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HOME: Eliminate wage discrimination by nationality and give domestic work its due recognition

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We congratulate Mr Peter Seah as the new National Wages Council (NWC) chairperson. The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) would like to take the opportunity to express and reiterate our organization’s stand as feedback to Singapore’s National Wages Guidelines for 2015/2016. HOME is a non-governmental organisation that works for the rights and welfare of migrant workers in Singapore. We believe that migrant workers should be treated with dignity, respect, and fairness during their time in Singapore.

Migrant workers make up approximately one-third of the country’s workforce. Yet, they continue to be extremely low wages, due to the lack of adequate employment protection.

Beyond the collective discrimination they face as a migrant population, their wages are discriminated by nationality in all sectors. Although we welcome the introduction of recommendations for sustainable wage increase for low-wage local workers since 2012, we see the urgent need for migrant workers to be included in the guidelines along with the declaration of non-discrimination with respect to their wages.

The average migrant on work permit earns a basic salary of $2 to $7 per hour and even $1.50 per hour in serious cases of economic abuse. Foreign worker levies remain exceedingly high, even higher than the average basic wage of a migrant worker. These levies discourage the payment of decent wages to migrant employees as employers aim to cover costs by transferring the financial burden onto the workers themselves.

The exclusion of domestic workers from the National Wage Guidelines persists. This reinforces the message that domestic work is not equal to other types of labour and is not deserving of equal rights. Not only should the guidelines be amended to include them, they should be extended to ensure that decent wages are paid. Housekeeping, care giving and cooking are skills which should be valued too.

The market practice of wage discrimination by employers and employment agencies according to national origin deeply affects domestic workers and migrant workers in other areas of work. In HOME’s experience interviewing and assisting thousands of migrant workers, we have found that South Asian workers earn significantly lesser than their Chinese and Malaysian counterparts, and all migrant workers earn significantly less than Singaporean workers, even though it is also our view that many low wage Singaporean workers are paid exploitative wages. Wage discrimination by nationality was one of the reasons bus drivers from SMRT went on strike in 2011.

Filipino domestic workers are paid the most whereas their counterparts from Myanmar and South Asia are paid the least.  As a society that prides itself on its meritocracy, it is shocking that such practices persist. Instead of leaving the fixing of wages on erroneous stereotypes and prejudice towards certain nationalities and races, determining wages based on skills and job scope is the right thing to do.

Besides affecting migrant workers, the exploitation of migrant workers is also detrimental to local workers. The absence of adequate employment protection for migrant workers makes it more advantageous and lucrative to hire migrant workers over Singaporeans, causing both parties to be on the losing end.

There is an urgent need for NWC to state categorically in their recommendations that employers should not determine wage levels by nationality or race and recognise domestic work as part of its guidelines. This helps bring us one step closer to making Singapore a great workplace for all.