This letter by the former president of TWC2 John Gee was sent to the Straits Times in early May 2024. Unfortunately, it was not published.

Dear ST,

The increased availability to migrant workers of help with mental health problems, reported in today’s Straits Times, is welcome, but should not lead to any diminution of efforts to overcome the conditions of recruitment and employment that may produce or contribute towards them.

Leaving loved ones behind to go to work in an unfamiliar environment can be stressful in itself. The strain this can impose on workers may be amplified by bad news from home, such as the illness of a relative or losses from a natural disaster.  Sharing feelings with others and seeking help through some form of counselling are generally good responses to such unavoidable happenings attendant upon being a migrant worker.

Your reports allude to other conditions that are avoidable, provided there are the policies, practices and attitudes in place to prevent them.  It makes a difference to a domestic worker’s sense of well-being whether she is treated with respect and consideration, given sufficient rest time and days off and not expected to undertake tasks for which she may not have the aptitude or training (for example, in elder care – not everyone can cope).

Many migrant workers continue to pay exorbitant recruitment fees, which are commonly paid through taking loans that are burdensome to repay. This causes anxiety to workers and contributes towards acceptance of unreasonable conditions of work, and, among non-domestic workers, a willingness to take on energy-draining excessive hours of overtime work, all in order to make enough money to pay off debts. A web of middlemen, often with the complicity of home country governments or officials, perpetuate this abuse for their own gain.

It is perfectly understandable that migrant workers should experience stress from such experiences (who would not?) and might benefit from mental health support, but at the same time, it should be recognized that these problems are not, at base, medical and should not be medicalized, so that those concerned with migrant workers’ welfare see helping workers to cope with ill-treatment and exploitative recruitment practices as a substitute for combatting and eliminating abuses.

In no way should the work of providers of mental health assistance be deprecated. However, their job would be made easier if they only had to deal with the more unavoidable problems that migrant workers experience and of course, it would be much better for workers too.

John Gee