The recent COVID-19 situation in Singapore has shed some light on the pressing issue revolving around the living condition and treatment of migrant workers in the country. There have been various reports which have highlighted the overcrowded living spaces and unsanitary environment at foreign worker dormitories under the Ministry of Manpower.
In response to this, former managing partner at Cavenagh Law and global partner of Clifford Chance, Senior Counsel Harpreet Singh said that it’s time now for everyone in Singapore to do some “serious soul searching about the treatment of our foreign workers”.
He explained that the situation is not solely on matters like over-crowdedness, limited sanitation and toilet facilities, but rather the entire ecosystem.
“If we think when this crisis ends we can simply make some changes at the periphery, (including putting) little bit more space (or) adding toilets here and there, then we have completely missed doing what is absolutely necessary,” said Mr Singh.
He made this comment as part of a panel at Workers’ Party’s (WP) webinar organised by the party’s Youth Wing on Saturday (25 April). The webinar was done on Zoom and projected on Facebook Live to talk about the medical, economic and legal implications of the current COVID-19 crisis in Singapore.
Mr Singh noted that some of the major issues that Singapore has to look at include the living wage of these migrant workers as well as the entire practice within the labour supply system.
He said that although most of the middlemen involved in bringing these workers into Singapore are located outside of the city-state, but the biggest reality here is that most of these workers come to the country with crippling debt. As such, Singapore has to find a way to address this issue, Mr Singh noted.
If that’s not all, Mr Singh also said that another area that Singaporeans can do better is the way they treat these foreign workers.
“How have we allowed this system to grow up right under our noses? We are sons, daughters and descendants of immigrants. How have we as a society allow such a thing to grow under our noses for decades?” he asked.
To this, Mr Singh raised a number of reasons why the situation has gone to this extent. The first is that Singapore should have not completely left the free market to regulate the rules, with little or no Government involvement. “That’s absolutely wrong,” he emphasised.
Secondly, the Senior Counsel also stressed that Singapore has stopped asking if there are something more that can be done to insist ethical practices be implemented before bringing in foreign workers into the country.
“We have either not asked the difficult question or we have stopped asking the difficult question about whether there are something more we need to do, (like) where there are more ethical practices we need to insist before anyone (particularly large construction companies) must do before foreign workers are brought in,” he said.
Additionally, Singapore has also not paid attention to critics who are on the ground, such as migrant labour’s rights non-profit organisation Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), who have highlighted such issues before.
“So this is an area in my view that we as a society have collective responsibility of what have been developed over the decades,” he noted.
Solutions to the issues
In regards to the country’s pressing issues involving migrant workers, Mr Singh proposed some of the solutions that can be implemented to curb the problems.
The first solution is to look at the design and occupancy load at the large dormitories or any other places that house migrant workers in the country, and come up with a better system.
“I am glad to report that this is not something that we have to wait for the Government to do. There is at least one group of citizens I know who have come together – architects, real estate experts and economist who are looking at the costing – to come up with, what I hope will be the gold standard of how we might eventually house foreign workers responsibility and with dignity in our society, in a way that is financially feasible,” he stated.
Additionally, he also pointed out that an open debate need to be conducted on what is a dignified wage or a fair living standard for any migrant workers who come to Singapore to work, including foreign domestic workers.
Lastly, Mr Singh asserted the need to pay close attention to the entire labour supply chain.
“Some people say this is very difficult to solve because many, or almost all the middlemen, are outside of Singapore in countries where we don’t have any control. I think that’s a cop-out,” he said.
This is because many ethical business practices around the world, including in Singapore, have insisted on good standards and have found that it is possible.
“There are certification processes that are possible to make sure that everyone who is involved in the line meet not just labour standards, but also, sustainability standards,” he explained.
He added, “One positive development over the years has been global companies now accept that their duty is not just to maximise profits for shareholders, but they (have) a broader duty to the society.”
As such, this is where Singapore has “got tremendous leverage over all these middlemen and people in the supply chain”, Mr Singh said.
He explained that one way is to get all large infrastructure projects in Singapore run by the Government to only bring in migrant workers from supply companies that have been properly certified. “That is one big way that we can actually start addressing this issue.”