employers leverage these moments of influence or control to extract money from workers.

Analysis for general concerns revealed two broad categories – issues related to employer (and employment), and individual rights. The phrase “employer purview” referred to concerns that were within direct control of the employer. For instance, given Singapore’s current systems in place for migrant workers, the men do not get to choose their own accommodation, and are instead, made to live in dorms housing large numbers of workers. Likewise, concerns regarding salaries, job choices, and safety are dependent on the employer.

Besides concerns under employer purview, the remaining response themes were classified as concerns relating to individual rights. Within the context of the survey, individual rights refer to benefits that the workers are entitled to, but do not seem to have access to. Responses highlighted concerns with regards to access to medical care, rest days, and obtaining daily necessities such as computers.

To recap, the aim of the present study was to gain further insight on what migrant workers in Singapore, specifically men in the blue-collar sectors, were concerned about. Singaporeans may believe that mitigating harms of racist attitudes and integrating the workers will result in a better living situation for them. However, our survey results demonstrate that this is not the case. Indeed, low-wage workers are far more worried over basic necessities, systemic disadvantages, and the unfair employment landscape for work permit holders in Singapore. We encourage individuals hoping to make change for migrant workers to focus on issues the workers themselves are concerned about than to draw their own assumptions about what it is that these men need.