The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) should reconsider its cancellation of 24 migrant workers’ work passes and the permanent ban imposed on them for breaching safe distancing measures, said Lai Ah-Eng, an adjunct senior fellow at the National University of Singapore (NUS)’s University Scholars Programme (USP).
Dr Lai, who has sat on several national and ministry-level committees such as for the Ministry of Social Development, said that while she appreciates “the need to be strict about observing social distancing measures,” the penalties doled out by MOM above “are too harsh, even inhuman and merciless”.
“These are migrant workers who have families and dependants back in their home countries, and may even have taken loans to come to Singapore to work.
“They and their families depend on us for their economic survival and well-being, as much as we depend on them for ours,” she stressed.
Dr Lai said that migrant workers, often low-wage ones, “are all the more vulnerable at a time of this COVID-19 worldwide pandemic when thousands have already lost or risk losing their jobs or face severe paycuts”.
“To immediately send them packing and never to return is likely to condemn them and their families to tremendous long term economic hardship,” she said.
Dr Lai opined that it is still possible for the Singapore authorities to ensure strict compliance with the safe distancing measures while also demonstrating “themselves to be humane, understanding and fair”.
She suggested that migrant workers, similar to penalties for Singaporeans, should just “fined and not fired”, adding that they could also face a “heftier sum” for subsequent violations, similar to that of citizens.
“It also takes a while for some public habits to be adjusted, as shown by the thousands of Singaporeans who have received warnings and fines for flouting the rules in the first week,” said Dr Lai on a possible reason why the migrant workers might have breached safe distancing measures during the circuit breaker.
“Singapore is a dream city for many foreign workers to work in and many citizens to live in.
“This dream city should be where humane treatment and fairness for all, especially at a time of crisis, should be its hallmark,” Dr Lai said.
Noting that her letter about the penalties faced by the 24 migrant workers was not published by The Straits Times, she urged readers to “bombard” ST and MOM with letters about “this extreme and unfair punishment” towards migrant workers.
“I wrote a similar letter to the Commissioner of Work Passes, Ministry of Manpower,” Dr Lai added.
Veteran architect Tay Kheng Soon similarly opined, in response to Dr Lai’s post, that subjecting the migrant workers to a fine, who are already a “very vulnerable people”, would be enough of an example.
He added that the Government should “do the right thing” by revoking “the expulsion order immediately under these exceptional times”.
Renowned Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at criticised ST‘s decision to “ignore such an important letter” by Dr Lai and to “publish so much nonsense” instead.
Director of non-governmental organisation Function 8, Teo Soh Lung suggested that writing to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the entire Cabinet would be a better move as there is “[n]o use writing to the papers” in her view.
MOM last week said that the 24 work pass holders were caught drinking, eating, and gathering in groups in the area of Tuas View Square, a factory-turned-dormitory.
It is one of such industrial sites partially converted into a dormitory for migrant workers in Singapore.
Noting that it has increased its inspection of factory-converted dormitories (FCDs) to ensure that safe distancing measures are complied with, MOM said it inspected more than 600 of such facilities in Sungei Kadut, Tuas, and other areas islandwide.
“Inspections revealed that the vast majority of the FCDs (factory-converted dormitories) had instituted safe distancing measures and health checks for their residents. The dormitory residents also had no well-being or salary issues,” said MOM.
However, MOM also noted that it found that 57 of those dormitories had ‘minor lapses’, the most common ones being a lack of sick bays and isolation areas.
Further, the cleanliness levels at a number of the FCS were found to be “unacceptable”. MOM said it has instructed operators to immediately rectify the problem.
HOME: Revoking work passes of migrant workers for breaching COVID-19 measures is “harsh and disproportionate”
Migrant labour non-governmental organisation Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) branded MOM’s decision “harsh and disproportionate”, given that “these were first-time violations (in the absence of information to the contrary)”.
The NGO pointed out that Singapore residents who defied the elevated safe distancing measures, in contrast, have only been slapped with S$300 fines or received just written advisories.
“It is unclear to us why work pass holders are punished so much more severely. If the intention is to ‘send a clear signal of the serious of the offense’, as MOM has said in its statement, surely these standards should be applied evenly across everyone regardless of nationalist and residential status,” the organisation stressed.
HOME went on to highlight that the majority of foreign workers in the country are the sole breadwinners for their families, and they have outstanding loans which they have taken to pay for the high requirement fees to come to Singapore.
The majority of these workers’ home countries are also not allowing them to return home at this point of time, leaving them stranded in Singapore, HOME added.
“Even when they manage to fly home, interstate and local transportation might not have resumed in countries like India where the lock down is being extended, and as most workers hail from rural parts of the country, they might have to make the staggering journey home on foot,” the organisation said.
HOME urged the authorities to give migrant workers a chance to explain themselves, as there might be something that the Government might not be able to see from their point of view.
Listening to the migrant workers’ perspective, the organisation added, will allow the authorities to think of better ways to ensure compliance.
HOME suggested that communicating the measures in the workers’ native languages will be a better way to ensure compliance among migrant workers.
The organisation also explained that many workers have voiced out that communication on various matters have not reached everyone in the dormitories, resulting in them feeling confused and despaired.
“Many of them are experiencing anxiety, confusion and despair as the situation in dorms escalates every day, and are not receiving timely updates about the rules, the number of cases, and the availability of medical care, amongst other things.”
The organisation proposed that MOM appoints a few workers in each dormitory as circuit-breaker ambassadors “who can educate and monitor their peers with regard to the enhanced measures.”
“Our experience shows that peer learning and leadership are highly effective strategies in influencing group norms,” HOME added.