BY POH YONG HAN
In Singapore, the pandemic has exposed the crowded and sometimes squalid conditions of migrant worker dormitories, and has led to much public discussion over the kinds of changes we would like to see post-pandemic. Currently, much of the discussion has centred around improving dormitory standards, and MP Louis Ng has filed a Parliamentary Question to clarify these standards. However, as Alex Au, Vice-President of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) pointed out, dormitories are not the problem—they are merely the tip of the iceberg. The poor conditions we see today are actually the result of much deeper, structural issues at play—ones that relate to low wages, high agency fees, and how the Work Permit scheme is designed.
I want to flesh out some of these root causes and explain how, unless these structural issues are addressed, improving dormitory standards alone will merely be a cosmetic solution to the underlying issues at hand. In answering why these structural issues are of concern, I also want to make a case for why our current migrant worker policy is not just inefficient or leaves much to be improved, but also wrong, from an ethical standpoint. I include suggestions on how we can make our migrant worker policy fairer to migrant workers, and briefly discuss some of the trade-offs entailed.
Discussions of Singapore’s migrant worker policy cannot be divorced from Singapore’s broader migration regime as a whole. Generally speaking, our migration policy operates on neoliberal principles; in other words, access to rights are tiered according to how economically desirable a prospective migrant is. To facilitate this, the state has invented a whole apparatus of visa categories: from the Permanent Residency, to the Employment Pass, to the S-Pass, to the Work Permit.
The Work Permit scheme is located at the bottom of the hierarchy, an example of a guest worker program, or temporary managed migration program, where large numbers of low-wage workers are allowed to enter Singapore on highly restricted rights to work in specific kinds of jobs, mostly in the construction and domestic work industries. Work Permit holders are not allowed to change jobs once they arrive in Singapore; they are also not allowed to marry a Singaporean Citizen or Permanent Resident without prior approval from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), and female Work Permit holders who are Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) are subject to compulsory pregnancy check-ups every six months. Those who are pregnant are subsequently deported. Unlike migrants on other visa categories, migrant workers are also not allowed to bring their dependents to Singapore.
Such programs are not unique to Singapore—many other countries like Canada, Germany, and Qatar also have them. These temporary labour programs are designed to help states fill urgent labour shortages, without granting these workers concomitant rights one would expect of residents and citizens. However, as we have seen in the case of Singapore, they often turn into semi-permanent, structural schemes over time, for states either choose to rely on a “revolving door” policy of cheap, disposable labour to fill labour niches or else rely on a contingent of guest workers that become “permanently temporary.” States benefit from being situated in broader global inequalities, for it ensures they will always have a willing and ready supply of cheap labour. Such programs depress wages in these industries, and reduce incentives for countries to find ways to raise productivity levels or find ways to make these jobs more attractive to locals. In Singapore, we have seen how the reliance on cheap foreign labour has led to stagnant productivity growth in the construction industry.
Given how these guest worker programs are situated in global inequalities, we need to ask ourselves if it is fair for Singapore to exploit these inequalities to hire large numbers of migrant workers at the prevailing wage rate, even if these wages are slightly higher than what they might have earned back in their home countries. It is true that many migrant workers knowingly incur significant debt and risk to obtain a Work Permit, to come to Singapore to engage in hard labour for low wages under difficult conditions. This view of “willing choice” is often used by free market advocates to defend status quo – they argue that because migrant workers came to Singapore by choice, with full knowledge of the low wages and poor conditions they would be labouring in, there is no reason why we need to improve conditions for them.
However, as I hope to show in the rest of the essay, the “free market” produces many outcomes that we might deem simply inhumane from an ethical perspective, and thus warrant government intervention. In the next part, I outline basic rights that I think every migrant worker should be entitled to and suggest how we can achieve them.
Institute Minimum Standards of Living (Dorms, Food)
From a person-centred, needs-based, capabilities approach (Sen, 1999; Nussbaum, 2000), we can think of all the most essential aspects to a migrant worker’s standard of living, and try to institute minimum standards, particularly in the realms of where they live, and what they eat.
First, where do migrant workers live? Currently, employers are responsible for deciding where migrant workers live. Some of them live in purpose-built dormitories (PBDs), that come with recreational centres that include cinemas, cricket fields, and badminton courts. However, many others live in factory-converted dormitories (FCDs), or else rent from the private market, and live in shophouses or partitioned HDBs. The Foreign Employers Dormitories Act regulates only PBDs, and does not regulate alternative kinds of housing. This is why even one week ago, volunteers at SG Accident Help Centre were still reporting stories of migrant workers sleeping 35 men to a room, in an FCD located in the Tai Seng area.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) has set out detailed standards outlining what these recommended provisions are (such as one bed to each worker, provision of canteens and laundry rooms, suggested recommended occupant density ratios, adequate sanitation facilities, and proper inspection) Even if we exclude non-PBD housing from these guidelines, Singapore’s performance based on current dormitories produces mixed results. For instance, adequate sanitation facilities are defined as “a minimum of one toilet, one wash basin and one tub or shower for every six persons.” Currently, under the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) guidelines in 2016, dormitories need only provide at least one set of toilet facilities for every 15 dormitory residents.
Of course, why should Singapore follow the ILO’s standards, instead of URA’s? How does the ILO arrive at its answers of what a reasonable ratio is? In a separate document, the ILO actually contradicts its earlier 1:6 ratio by pointing out that “Standards range from 1 unit to 15 persons to 1 unit per 6 persons.” Determining what is an “acceptable” ratio will always be a slightly arbitrary (and normative) decision, and perhaps the URA can flesh out for the public what its considerations are in deciding these minimum guidelines.
Next, what do migrant workers eat? Currently, many migrant workers get their meals via third-party food caterers This is because about half of migrant worker accommodation today lack kitchens, and their long working hours also mean even those who do lack time to prepare their own meals. Because migrant workers are paid low wages, many attempt to spend money by paying for the cheapest food possible. Unsurprisingly, such food is often insufficient to meet their nutritional needs. In many dormitories, Red Bull is the most common beverage in vending machines, because migrant workers rely on them for energy to supplant their energy needs for hard labour. Sometimes, caterers also deliver food outside stipulated hours, such as delivering lunch at 4 a.m. in the morning. Unsurprisingly, such food quickly goes rancid, and The Straits Times and TODAY have run stories detailing such unhygienic practices, which often lead to food poisoning among workers.
Clearly, there needs to be better regulation around food. Even if the free market means that the “choice” of poor-quality food is a willing one, we need to ask ourselves if, as with the case of dormitories, if there are certain minimum rights that we should help uphold. In my view, access to adequate amounts of food that meet their nutritional needs is a basic human right. At the very least, to borrow neoliberal thinking, having better quality food is also in the interests of employers and the state, for it makes workers more productive, reduces risks of accidents or injuries from fatigue, and makes them less susceptible to food poisoning.
Set Minimum Income Thresholds
We might agree that current dormitory and food standards are inadequate, and commit to try and improve them—indeed, there has already been plenty of discussion about how to do so. However, improving dormitory and food standards alone don’t actually address the heart of the matter: that migrant workers “choose” such poor living conditions and food because of the low wages they receive. With such low wages, migrant workers are hard-pressed to scrimp and save. Madhavan, a migrant worker from India, illustrated some financial concerns of migrant workers in his film, $alary Day. In my view, the issues of poor food and accommodation cannot be readily addressed unless Singapore takes steps to implement a minimum wage for migrant workers.
Of course, the idea of a “minimum wage” is complicated by the fact that Singapore lacks a minimum wage even for local workers, even if milder varieties of “Workfare” or a Progressive Wage Model exist. Our anathema to any form of “welfare” as a whole, and indeed, suspicion of “rights-based” arguments in policy-making (particularly if they run counter to neoliberal ideas of economic efficiency) might make advocating for a minimum wage for migrant workers a distant reality.
One way to get around our own ideological blinkers would be to reframe this as a “minimum income threshold.” Currently, all other visa categories already impose minimum income thresholds that prospective workers must meet. Why not do the same for Work Permit holders? Singapore can simply refuse to take in workers whose prospective jobs don’t meet such basic thresholds. This will ensure that those who do come to Singapore can at least afford basic standards of living.
Such a move will inevitably hurt the newest and youngest migrant workers, for it might mean they will simply not be hired at all. It will also lead to inflation and rising business costs. The public should indeed ask themselves if their sympathies towards migrant workers will last post-pandemic, and if they would be willing to bear the economic burden of doing so, particularly in a climate of economic uncertainty. This will also disproportionately affect SMEs in the construction industry, which have the smallest profit margins. Many of them might become bankrupt, and choose to go out of business entirely.
In the long run, however, it can help incentivise companies to reduce reliance on low-wage workers altogether. This will pressure construction firms to upskill existing workers and invest in ways to raise productivity, and perhaps even incentivise Singaporean residents to enter these industries. Indeed, imposing a minimum income threshold could be part of a larger policy objective to reduce Singapore’s dependence on foreign workers altogether—a call that has been made by several others such as economist Yeoh Lam Keong, and Straits Times associate editor Ven Sreenivasan.
In the short run, firms might need additional government support to transition to these new wage thresholds, but it could eventually make our construction industry leaner and less labour-intensive. To minimise disruption, these minimum income thresholds could be implemented gradually and with great care, the same way the PWM was introduced. Of course, the hard part comes in the specifics: where should we set this threshold, and how do we decide where to set it? From a rights-based perspective, we can consider what an appropriate Minimum Income Standard (MIS) for migrant workers is, by adapting similar methodologies from a study commissioned by the Institute of Policy Studies that looked at what a living wage for senior citizens entailed in Singapore. From an economic perspective, we can think of how to price it so as not to exacerbate labor market distortions.
Tackle High Agency Fees
The issue of low wages is further compounded by the high agency fees migrant workers have to pay in order to even come to Singapore. For many migrant workers, these fees can range from a few thousand dollars to ten, or even twenty thousand dollars. The high agency fees mean that for many migrant workers in Singapore, their first few years are spent paying off accrued debts used to sponsor their passage to Singapore, and they pocket very little of their actual earnings. Factor in high living costs in Singapore and the need to remit most of the money back home to support their families, and you have a situation where migrant workers don’t actually have very much money left at all (and therefore are more likely to accept poor dormitory and food standards, and also less likely to report exploitation).
One solution would be to set maximum limits on how much money brokers can make. Singapore already regulates how much local agencies can make. However, most of these migrant workers come to Singapore via home country brokers. Some of these major countries of origin do set maximum worker-paid migration costs before departure—the Philippines sets the maximum at one month’s foreign earnings or 4.2% of foreign earnings for a two-year contract and 2.8% for a three-year contract. However, the majority of migrant construction workers hail from countries like Bangladesh and India, which currently do not set these limits. Singapore does not have jurisdiction over these countries, and cannot intervene on their behalf due to issues of sovereignty.
Perhaps Singapore should adopt employer-pays-all costs principles, as outlined by the ILO, or else specify the shares of migration costs that employers and migrants themselves must pay. Indeed, countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand already adopt such principles. Another solution would be for Singapore to help cut out the middlemen entirely. One way middlemen can be cut out would be for companies to hire from sending countries directly. However, smaller companies would understandably not have the resources to do so. Another way is for transnational NGOs like Hong Kong’s Fair Employment Agency to fill the gap.
Loosen Work Permit Restrictions
Beyond instituting minimum income thresholds and tackling high agency fees, we also need to ask ourselves if the current work permit scheme is overly restrictive, particularly in producing outcomes that undermine basic human rights.
Currently, the Work Permit scheme ties migrant workers to specific employers. The supposed policy intent behind this is to ensure that migrant workers do not moonlight in other industries and depress wages for locals. However, such a rule also exacerbates an already unequal power dynamic between employers and workers, discouraging workers from complaining to authorities even in the face of employer abuse and exploitation, for fear that employers would simply fire them, which would mean they would be repatriated without an opportunity to recoup the debts they incur from high agency fees.
Such situations create significant psychological distress, and undermine worker’s right to leave companies that have abusive or exploitative workplace practices. As scholars like Stilz have pointed out, guest worker visas ought not to be tied to a particular job—they ought to be free to quit their jobs and look for another one without fear of immediate deportation. Otherwise, migrant workers have to suffer in silence at the hands of employers who wield much power over not just their livelihoods, but also their very right to reside in Singapore.
It also creates unnecessary costs for workers.Sometimes, workers come on Work Permits sponsored by financially unstable SMEs that then declare bankruptcy, and are left with no wages, significant debt, and the threat of immediate deportation. This is because workers are not allowed to simply switch jobs without first returning to their home countries, and re-applying for a different Work Permit with a different company.
To circumvent the issue of depressing wages in other sectors, workers could simply transfer their Work Permit by working for another firm in the same industry. Stilz also suggests fixing the time for which guest workers can remain in the country while searching for another job at a reasonable period, say between three and six months.
To MOM’s credit, the ministry has taken steps towards allowing for some flexibility, and workers already in Singapore can simply apply to transfer their Work Permits to a different employer. However, this only applies if workers’ permits are about to expire, and does not give existing workers the right to find another job, should they find their current employers abusive or exploitative.
Provide Pathways to Citizenship, Or At Least, Residency
Given this context, where migrant workers accrue significant debt and risk to take up low-wage jobs with poor living conditions in host countries due to their position within broader global inequalities, some question whether a guest worker program like the Work Permit scheme can ever be ethical (Ruhs, 2005). These scholars and migrant rights advocates critique temporary managed migration programs for amounting to nothing more than modern-day indentured labour.
It is not just that migrant workers have to incur great debt to come on a Work Permit that subsequently ties their ability to pay off these debts (and right to reside) to specific employers. It is also that these workers are expected to be content with minimal rights, no matter how long they work here, for access to membership rights (such as the right to vote, or the right to social provisions) is tied to residency. Even if we tackle the issue of low wages and high agency fees, the bigger question is whether it is ethical for states to benefit from the presence of a large army of low-wage workers, without ever granting them pathways to citizenship, or at least, residency, over time.
Why are pathways to residency or citizenship important? For one, residency and citizenship often entails access to a set of social, economic, and political rights that are otherwise not available to non-residents. In this way, guest worker programs represent a form of second-class citizenship that is fundamentally inconsistent with liberal democratic ideals (Kymlicka, 2001; Walzer, 1983).
Of course, we might agree that not everyone deserves these rights, just because they are legally residing in Singapore—we don’t extend the right to say, social provisions like subsidised healthcare to short-term visitors like tourists, or even international students on student visas.
However, the difference is that unlike tourists or students, migrant workers participate more fully in the domestic market, and reside for a much longer time in Singapore. Many of the migrant workers in Singapore actually labour in Singapore for many years—five, ten, or even fifteen years. Zakir, a prominent local migrant poet, has been in Singapore for more than seventeen years. In my opinion, residence creates new obligations: temporary workers, on account of residency alone, are owed membership rights due to participation in practices of reciprocal social cooperation (Stilz, 2010). Otherwise, as Walzer suggests, to tolerate second-class residents without providing pathways to residency is equivalent to creating “a family with live-in servants,’’ in which some are ‘‘governed without their consent’’ by a ‘‘band of citizen-tyrants’’ (Walzer, 1983; 52-54).
How many years is sufficient? Political and moral philosopher Joseph Carens suggests that five years is a reasonable (if still arbitrary) time that should entitle legal residents to permanent residency. The European Union issued a similar directive in 2003, recommending that third country nationals (including guest workers) be granted a right of permanent residence if they have been legally residing in an EU state for five years.
In the long run, providing migrant workers pathways to residency can also mean that the original purpose of temporary managed migration programs like the Work Permit scheme is fulfilled—that they help fill temporary labour shortages, instead of devolving into a semi-permanent structural program that exacerbates wage disparities between local residents and migrant workers.
In sum, even if we address the issue of poor dormitories and poor food, we aren’t actually tackling the underlying structural issues that explain why migrant workers “consent” to poor dormitories and poor food in the first place. In my view, the more sustainable solution is to institute minimum income thresholds and address the issue of high agency fees to ensure that migrant workers who do come to Singapore can afford a basic standard of living, however we come to define that.
Beyond that, we also need to ask ourselves if the current structure of the Work Permit scheme is fair to migrant workers. As it stands, I think the scheme is designed too restrictively, and migrant workers should be free to change employers within the same industry without fear of deportation.
More broadly, I also think it’s time to reconsider the role of the Work Permit scheme in Singapore’s labour landscape, and ask if it has outlived its original purpose of fulfilling temporary labour shortages. In many ways, the Work Permit scheme has taken a life of its own in producing unintended consequences: a continued dependence on low-wage foreign labour enabled by a perpetual pool of cheap labour due to global inequalities, and the stagnation of productivity in the industries that hire large numbers of foreign labour. In my view, providing migrant workers with a pathway to residency can address both the rights-based perspective (in providing migrant workers access to membership rights), and the economics perspective (in encouraging firms to upskill existing workers, and in eventually weaning off our reliance on permanently temporary low-wage labour altogether).
Part of the goal in writing this essay is also to show how the lens and language we choose matter in determining the sorts of questions we ask—and naturally, the answers we arrive at—when dissecting migrant worker policy. Often, I find that policymakers and migrant rights sympathizers are talking across each other—the policymaker is interested in policy goals unique to the state (naturally excluding non-residents), and adopts a neoliberal framework in deciding them. On the other hand, migrant rights sympathisers are primarily interested in rights-based arguments, which centre discussion around what the migrant worker deserves. In the end, both parties are frustrated by the lack of mutual understanding, often because the very language they use and ideologies they believe in seem so fundamentally incompatible.
I have tried to reconcile both perspectives in this essay, albeit to varying degrees of success. As a migrant rights sympathiser, I think we need to start considering the ethics of our migration policy more seriously and not just as an afterthought, and that can mean challenging some of the broader neoliberal assumptions that govern our migration policy as a whole. At the same time, I recognise that all policy decisions entail trade-offs, most of which have no immediate or apparent answers (otherwise, I assume that these policies would already have been implemented, in technocratic Singapore). There are multiple dimensions of justice involved, and some of these suggestions would inevitably hurt various local populations in Singapore, each to varying degrees. How do we weigh these trade-offs? Whose interests do we prioritise?
Ultimately, I am hopeful that ethics and economics need not always be in opposition. As I fleshed out in some of these trade-offs, a more ethical migration policy can also be a more economically sound one, in the long run if not in the short run. We have benefitted from—no, exploited—low-wage migrant labour for far too long. It is time to do our moral duties and make our migrant worker policy fairer to all.
Poh Yong Han studies Anthropology and East Asian Studies at Harvard University, with a secondary in Ethnicity, Migration and Rights. She has written about migrant worker issues for The Diplomat, Rice Media, Singapore Policy Journal, and Southeast Asia Globe.
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