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TOC focus week: Comments that endorse discrimination of migrant workers

by Vanessa Ho

Let me begin this article by admitting I am a little bit racist. I cannot deny it, neither can I help it. The best I can do is to be conscious whenever I have a racist thought, and correct myself accordingly.

To be a racist is more than discriminating based on skin colour, it is about feeling powerful over someone else; it is about being confident that you are better than the others. No doubt we all need some kind of “power” in order to survive, but perhaps we need also to start reflecting on what kind of responsibilities are tied to power and the implications of “power” used for the wrong ends.

It is International Migrants’ Day on the 18th of December.

The origins of this day dates back to the same date in 1990, where the General Assembly at the UN adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Ten years later, on the 4th of December 2000, the 18th of December was declared International Migrants Day. This serves as a global recognition for the issues that stem from migration.

In my opinion, it came a little too late: migration dates back centuries, from slavery to colonisation to today’s global movement of migrant workers. Nonetheless, this comes at an important time, where the trend of hiring cheap labour is legitimate (unlike sweat shops and child labour).

I have recently returned to Singapore after living in the United Kingdom for the past four years. Whilst there, I experienced first-hand how racism and xenophobia manifests into hurtful discrimination. I had rocks thrown at me by a group of teenagers in Northern Ireland as they shouted “China! China!” I had my mailbox stuffed with propaganda by the British National Party, promising that they will remove leeching immigrants from their country.

Thus coming back to Singapore meant not only returning to the comfort of home, but also to the comfort zone where the Chinese is the majority race. However, as I sit in my lavish house, I feel a greater sense of discomfort than that of having rocks thrown at me. A discomfort knowing that my house was built by people who were most probably paid disgustingly low wages, who were forced out of their comfort zones in order to earn a meal for their families, and that my house looks good only because my domestic worker cleans it.

The multitude of difficulties migrant workers face in Singapore has been given some media attention. From salary issues, to extortionist agents, to freak accidents, to cruel working conditions. Perhaps the most harrowing part of this is that fact that the institutional structures that enable such injustice are seemingly propagated and publicly endorsed by our Prime Minister. With such approval, a myriad of comments that lead to discriminatory practices proliferates. It is here that I would like to explore some of the comments from my parents, relatives and friends about migrant workers that are rarely examined, instead of narrating the stories I have heard from volunteering at HOME, the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics. I will also be examining how these comments encourage the preservation of the status quo of unfair practices.

“S$500 per month is a lot of money for them!”

True enough that S$500 converts into 1,500 renminbi, 17,000 Rupees, or 27,000 Taka. But take into consideration the cost of living in Singapore and this amount means nothing, especially when we belong to a culture where going to the malls is a popular past-time. If one is lucky, one’s employer will pay for rent and bills, transport and food. If one is luckier, one gets a day off every week—a day off that one will have no money to enjoy. It is also appalling how comments such as these coexist with defences for salary deductions that go like “S$5 only what.” Not lest we forget that these workers came here to create a better life for their families back home, and most of their earnings are transmitted to the country of their origin. If people continue to think that $500 per month is a lot of money, it is easy to continue this practice. Hong Kong has already passed the legislature for minimum wage—a system that will ensure a minimum standard of living—that will come into practice in January 2011, and perhaps it is time Singapore does the same thing.

“They willingly came to Singapore.”

That seems to be a terribly myopic statement. Free will belongs to those who possess power, be that in monetary terms, or statutory terms (although these two coincide more often than not). Those who believe that a rights-based discourse is unnecessary are those that already have rights. While it is true that they chose to come to Singapore, they are mostly motivated by extenuating circumstances such as being unable to feed their families with their jobs back home. This is also a motivation that leads them to pay hefty agent fees (ranging from $3000 to $10,000), one that they will spend years recouping given a $500 per month salary. What I am trying to illustrate is the vicious cycle of poverty, that an attempt to break out of that cycle merely spirals one back in.

Perhaps it is here that I shall cross-reference to Alan Shadrake’s book Once a Jolly Hangman, Singapore Justice in the Dock. While his book was clumsy and filled with editorial errors, he had no intention to defame the courts. What he was trying to elucidate was that, unwittingly, the justice system is biased towards the rich and famous. He is not trying to say that the judges deliberately target the under-privileged, rather, that there are certain systematic and institutional forces that discriminate against the poor and needy. The poor face difficulties in gaining access to a lawyer, or in the first place, access to basic necessities to sustain life whilst fighting a case. From my experience, many foreign workers are deterred from bringing a case to court because court cases take months, even years, to resolve, not mentioning the hefty legal fees. The poverty cycle is vicious, and it is comments such as these that serve to preserve the status quo. A more conscientious understanding of the background of these workers will provide us with an insight into the true causes of their situation. We can truly benefit from foreign workers, but we do have to give them a space to breathe and live in the first place.

“Foreign workers are perverts and they threaten our safety.”

This comment is probably best illustrated by the Serangoon Gardens saga where residents complained about a foreign worker dormitory being built there. The arguments against the decision went along the lines of threatened safety and the need to maintain the “dignity” and the “superior” vibe of the area. Despite my strong dislike for this statement, fact is, my friend’s arm was grabbed while walking through Little India, whilst another friend had a South Asian guy drop his pants and masturbate in front of her at her void deck. As a woman, these incidents infuriate me, and all I want to do is shout profanities, kick some balls, and blame the government for encouraging the employment of foreign workers. However, if we step back and gain some perspective into the situation, anyone is capable of such acts. To say that foreign workers are more predisposed to such behaviour is yet another baseless comment/blatant prejudice.

We seem to constantly keep foreign workers at a distance and preferably completely out of sight. Some dormitories are tucked away in the deepest corners of our island, inaccessible via public transport without a 30-minute trek. Yet at the same time, we want them to constantly slog away at machines or construction sites to make the chairs we sit on, the computers we play with, the houses we sleep in, and of course, the malls that constantly sprout out around our country. (They are almost like elves! Except that elves actually get some kind of recognition.) It is easy to blame someone we do not know for societal ills, yet comments such as these not only discriminate against foreign workers, but also obscure the true underlying cause of these ills. The Ministry of Manpower’s Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA) itself contains a similar statement:

11. The foreign worker shall not indulge or be involved in any illegal, immoral or undesirable activities, including breaking up families in Singapore.

The first part of this code of conduct seems fair; however, the latter part reeks of discrimination. The moment a foreign worker enters Singapore, s/he is immediately treated as an intruder, one who will potentially create havoc instead of earning a living for their families back home. Perhaps if we start welcoming them with open arms and look at them as workers who are willing to do jobs we will never feel proud doing, there will be a better work environment for them and us.

“Hiring maids who have experience in Singapore is dangerous because they have more connections here that will lead them astray.”

This comment is similar to the previous one—it seems to imply that migrant workers are more predisposed to be evil. However, more importantly, what I wish to write on is how most employers do not want our domestic workers engaging in sexual activities whilst contracted to work. Hence the no off-day policy and the surveillance cameras set up around households for the sole purpose of policing their workers. While we have heard many stories of domestic workers committing certain undesirable acts such as cheating, stealing, or rummaging through her employer’s closet to try on the clothes, perhaps we should start understanding their motivations for doing so. Once again referring to the EFMA:

10. If the foreign worker is a female foreign worker, the foreign worker shall not become pregnant or deliver any child in Singapore during the validity of her Work Permit/Visit Pass [...]

A foreign worker’s body is thus controlled by the government; s/he is dehumanized and alienated, and deported the moment she is pregnant. The circulation of such a comment will enable such laws and inhumane practices to remain; our domestic workers reduced to slaves.

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The Big Picture; Not Just “Migration Issues”

“More than 215 million people live outside their country of birth, according to the United Nations. International Migration helps fuel economies across the globe. The World Bank estimates that migrants sent home more than US$440 billion in 2010, $325 billion of which went to developing countries.”

Besides contributing to our economy, our culture and our diversity, migration could possibly be one of the solutions to alleviate poverty in many countries. They provide us with a more complete world view and allow us a way out of our myopia.

What I have explored thus far are comments that reproduce the status quo and breed discrimination. Some other more common ones that I did not cover include: foreign workers replace local workers, foreign workers depress wages, foreign workers crowd public transport (even though most of them are ferried like slaves at the back of lorries) etc. However, as I have tried to illustrate, “migration issues” intersect with many other social, economic, political, cultural issues.

Hence, to have an International Migrants Day seem to be superfluous, since the rights of these people are protected by other global conventions such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). However, since the identity labels “migrant” or “foreign worker” have been increasingly used in a derogatory and oppressive way, there is “a need to make further efforts to improve the situation and ensure the human rights and dignity of all migrant workers and their families.”

It is time to reclaim these terms that we commonly use to discriminate: we should stop using “bangla” in a disgusted way to refer to any chocolate-coloured foreign worker, but rather, a term that should remind us of people who share some of our belief in the Qur’an, where physical intimacy—even between men—is a sign of brotherly and sisterly love; we should stop using “PRC” to refer to high achieving scholars who beat us in examinations, but rather people with whom some of us share a beautiful language. It is time to reclaim these terms, to reclaim the lives oppressed by them, and to celebrate diversity and all its gifts.

Vanessa Ho is a volunteer with Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) a NGO that looks into the rights and welfare of migrant workers in Singapore. The views expressed in this article are her own.