The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) released a report on Monday (31 August) pointing out five major concerns and struggles faced by Bangladeshi conservancy workers (BCWs) in Singapore.
These concerns include excessive debt burdens, depressed wages, long working hours and heavy workloads, a lack of rest day, and restricted access to medical care.
HOME said that its report, which is titled Coming Clean, started out as an outreach programme back in 2013 in order to get to know to BCWs, and then discovered that their working conditions are something that have to be looked into. As such, the migrant rights group spoke to over 30 BCWs between 2014 and 2020 to find out about their working situations.
“Conservancy workers are essential workers who maintain our high-rise public housing estates, ensuring that they remain clean and habitable. Every day, they empty rubbish chutes, wash common areas, and sweep corridors, roads, and carparks, amongst other things,” the report stated.
It added that official data showed that the total cleaning workforce in Singapore stands at 57,000 – with 40,000 Singaporeans and Permanent Residents (PRs) and 17,000 migrant workers working as cleaners.
“However, despite their ubiquitous presence in our housing estates, insufficient attention has been given to address the needs and circumstances of our conservancy cleaners,” HOME noted.
Problems faced by BCWs
Excessive debt burdens
One of the key concerns with these workers is that they pay recruitment fee in the range of S$8,000 to S$14,000 to agencies, while they earn a gross monthly salary of S$500 to S$800.
To make it worse, these agents or agencies may also ask illegal cash payments, or “kickbacks”, in order for their contract to be renewed for a year. The cost for 1-year contract renewal is S$2,500 and S$4,000.
“While collecting kickbacks is a punishable offence, this practice is indeed an open industry secret, with employers finding ways around these obstacles,” the report claimed.
The report explained that one of the way kickbacks are collected is by employers outsourcing the task to collect the illegal cash payments to external agents to disguise the money received from their employees.
“Reporting employers for kickbacks is very risky for the workers as many are threatened by their employers with termination and repatriation. It is also difficult for them to file such reports as kickback transactions usually do not leave a paper trail, making it unlikely for the authorities to accept such complaints.”
However, HOME also stated that there are companies who don’t ask for kickbacks for contract renewal, but offer relatively low wages to their workers.
The second concern faced by BCWs is the extremely low wages that they receive. Their gross monthly wages can range from S$500 to S$800, but their basic salaries can be much lesser, ranging from about S$300 to S$400.
“The difference between basic salaries and gross salaries is attributed to the long working hours and lack of rest days, which increases the monthly wages earned when working hours are accounted for. In general, the basic hourly rate for BCWs is extremely low; around S$2 per hour, sometimes less,” the report said.
However, it remains unknown if these entitlements are calculated while following Singapore’s labour laws as time cards and itemised pay slips are not carefully scrutinised, the report found.
Some might get their payslips, but there are some who are not allowed to keep theirs, HOME said. But the migrant rights group noted that all the BCWs that they spoke to did not receive time cards.
Long working hours and heavy workloads
Another major issue that BCWs face is the long working hours and heavy workloads, coupled with poor remuneration.
“BCWs generally work 12-hour days, although work intensifies during festive periods, when work can extend to 15 or 16 hours per day. It is not uncommon for BCWs to clear the rubbish from 30 blocks of flats each day, while also being expected to sweep the corridors and the car parks in between,” HOME explained.
It added, “There is also an expectation that BCWs should be ‘on standby’ 24/7 to attend to unexpected mishaps that require cleaning, such as loansharks splashing paint. In one estate, some BCWs are also tasked to clean the estate’s hawker centre and wet market, leading to exhausting 16-hour workdays.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has also increased their workload given that there is more rubbish to clear as people remain indoor and increased the frequency of cleaning. “However, while working hours have increased from 12 to 16 hours, none of the workers we (HOME) spoke to reported an increase in their wages or allowances.”
No rest days or annual leave
In the report, HOME said that many of the BCWs that they spoke to do not get any rest days or annual leave at all. What makes it worse is that they are threatened to be repatriated if they ask for a rest day, HOME noted.
“On important cultural holidays, such as Hari Raya, some cleaners, at the discretion of their employers, are granted a mere few hours ‘off’, to have lunch and visit the mosque before resuming work. The lack of rest days can take a drastic toll on the physical and mental health of the BCWs.”
Restricted access to medical care
Such long working hours, lack of rest days, and low worker ratios vis-a-vis their workloads impact workers’ access to medical care and their recovery from illnesses and injuries.
Despite falling sick, BCWs are afraid of, and simply cannot take medical leave- they must continue to work in physically demanding jobs without getting the rest they require to recover fully, the report pointed out.
Suggestions to tackle the issues
In the report, HOME also came up with its own recommendations on how to solve the issues. They are listed below:
- Ensure regular weekly rest days
- Ensure equal pay for equal work starting by including BCWs in the Progressive Wage Model and increasing their wages such that it matches that of local cleaners employed for the same job
- Foreign worker levy payments should be redirected from being paid to the state to increasing salary payments for BCWs
- High recruitment fees and ‘kickbacks’ also need to be tackled better
- Undertake a review of the tender process where cleaning companies have to bid for contracts with the Town Councils. Pressure to keep costs down has resulted in the exploitation of many BCWs.
HOME added that these workers perform work that is essential yet stigmatised, with pay rates and working conditions few, if any, local workers would accept.
“Their exploitative realities are multifaceted and intertwined, but we must work towards treating all workers fairly regardless of nationality or citizenship, and ensure that the fundamental labour rights of all are duly respected,” it concluded.