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Exploitation of migrant workers = exploitation of low-wage local workers

~ By Jolovan Wham ~

The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that is concerned about the rights and welfare of migrant workers in Singapore. We believe that migrant workers should be treated with dignity, respect, and fairness, and we welcome the opportunity to provide feedback on Singapore’s National Wages Guidelines for 2012.

We would like to urge the Council to set standards and best employment practices for migrant workers, in addition to local workers. We are doing so for the following reasons:

  1. The exploitation of migrant workers is deeply connected to the exploitation of low wage Singaporean workers. By not offering adequate employment protection to migrant workers, it has become more advantageous and lucrative to hire them over Singaporeans. This has the unfortunate effect of displacing many low wage Singaporean workers in the process. Both migrant and Singaporean workers suffer as a result of this.
  2. Salaries of migrant workers on work permit in sectors such as the construction, marine, manufacturing and services sector have remained stagnant in the past decade with many earning a basic salary average of between $2 and $5 per hour. We have also seen several cases of workers who are paid $1.50 per hour or less.  In this year’s Budget, it was announced that foreign worker levies will be increased yet again. This has the negative impact of discouraging employers from paying a decent wage to migrant workers because of increased business costs. The government’s efforts to address the problem of kickbacks will be thwarted by such measures which encourage employers to pass their costs on to workers.
  3. The work of migrant domestic workers is equal to other forms of labour. By excluding them from the National Wage Guidelines, the government is sending a signal that the value of their work does not merit equal consideration. Moreover, there are no domestic worker unions in Singapore to enable them to bargain for better pay, unlike other countries such as Hong Kong.  Many domestic workers work up to 16 hours per day, 7 days per week at an hourly rate which is less than one dollar per hour. While we applaud the government for its recent decision to legislate a weekly day off for them, the recognition of their rights should also be extended to ensure they are paid a decent wage for their work. The NWC should consider determining the wages of domestic workers by their abilities and job scope to combat the prevailing practice by employers and employment agencies to set their wages by nationality.                                                                                            

Migrant workers account for a third of Singapore’s work force and Singapore’s economy would collapse without them.  In the absence of a minimum wage law, the National Wages Council should include migrant workers in their guidelines as it is important to recognise the contributions they make to our country.


Jolovan Wham is a social worker who works on migrant labour issues

Headline photo courtesy of libcom.org

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