A fund-raising campaign entitled, Ray of Hope was set up on the 6 April this year by the COVID-19 Migrant Support Coalition (CMSC) to support various initiatives to help our migrant workers.
According to its website, it aims to raise $1,000,000 to provide for the immediate and medium term needs of our migrant workers as well as to provide support for other evolving needs that crop up during the Circuit Breaker measures. While this is a well-intentioned effort, it is worthwhile to examine why such a fundraising exercise is needed in the first place?
Singapore has relied on the labour of our migrant workers for many years now. For each migrant worker employed, the employee has to pay the government a monthly levy. In most cases, this levy is almost as high as the salary of the migrant worker in question.
As of June 2019, there are 725,200 migrant workers in Singapore. Based on the calculations made by Dr. Stephanie Chok — whose thesis ‘Labour justice and political responsibility: an ethics-centred approach to temporary low-paid labour migration in Singapore’ was the runner-up in the 2015 ASAA President’s Prize for the best thesis on Asia submitted in 2014, the government could have collected up to $2.6 billion in migrant worker levies just based on these work permit holders.
It is noteworthy that this is based on a conservative estimate on her part given that migrant worker levies range between $300 to $950 per month per worker for the construction sector while work pass holders in the marine sector will cost between $300 to $400 per month per worker.
What has the government done with all this money?
Looking at photographs of our migrant worker dormitories, it is probably fair to say that the money has not been used to provide good quality accommodation for the migrant workers. And we are well-aware that they do not enjoy subsidised medical treatment from the state, relying on medical insurance paid by their employers on top of the levies paid.
Would Ray of Hope need to raise $1,000,000 if just a fraction of the annual migrant worker levies is used to help? Why the need to ask for public donations when there was staggering $2.6 billion collected? Be reminded that this is still just a part of the total levies collected each year from 1.2 million workers.
As an aside, why is the levy for blue-collar migrants so high anyway? If the levy was less, our migrant workers would be better (and more fairly) remunerated for the back breaking work that they do.
As quoted by Rice Media in their interview feature piece, a dormitory operator shared, “What I’m trying to say here is that all these work hand in hand. Say an employer only has X dollars to spend per worker. This has to cover all three costs. In my opinion, if the levy was lower, it would allow us to afford better accommodation, improve their food, or pay them more.”
Blue collar workers rights in Singapore have never had the reputation of being high. Back in 2012, bus drivers who had dared to strike over apparently unfair and arbitrary changes to their employment contract were severely punished. Some were imprisoned and all who took part in the strike were deported. From this example, it is clear that potential unfair treatment faced by migrant workers are not new issues. It is also noteworthy that the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) may not have the best interests of the migrant workers at heart.
Yeo Guat Kwang, who is the current Chairman of the NTUC’s Migrant Workers Centre (MWC) had said in a 2010 interview with the China Labour Bulletin (CLB) that migrant worker rights will always be subordinated to the national interest.
Yeo who was a People’s Action Party Member of Parliament and former co-Chairman of MWC said: “When we look at the migrant workers’ issue, we are not looking at it from the perspective of human rights. We are looking at it on a need basis… Like it or not, we need to sustain and grow an economy that is able to generate an annual per capita [GDP] of US$35,000. At the end of the day, whatever factors would be able to help us to sustain the growth of the economy for the benefit of our countrymen, for the benefit of our country; we will definitely go for it.”
Many have already criticised the Singapore government’s endless focus on GDP figures saying that there is no correlation between those figures and the standard of living in Singapore. Yet in Yeo’s words, we are making use of migrant workers to generate this mystical GDP. To what end?
The migrant workers are now ravaged by COVID-19 and Singapore has been identified as a developed country with one of the highest wage disparities between the top and bottom segments by the London School of Economics (LSE).
Looking at the overcrowded and poor housing provided to migrant workers in light with Yeo’s words and taken together with Dr Chok’s calculations plus observations made by the LSE, it would appear that it is the government that has come out tops with the billions it has collected over the past decades. And yet, we are asked to fund raise to help the migrant workers when that could easily have come out of the levies it collected!
Where migrant workers are concerned, a systemic overhaul is long overdue. From the levies to the salaries to the housing to our over reliance on them to generate GDP — all completely outdated models for growth!