Migrant rights activists highlight ethical issues in Straits Times story

Activists and researchers working on issues related to migrant workers and their rights have expressed concern over a feature article in The Straits Times about Bangladeshi cleaners in public housing estates living in bin centres.

The Straits Times published “Life in the dumps” written by Aw Cheng Wei (with additional reporting by Toh Yong Chuan) on 18 July, revealing that a number of Bangladeshi workers the reporters had come across appeared to be living in the bin centres on HDB estates.

Although the workers declined to give the journalists their names for fear of reprisals, the paper ended up publishing photographs of the men in the bin centres, causing them to be clearly identifiable. The Straits Times also published the addresses of some of these bin centres.

“The reporter had indicated in the story the men had already expressed anxiety about losing their jobs and did not want to be identified, thus the men were cognizant of possible negative consequences and had already communicated this to the reporter,” labour rights researcher Stephanie Chok told TOC.

“If the workers have asked not be be identified, how can the Straits Times justify publishing their photos and addresses?” added sociologist Nicholas Harrigan.

Jolovan Wham, executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), also told TOC that revealing the workers’ identities in such a way might result in those workers losing their livelihoods, and perhaps even lead to the men being repatriated.

“If no consent was sought, the ST journalist should have at least not revealed their faces and revealed where they live,” he said.

Another concern that activists had was the lack of context in the story: the article indicates that the workers had chosen to live in the bin centres, yet did little to really explain why such a choice was made.

“The story, an entire full-page spread, was singular in its focus, highlighting only the men’s living conditions, without considering other aspects of their exploitative working conditions and how these issues are interconnected,” Chok said.

The choice to live in a bin centre is, taken at face value, a bizarre one – who would actually want to live so close to the reeking fumes of trash and garbage?

A letter to The Straits Times forum by HOME said that many Bangladeshi workers had paid extremely high recruitment fees (from $8,000 – $12,000, if not more) to secure jobs in Singapore, only to earn as low as $400 a month cleaning and maintaining the HDB estates in which citizens live in relative comfort. This $400-a-month salary is even lower than the foreign workers’ levy that employers have to pay.

These low wages, combined by the high debt burden, often leads to men opting to living in the bin centres rather than having their salaries deducted by their employers for accommodation.

The long hours that such cleaners work – some take on 16-hours shifts – also makes it easier for them to rest and sleep in the bin centres in the estate, rather than travelling back and forth from dormitories in remote parts of Singapore. HOME said that they had also encountered situations in which the accommodation provided was over-crowded.

“The article portrays the workers as largely ‘choosing’ to live in the bin centers in order to save money. The obvious question the article fails to ask is: What type of existing living and working conditions would mean that workers think that living in a bin center is the ‘best’ option for them? What does this say about the living conditions provided by employers as an alternative to the bin centers? What does this say about the low rates of pay which the workers must be being paid if they can’t even afford to pay one or two hundred dollars to live in employer provided accommodation? The ‘choices’ these workers are making are highly constrained choices, often imposed by low pay, difficult working conditions, and inadequate alternative living arrangements,” Harrigan told TOC.

TOC sent questions to both Aw Cheng Wei and Toh Yong Chuan, but has so far not received a response.