The living conditions in the migrant worker dormitories have become the subject of public discussions lately, as migrant workers account for nearly 80% of the COVID-19 cases in Singapore that have escalated dramatically.
While the Singapore Government focuses on mitigating the virus transmission within the dormitories, questions were raised on who should be held accountable for the well-being of migrant workers.
On Tuesday (5 May), an article published in Academia SG and written by Shona Loong, a Doctor in Philosophy (DPhil) candidate at the University of Oxford, describes how employers were being held responsible for migrant workers’ welfare to dire effect.
“COVID-19 advisories often pass responsibility onto employers for the well-being of migrant workers, including those particularly vulnerable because they are recovering from workplace injuries, or in disputes with employers over unpaid salaries,” she asserted.
This structure of responsibility increases the likelihood that migrant workers’ basic needs go unmet and that they will be subject to abuse, said Ms Loong.
To demonstrate the implications of when employers failed to adhere to the Government’s laws, Ms Loong shared the story of a migrant worker whom she approached via telephone conversation.
The migrant worker, Zakir, works in the construction industry and currently lives in a room with five other men in the Little India area.
Ms Loong highlighted that he is more concerned about money and food as he has not been paid for several weeks now.
Zakir was also threatened by his landlord that if he fails to pay rent (S$250 per month), his electricity and water will be cut off.
“If I have the money, I can go back. But everybody depends on me,” he told Ms Loong.
Due to the issuance of a stay-home notice (SHN), he was prohibited to leave his residence. Although the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has advised employers to arrange for catered food and other daily essentials for their migrant workers, Zakir claimed that he and his roommates have not received any food from their employer which forced them to take turns to buy meals outside.
Noting that he is aware of the consequences for breaching the SHN, Zakir told Ms Loong that he sees no alternatives other than buying food outside as the cost for food delivery is too expensive.
Ms Loong shared another story, involving Zakir’s roommate, Shahid, who was injured at work. On his way to the hospital for an appointment, he was stopped by a police officer who redirected him to MOM to obtain permission to visit the hospital.
“By then, it was too late for him to go. Shahid must wait for a new appointment and his injury may take longer to heal. SHN guidelines state that foreign employees should consult with employers if they need medical attention, although Singaporeans and tourists can call the SHN hotline,” Ms Loong explained.
She indicated that the roundabout route to medical care has hit injured workers hard, adding that there are about 2,600 workers consulted with the Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) – an advocacy group for migrant workers in Singapore – for injuries, unpaid salaries, and other problems every year.
The structure of responsibility assigned to the employers
According to Ms Loong, by laws, employers are required to take responsibility for their workers’ food, accommodation, and healthcare even under normal circumstances.
“Specifically, the law states that employers are “responsible” for “the provision of adequate food and medical treatment” and “bearing the costs of such upkeep and maintenance”. Zakir and Shahid’s experiences reveal what happens when employers do not adhere to these rules,” she wrote.
In the article, Ms Loong highlighted that this structure of responsibility is realised through certain incentives and costs.
“Employers take out a S$5,000 “security bond” for every Work Permit holder they employ; this can be forfeited when they shirk responsibility for workers’ “upkeep and maintenance”, or when workers run away,” she stated.
However, the employers may confiscate their migrant worker’s passport and control the movement of the worker if they are afraid of forfeiting the security bond. Ms Loong pointed out that it will be difficult for the workers to change employers and employers are able to cancel Work Permits at any time.
“Migrant worker shouldering thousands of dollars of debt are even more likely to acquiesce to this state of affairs,” she asserted.
As for the policies that imply migrant workers’ food and housing should be resolved within the employer-employee relationship, it enables employers to deduct the workers’ salaries in purpose to provide accommodation and food for the workers. Meanwhile, migrant workers are unable to speak up about the food and accommodation to their employers due to the inequality in their relationship.
“In the case of workers staying in “isolation area” dormitories, the Government is catering meals, but it is unclear whether this cost will be passed on first to employers, and potentially then to workers in the form of salary deductions,” she noted.
Ms Loong hinted that in dormitories where restrictions on workers’ movement are not strict, employers were advised by the MOM to ensure safe distancing measures were being implemented within the dormitories and that the MOM will penalise “irresponsible practices and behavior”.
“This can be especially difficult during the pandemic, as employers struggle financially. In response, the MOM proposed some “cost-saving measures” for employers,” she added.
Ms Loong further asserted that MOM’s advisory was criticized by the TWC2 for condoning to salary deductions for low-wage workers. TWC2 cited MOM’s advice that says, “employers must notify MOM if the cost-saving measures result in more than 25% reduction”.
“The sentences that TWC2 quotes from MOM have since been amended so that the advisory no longer discusses migrant workers’ wages. However, salary cuts are still possible, and payroll support schemes still exclude firms that hire migrant workers,” she explained.
Moreover, employers may even take extreme measures to contain the virus within the dormitories and to avoid being penalised. Ms Loong relayed about the incident at Joylicious dormitory where twenty migrant workers were confined in their room after one of their roommates was tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.
“The Joylicious case demonstrates the egregious consequences of outsourcing the state’s public health responsibilities to dormitories and employers, who already wield significant power over their workers,” Ms Loong stated.
The role of NGOs is also at stake, says Shona Loong
The outbreak has inevitably led the NGOs – who promote migrant workers’ rights and welfare – to be more visible in the eyes of the public.
“For instance, the COVID-19 Migrant Support Coalition, which has raised more than S$400,000 to date, provides migrant workers with meals, sanitation products, and support for recreational activities. Other organisations too are receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations,” Ms Loong said.
Ms Loong noted that the Government has recognised the role of NGOs as she referred to the statement that says the Government’s coronavirus taskforce is “coordinating NGOs’ efforts” in disseminating information, providing essentials, attending to emotional wellbeing, and relaying feedback.
She also relayed about the Joylicious saga which has proven the function of NGOs as a channel to voice migrant workers’ grievances.
“By writing about Joylicious on Facebook, TWC2 effectively introduced public checks and balances for other “workers at risk of similarly being locked up”. Containing NGOs’ efforts within government channels—as the MOM has asked TWC2 to do—dampens their ability to fulfill functions outside of direct welfare assistance,” Ms Loong said.
Other than that, NGOs are also able to assist vulnerable workers who are facing serious injuries and unpaid salaries. Ms Loong discovered the Government oversights and how things could be improved for the migrant workers when she was volunteering at the TWC2’s meal service.
“However, the taskforce separates the “welfare” function of NGOs from their ability to shed light on systemic problems. This is a disservice to the insights that many NGO staff and volunteers glean on the ground, which can be used to avert the multiple vulnerabilities that migrant workers face during this time,” she asserted.
The Government should take more responsibility
First and foremost, the Government should consider extending payroll support for employers that hire migrant workers, while ensuring that migrant workers are paid, Ms Loong suggested.
She opined that the Government should take more responsibility in fulfilling migrant workers’ basic needs, indicating that it is “naïve” to think that providing benefits to employers will promise the well-being of migrant workers, despite the employers are encouraged to do so.
Apart from that, the Government should also recognize NGOs’ roles beyond the provision of masks and meals as their roles are critical to ensure that the workers’ concerns are being heard.
“The outbreak in dormitories provokes reflections on the relationship between state, employers, and civil society. After all, NGOs called for improved housing for migrant workers even before the first clusters in dormitories broke out. We need an openness to questioning the model of growth that packed them into dormitories in the first place,” Ms Loong asserted.