Migrant workers’ “silent acquiescence” to SGWorkPass app cannot be construed as supporting policy, says SMU researchers

Migrant workers’ “silent acquiescence” to the SGWorkPass app — which determines which workers are allowed to leave dormitories for work –- cannot be construed either as support for the policy or its accuracy, said researchers from the Singapore Management University (SMU).

In a research paper titled “The Vulnerability Project: Migrant Workers in Singapore”, researchers from the Centre for AI and Data Governance at the SMU School of Law noted that it is compulsory for migrant workers to install the TraceTogether app and obtain a “green” status on their SGWorkPass app before being allowed to leave dormitories for work.

They explained the status of one’s AccessCode takes into account three parameters which include their health, residential address and whether their company is allowed to resume work.

Dormitory operators are also tasked to verify the workers’ status and would only allow the worker to leave the dormitory if the status obtained is “green”.

Citing China’s Alipay Health Code, which generates QR codes for individuals based on their health status, the researchers pointed out the similarity between the AccessCode feature and Alipay Health Code.

“Codes are similarly assigned via a traffic-light principle: red, yellow and green that corresponds to high, medium or low risk respectively,” they said.

The researchers brought up complaints made by the Chinese citizens on social media, which criticized the Government’s lack of transparency on how Alipay Health Code app operates and what data is being collected and stored.

There were also complaints about the efficacy of the app and how they are unable to correct any erroneous “red” designations.

As a result, some citizens faced difficulties to travel within and beyond the province, and even to attend their workplaces, due to the app’s faulty health scores.

“Although there have not been any similar complaints raised against the SGWorkPass app, the “silent acquiescence” from a vulnerable group cannot be construed either as support for the policy or its accuracy.

“Reflecting on the more vocally attested Chinese experience, authorities should review the internal architecture of the application regularly to reduce any likelihood of similar discriminatory outcomes and concerns,” said the researchers.

They indicated the SGWorkPass app’s traffic light configuration as “problematic”, given that the worker’s ability to leave the dormitory for work is depending on the employer’s initiative.

“If his [the worker’s] employer omits to send him for his mandated biweekly COVID testing, the worker will receive a red status on his SGWorkPass,” the researchers asserted.

To prove this, they cited an incident that happened in August last year, whereby the authorities rescinded the approval for 280 workers to resume work due to their employers’ failure to book routine testing for the workers.

“The triggers for these restrictions influencing workers already limited capacity to leave their dormitories (for the purpose of work) occur beyond the workers’ individual or collective control, depending as they do on the intervention of third-party approval,” said the researchers.

The researchers opined such “utilitarian” can ignore the impact on worker’s right to self-determination

The technologies were lauded for its ability to provide clarity to workers on their work-approval status and their safe resumption of work, but such “utilitarian” and “economically driven” reasonings would neglect the impact on worker’s right to self-determination.

The researchers hinted that many migrant workers find the opportunity to resume work become “more pressing” as they have to comply with the system.

They noted the lack of opposition from migrant workers contrasts with the 54,000 signoffs against the release of a mandatory TraceTogether Token in the general community.

“Prioritizing the efficacy of the application with discriminatory costs for workers’ individual and collective liberty to enjoy more than the benefits of employment, necessitate frequent re-evaluation to ensure that along with economic advantages, health and safety considerations are respected, leading to a return to more equitable outcomes,” the researchers explained.

Despite the effectively mandatory nature of COVID-19 contact tracing TraceTogether app for the migrant worker population, they pointed out that there has been “little disquiet” evidenced in that community.

“The absence of disquiet among migrant workers should be read against their deep-seated vulnerability if it came to demonstrating their participatory voice in social debates.

“Their passive compliance is also likely to indicate their other more pragmatic priorities and concerns (e.g., financial security, and continued residency) overriding demands for privacy as an unaffordable luxury,” said the researchers.

Migrant workers are not only forbidden to leave dormitories, but they are also monitored via GPS tracking

Aside from the TraceTogether app, migrant workers are also required to install the FWMOMCare app –- which would further facilitate their safe resumption back to work –- and submit a health declaration through the application twice a day.

FWMOMCare collects information such as body temperature, heart rate, and oxygen saturation.

Workers are also required to scan the QR code affixed to their room door and report their location at the start and end of work via the application.

The researchers highlighted that FWMOMCare app uses GPS tracking to verify that the data subject is located in the dormitories registered as their residence.

“It is an individualised regulatory burden that in addition to TraceTogether, SGWorkPass, and specific obligations under the EFMA already forbidding workers’ leaving their dormitories, information is also collected on whether the workers’ are/are not in their rooms through GPS tracking,” they added.

Furthermore, the accumulation of such personal data — with no clear indication of how the collected information will be utilised or repurposed — challenges data protection and privacy priorities, said the researchers.

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