MOM yet to say how it intends to reform system which is being violated.

Gan Kim Yong’s new committee

A new steering committee on foreign workers should consider wider reforms to protect rights of foreign workers

Yesterday’s edition of the Straits Times published a low-key article about the activities of an inter-ministerial steering committee chaired by newly-minted Manpower Minister Gan Kim Yong to oversee issues related to foreign workers in Singapore.  The news came as something of a revelation – few people seemed to have been aware that the committee had been up and running since January 2009. (See also Channelnewsasia’s report.)

According to Mr Gan, the new committee is meant to look into and provide for the needs of foreign workers in areas from housing to recreation. Its objective is to ensure the “harmonious co-existence” between locals and foreign workers.  To do so, the committee has drawn on a wide variety of agencies, with representation across the manpower, home, trade, national development, education and law ministries.

The formation of the committee is certainly a welcome move.  The government seems to have belatedly recognised that it needs a more coordinated approach towards managing the enormous foreign worker population in Singapore. 

Issues related to the presence of foreign workers in Singapore cut across a whole range of agencies.  Public angst has risen in recent years along with the burgeoning foreign worker population, which some have – to much extent unfairly – blamed for job losses and crime.  Housing for workers is perennially in short supply.  At the same time Singaporeans have also been outraged by the blatant exploitation of some of these workers by unscrupulous employers, an occurrence that seems to be on the rise in these hard times. 

That said, the steering committee’s focus seems to be on better policing of the foreign worker population.  In his remarks to the Straits Times, Mr Gan described the deployment of auxiliary officers to “keep an eye” on the recurrent congregations of workers in Little India and to “advise” them about local norms, though so far there has been little evidence – as Mr Gan himself admitted – to suggest that foreign workers are a threat to law and order. 

The government’s preoccupation seems to be on “reassuring” citizens concerned about the heavy concentration of foreign workers in some areas.  In this context, the new committee seems to serve a political purpose in helping to assuage popular ire against the government’s open-door foreign worker policies.

On the other hand, little was said about how to ensure that the rights of such workers are better protected.  To its credit, the government has recently cracked down on errant employers after the Internet-based alternative media persevered with highlighting the latter’s misdeeds, and the new committee itself oversaw the construction of a new dormitory and recreational centre for foreign workers.

But the authorities have yet to indicate how it intends to reform a system that seems to have been persistently violated.  Moreover, serious structural deficiencies remain addressed.  While the construction of the new dormitory is a positive move, the fact remains that the vast majority of housing is provided by employers, quite a few of whom seem to have no qualms about squeezing as many workers as they can into squalid conditions.

Mr Gan’s new and broad-based committee would thus be well-suited for considering such wider reforms; unfortunately though, that does not seem to be on its agenda.  In any case, the economic recession and its dampening effect on demand for foreign workers will probably ease pressure on the government to do so in the first place.