The General Election (GE) has not fought on the rights of migrant workers for “obvious reason”, but the advocacy groups have made progress to ensure migrant workers’ rights are being taken care of, said activist Jolovan Wham in the Ethos Books’ gathering of civil society.
Mr Wham was among the panellists in the Ethos Books’ gathering of civil society that aimed to bring together activists from different areas. The gathering, which titled The Ground Speaks: Civil Society After GE2020, was live-streamed on Facebook on 26 July.
“For obvious reasons, elections are not fought on the rights of migrants and foreigners,” the activist remarked.
Mr Wham noted that elections campaign rhetoric has always been “quite anti-immigrant”, which wasn’t helpful to the advocacy groups as the Government’s response was to create the distinction between migrants and Singaporeans, even on issues related to fundamental human rights.
“One example I can give is that the Government has actually withdrawn subsidies of medical treatment for all foreigners in public hospitals, and this has affected their access to treatment,” he added.
However, Mr Wham believes that the advocacy groups have made progress for migrant workers’ rights.
“But reflecting on the work that has been done so far, I think despite general elections and despite the politics, we have made progress through a combination of approaches and tactics. Providing direct services with advocacy has been effective for groups such as HOME and TWC2,” he stated.
According to Mr Wham, the combination of closed-door dialogues, campaigns, and public critiques have helped to shape the discourse in migrant workers’ rights.
He pointed out that advocacies are not only about changing the laws and policies but also about ensuring that the existing laws and policies are consistently being enforced, hence the non-governmental organisations’ (NGOs) role as “the watchdog” is important.
“In the early years, Manpower Ministry officials often would mediate employment disputes such that workers would pay for their own repatriation tickets. But this is actually against the law. So NGOs like HOME played a role in pressuring Manpower Ministry officials.
“All that was achieved through a lot of dialogue and casework and that’s why today we don’t see situations where migrant workers are forced to pay for their own air tickets, even though that regulation has been there for a very long time,” Mr Wham explained.
He also indicated that the gathering of evidence through direct services casework is an important strategy for advocacy groups, noting that this strategy would lend immediacy to a policy that is not being enforced by the Government.
“So other policy changes which we’ve made progress on includes like the day off for domestic workers (though a lot of problems there but at least we have the law), salary payment issues, criminalization of kickbacks, forced repatriation of workers, and there’s a more liberal policy now in terms of allowing workers to switch employers freely and also in the work injury compensation claims, benefits and procedures,” said Mr Wham.
While in terms of shaping the public opinion on migrant workers, he opined that exposing stories of migrant workers’ rights on social media have been “very powerful” to raise public awareness.
“I remember when I started out [as an activist] people were generally very puzzled about the types of problems that migrant workers face, but now there’s a lot more awareness and that awareness has also led to the creation of many other groups,” the activist added.
Mr Wham went on to say that civil society, in general, would also need to identify ways to incorporate the promotion of civil and political rights in its work regardless of the respective issues that are being highlighted.
“I say this because there’s a lot of self-censorships, there’s a culture of fear, and there’s a lot of issues relating to transparency of information and data. So, how do we work together to tackle these issues? How do we encourage greater risk-taking in advocacy? And how can we support one another better in taking these risks?” he noted.
“So, to do all these, we really need to be in solidarity with one another,” Mr Wham remarked.