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At Ministerial Forum, PM Lee reduces transient workers to economic terms. Terence Lee.

Room for more, but at what cost?

While Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave students much reassurance during this year's NTU Ministerial Forum,  transient workers, on the other hand, are dehumanised as mere cogs in a machine.

Terence Lee / Deputy Editor

IMAGINE a gathering of Singaporeans, Permanent Residents, and expatriates in the same room, talking and sipping martini. Amidst the chatter, words like "economic downturn", "W-shaped recovery", "new media" and "religious harmony" rise barely above the din.

The VIP enters, gives a rousing speech interjected with peals of laughter, mentions the  travails that foreigners face when they live in Singapore. Transient workers -- your Bangladeshi, Mainland Chinese, and Indian labourers -- are talked about in cold economic language.

(Photo by Francis Ong from the Straits Times)

The other guests hardly give these workers a passing mention. At the end, the VIP leaves, his wife and entourage in tow, the guests toasting to a rousing evening of entertainment and mock-sophistication.

The outcasts -- the untouchables, were hardly in sight, tucked neatly away in a god-forsaken area of the island.

Such is the story of the Ministerial Forum 2009, held at the Nanyang Technological University yesterday. Themed "Is there room for more?" -- the speaker was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Predictably, he touched on topics that were topmost on the minds of the students there: Will we have jobs when we graduate? How do we compete with foreign students? How do we integrate foreign talent? Will citizens be given priority over Permanent Residents?

To be fair, PM Lee did say that it is not easy for foreign workers, who are struggling in a different society, to adapt to the local environment. This is especially because they do not speak our language. At the very least, he said lightheartedly, Singaporeans expect foreign workers to speak some functional English, such as 'chilli' or 'no chilli'. He added that when entering a food stall, it will also be good if they can understand the phrase 'laksa no hum'.

Finally, he got it right this time.

And further to his credit, he highlighted the plight faced by the construction workers who were supposed to be housed in an old school in Serangoon Gardens Estate, but were met with vociferous opposition from its residents. But if only he had gone further to list the numerous injustices wrought upon hundreds of these labourers with their calloused hands and tear-stained cheeks!

Sad cases of abuse

Consider the case of Indonesian maid Ms Badingah, who had her two front teeth pulled out by 'dentist' siblings last year. With a plier, Nur Rizan, a mother of one, removed the maid's teeth while her mouth was kept open by the maid's employer, Elsa Said. And that was not all she suffered. Prior to that horrific incident, Ms Badingah had been caned, punched, and scalded with hot wax.

Consider also the case of Delowar Hossen, a Bangladeshi who paid over S$9,000 in agency fees to work in Singapore. The promise of a job by his employer -- PA Services Pte Ltd -- seemed enticing. However, after staying here for more than five months, he was still jobless, and had to be sent home despite appeals to the Minister of Manpower (MOM). He slept on a 1.5 metre-long wooden plank every night and is often served curry so bad that it has to be thrown away.

“I have no money to give to my family,” he said, his face creasing in misery.

Putting things into perspective, the above cases represent an extreme -- majority of foreign workers here are not complaining. But it is difficult to estimate just how many workers are affected. According to The New Paper, the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) receives only about 50-60 calls a month from foreign workers asking for help. But as blogger Alex Au has highlighted in his article, a single case can involve more than 200 workers, and some of them go directly to the MOM for mediation.

So far, the MOM has not released any statistics regarding such maltreatments, which means it loses points on transparency and honesty.

More beneath the surface

Also, the examples of Ms Badingah and Delowar are merely symptoms of a much wider problem: their recognition as equal human beings. Many people do not know that domestic maids are not protected under the Employment Act, which would have granted them fair employment under the law. While a private contract may be established between employer and worker, such agreements have no guarantee of protection.

Act IV of the Employment Act, which mandates a compulsory day-off for employees, do not apply to maids as well. Once again, this opens up opportunities for abuse as employers can technically force their maid to work 24/7 if they want to. The situation is made worse as cases are usually hard to report, given that the domestic maids are often stuck at home and are often subservient to their employers.

For male foreign workers at the construction site, the Employment  Act applies to them. However, this does not mean that they are immune from the deplorable living conditions that they are often subjected to. Furthermore, salary disputes which are mediated by the MOM are often fruitless and futile -- it seems like certain mediation officers display little concern for the plight of the workers.

Such problems are not unique in Singapore. Aliens in every developed country often get the shorter end of the stick. This is because they are effectively outcasts in a foreign land. Demand for them is high because they are willing to do dirty jobs. As a result, they are  deemed to be less deserving of fair treatment.

Humans, not commodities

In PM Lee's speech, we see dehumanising language at play which portray these foreign workers as merely cogs in a machine. They exist solely for the sake of benefiting Singaporeans. They clear our rubbish, sweep our floors, and take care of our babies, but when it is time to cut losses, they have to pack their bags.

The speech also mentioned how foreign workers are hired en masse (about 100,000 per year) when the economy is good, but they also dismissed at a whim when things go south. They act as a buffer for us, taking the bullet in our place. They become like commodities on the stock market: buy when times are good, sell when the economy dives.

These workers are in an extremely vulnerable position. If you are a rich expatriate in a financially comfortable position, your sacking might be a mere setback. But if you are like Delowar, it will take you years to pay off that $9,000 fee.

Many of the international students at the forum are from China and India. One wonders if they know about the plight faced by their own countrymen, despite having a different social class. And if they do, do they feel angry or indifferent?

Resent them we might, there is no argument that they should still be protected, and their basic needs provided. MOM should be more transparent about the status of foreign workers in Singapore, and also be more proactive in helping workers settle salary disputes. Also, the Singapore government as a whole should regulate the influx of foreign workers to ensure they are not sacked en masse in an economic crunch.

More fundamentally, the Employment Act should be extended to include domestic slaves, i mean, maids as well. Most employers treat their maids fairly well anyway, so there is no reason why the law cannot be amended to prevent further abuse.

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