Statement on 1 May 2020 by Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics, Singapore’s non-governmental organisation that provides services to, and advocates on behalf of, migrant workers.
This year’s Labour Day falls in the midst of a global pandemic that has disproportionately affected low-wage migrant workers here in Singapore.
As of 29 April 2020, approximately 88% of all the 15,641 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Singapore are work permit holders, the majority of whom are residing in dormitories. The outpouring of monetary donations and volunteering efforts that have gone towards helping these migrant workers is heartwarming but has also exposed structural issues that exacerbated the impacts of a pandemic on the most vulnerable among us.
A rights-based framework should determine how they are treated, instead of an over-fixation on cost-benefit analyses. We cannot lose our humanity in the pursuit of economic growth and prosperity – so-called ‘policy trade-offs’ are often done at the expense of the welfare of those who are marginalised, with detrimental effects to their physical and mental well-being.
Our prosperity means little when inequality is deeply entrenched & we have failed the vulnerable among us. We call upon the Singapore government, employers, employment agencies, trade unions and all Singaporeans, to closely examine the systemic issues that affect vulnerable groups, including migrant workers, and take concrete steps towards the betterment of their lives.
Recruitment and wage practices need to be altered
The indebtedness of migrant workers due to exorbitant recruitment fees is a significant factor in their compliance with degrading working and living conditions. Further, due to their lack of bargaining power, migrant workers in Singapore suffer from chronically low, depressed wages.
Recalling our previous call for better wage protections for migrant workers, HOME calls for better regulation of recruitment practices to prevent excessive recruitment fees, as well as the setting of minimum wages for workers, to allow our migrant workers better financial security that will empower them to reject dehumanising conditions.
Domestic workers need fundamental employment protections
Migrant domestic workers (MDWs) should be covered under the Employment Act so that the basic rights such as statutory limits on working hours, public holidays, sick leave, and paid annual leave, can be extended to them. The lack of core labour protections leaves them susceptible to a range of well-being issues, including overwork and no entitlements to overtime pay. With entire families staying at home during Singapore’s ongoing circuit breaker period, household and caregiving duties have increased. In the absence of fixed working hours, MDWs’ rest hours, which are subject to the generosity of individual employers, have become even more precarious than they already are.
Another already-prevalent issue that has been made worse during the circuit breaker period is that of MDWs being made to work on their rest days; some are left wondering whether they will be paid for this work. The Employment of Foreign Manpower Act should be amended to define the duration of rest days as 24 hours. This erases ambiguity on whether MDWs are entitled to rest day compensation for work done.
Migrant workers need better recourse to address their mental health concerns
The enhanced isolation of migrant workers at this time (for MDWs, being in their employers houses with little recourse to leave and for the other migrant workers, being quarantined in their dormitories) have left many of them feeling depressed and anxious. Apart from the stress of managing their workload and meeting the needs of their families back home, their anxieties are heightened by lack of rest and poor living conditions – MDWs are sometimes subject to uncomfortable sleeping arrangements with little privacy while those in other industries often live in cramped, unhygienic conditions in dormitories, work sites and private apartments. Workers who are confined to their dormitories, and those living outside of them face tremendous financial and job insecurities which is affecting their mental health.
Counselling and psychological services are not easily available for migrant workers to help them cope with these stresses. It is high time we implement readily-available and free helplines and counselling centres that address the mental health needs of our migrant workers.
Enable migrant workers to speak for themselves
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that migrant workers are indispensable to the functioning of our country. We need to make it possible for them to advocate for their own well-being and for them to speak up without fear of persecution. Migrant workers are best placed to speak about their lived experiences and suggest feasible and effective recommendations. Worker-led and worker-owned unions need to be set up so they are empowered and can represent their own interests, be able to advocate for themselves and reverse the powerlessness they have felt for so long.
Closer partnerships needed between government agencies, civil society and citizenry
We welcome efforts to engage with ground-up movements and civil society organisations. It is particularly imperative that organisations that have had long-term engagements with the migrant worker community are consulted, given their first-hand and in-depth knowledge of the issues.
We hope the pandemic redefines our ways of working and organisations (both new and old) who have a deep understanding of ground realities and abuses faced by migrant workers are part of what we hope is a reset of our migrant worker policies in Singapore.
Lastly, we urge the Singapore government to ratify the International Labour Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention (C189) as well as the United Nations’ International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families and work towards aligning our national framework with these international standards for protecting the rights and well-being of migrant workers.