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HOME responds to Singapore’s claim of happy migrant workers at UPR

By Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME)

A delegation of Singapore government officials arrived in Geneva this week to participate in the Universal Periodic Review, a human rights reporting process under the United Nations (UN) which all member countries are required to undergo once every five years. This was Singapore’s second report to the UN. HOME wrote a response and lobbied several foreign governments to ask questions and give recommendations to address the human rights violations of migrant workers. We are glad that some of our recommendations were taken up them.

The Singapore government’s report can be found here and a live webcast of the proceedings can be viewed here. More than 100 countries took to the floor to give recommendations to the Singapore government on how it could address human rights violations. More than 30 countries gave recommendations concerning migrant workers.

These recommendations are:

  1. Strengthen protection and address issues relating to the exploitation of migrant workers
  2. Strengthen the protection of trafficked victims, raise awareness of trafficking in persons and devote more resources to combatting this problem
  3. Take measures to prevent employers from holding passports and work permit cards of workers
  4. Increase access to affordable health services for migrants
  5. Include domestic workers in the Employment Act
  6. Address the issue of high recruitment and training fees
  7. Protect right to pursue claims and access justice while preventing the forced repatriation of migrant workers
  8. Allow migrant workers to switch employers easily
  9. Address the poor housing migrant workers
  10. Address the deportation of migrant workers on the grounds of pregnancy and HIV status/STDs
  11. Ratify the Convention for the Protection of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families and the ILO Domestic Workers Convention (C189)

In response to these recommendations, the Singapore government made the following points. (HOME's responses to these points are as italicised in bold)

1) Singapore has one of the highest concentration of migrant workers in the world. 1 in 3 persons is a migrant worker. Therefore, the Singapore government takes the wellbeing of migrant workers seriously. Even though the government has not ratified International treaties such as the UN Convention for the Protection of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families and the ILO Domestic Workers Convention (C189), the substance of Singapore’s laws are generally in compliance with the standards stipulated by these international treaties.

If Singapore’s laws are generally in compliance with international standards, it should not have a problem ratifying the UN Convention for migrant workers and the ILO Domestic Workers Convention. Ratifying these treaties will show Singapore’s commitment to upholding their rights. HOME urges the government to do so.  

2) A survey conducted jointly by the Ministry of Manpower and the Migrant Workers Centre shows that a majority of migrant workers are satisfied working in Singapore.

The survey cited by the Ministry has methodological problems which have cast some doubt on the reliability and validity of the findings. HOME has written a critique of this research study here.

3) Singapore’s Employment Act covers both local and foreign workers; therefore, migrants are not discriminated against.

Even though the Act applies equally to migrants and locals, a significant number of migrant workers still work exploitative hours. 12-16 hour work days, 7 days a week are commonly reported by migrant employees in the construction and services sector. Local workers are paid more than migrant workers for performing the same jobs. For example, an accreditation scheme for cleaners initiated by the government and NTUC excludes migrant workers even though it guarantees local cleaners a minimum wage of $1000 a month. Read HOME’s detailed response to this scheme here 

4) Singapore has provided extra protections to migrant workers by enacting the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA) and the Employment Agencies Act (EAA).

The EFMA does not provide adequate protection to migrant workers who are arbitrarily dismissed and repatriated by their employers. Workers have little recourse when this happens. Fear of losing their jobs have led to many workers fearing to report abuse and exploitation.  EFMA also discriminates against migrant women because it forbids them from getting pregnant while they are in Singapore. HOME has handled cases of women who are compelled to abort their foetuses for fear of losing their jobs.    

Even though the Employment Agencies Act caps the amount of placement fees, agencies are allowed to charge up to 2 months of a worker’s salary. In reality, the vast majority of workers pay more than that. Construction and service sector workers pay up to $10,000 to recruitment agents and domestic workers forgo 6 to 8 months of their salaries to agents.  

5) Singapore is unable to regulate the payment of exorbitant fees to agents because these transactions happen in countries of origin.

A large portion of these fees is remitted to agents and employers in Singapore as kickbacks. Therefore, it is not entirely accurate to say that Singapore has no jurisdiction over these fees. Moreover, employment agencies in Singapore disguise high recruitment fees as ‘loans’ to domestic workers and these transactions are conducted locally.  

6) The Ministry of Manpower has prosecuted more than 2000 employers for infringement of basic rights of workers.

The Ministry should provide disaggregated data of these prosecutions and the number of complaints made so that their effectiveness can be adequately assessed.

7) In response to Germany’s question about the housing of migrant workers, Singapore asserted that there are standards for different types of housing which employers have to adhere to and the government is moving in the direction of housing all migrant workers in dormitories.

Different housing types have different regulations, leading to inconsistent standards in the quality of accommodation. For example, it is still legal for construction workers to live in partially constructed buildings, even though such arrangements lead to conditions which are often unsanitary, filthy and unhygienic.

Domestic workers do not enjoy decent accommodation as they are not guaranteed privacy and it is legal for employers to put them up in store rooms, kitchens, balconies, and living rooms in the presence of surveillance cameras.    

9) Singapore has legislated weekly rest days for migrant domestic workers as part of the government’s efforts to ensure they have basic labour rights.

A large number of domestic workers still do not enjoy this right because employers can easily pay them compensation in lieu amounting to $20 to $30 per day for not taking a day off. Moreover, any domestic worker who asserts her rights runs the risk of being terminated and repatriated to her country of origin. Domestic workers are still inadequately protected as they do not have basic rights such as statutory public holidays, sick leave, annual leave and limits to their working hours.