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News & Analysis

Migrant Workers Help Singapore Students Gain a Global Perspective

By Kalinga Senevratne*

SINGAPORE (IDN) - Government statistics show that in this affluent Southeast Asian nation, one in three workers are migrants.  They build the modern infrastructure, clean the buildings, cook and serve in restaurants, look after the children and elderly at home, while often being paid very poorly and treated shabbily and looked at suspiciously by the locals. [P36] JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF

Beginning with the 2013 Little India riots where hundreds of Indian workers attacked police vehicles to the recent arrest of 27 Bangladeshi workers suspected of having links to Islamic terrorist groups, there has been much tension in the community with regards to migrant workers. As one law student put it: “We only find out about migrant workers through second hand sources which does not really say who they are.”

Though this is not a peculiar phenomenon to Singapore, yet, with one of the highest ratios in the world between migrant workers and the local population, and with most of these workers coming from neighbouring countries in Asia, ill treatment of foreign workers in the country could have regional diplomatic repercussions.

The weeklong Migrant Workers Awareness Week (MWAW) that started on January 31 was an initiative launched by the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2014 and expanded this year to include the Yale-NUS joint-venture university.

It was designed to expand the scope of law studies by getting the students to mingle with migrant workers and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that work with them to find out first hand about the workers, their hopes and aspirations that have brought them to Singapore to work. It was an initiative of the law school to especially sensitize the law students to the legal, social and political issues that encompass labour migration.

The five-day series of events brought together close to 400 students from the two elite universities with NGOs and up to about 130 foreign workers. It started with Bengali poetry reading on January 31 that reflected the loneliness of Bangladeshi workers here and ended with a “talk in the park” between students and migrant workers in a darkened area at night on February 5. In between there were panel discussions on the law and migrant workers, social issues dealing with domestic workers and trafficked sex workers.

“Many of our students come from rather affluent middle class backgrounds,” law student Victor David Lau, Vice President of Events at NUS Law School told IDN. “So we come from a position of privilege and we may overlook certain matters such as the rights of migrant workers.”

“Many of our students may have a domestic worker at home,” he added. “This person is a citizen of another country and needs to be respected.”

Though Lau believes that the changes in mind-set of law students may not come overnight and would take time to develop, the university’s out-of-class room education strategy is designed to address the problem of students having a stereotype view of migrant workers through second hand information obtained from the media that does not reflect the hardships workers go through, nor their hopes and aspirations that drives them to work overseas.

In addition to the panel discussions and meeting in the park, students were also taken on guided tours to a foreign worker dormitory and the “red light” Geylan area to observe sex workers at work.

Opening the weeklong education process, Dean of the NUS Law Faculty Prof Simon Chesterman said that there is an underbelly to Singapore’s prosperity and that is the rights of migrant workers. “Our students are encouraged to do pro-bono work to help migrant workers to deal with constant problems,” he noted. “I have seen at Changi airport foreign workers returning home without their legal grievances resolved.”

In the opening panel discussion of the MWAW under the theme of ‘Migrant Workers: Persons or Projects?’ there was much debate about the need to improve legal protection for the foreign workers. The panel’s moderator, senior law lecturer Prof Sheila Hayne, said that when she first came to Singapore she was warned that Singaporean law students were only interested in getting their grades and going on to make money. “But, I have found many are socially aware,” she noted. “Many migrant workers come to us and complain about the injustice.”

Prof Hayne believes that with socially aware law students there will be possibilities of making a difference working and networking with migrant workers, NGOs, community, government officials and the media.

Pointing out that there is a foreign domestic worker force of 227,000 in a population of 4 million in Singapore, Jolovan Wham, Executive Director of the domestic worker advocacy NGO HOME argued that there is a historical perspective about unpaid home care that tends to downplay the rights of domestic workers.

“There is no focus on human rights and labour rights of domestic workers, instead the relationship between the employer and the worker is based on loyalty and trust,” he noted. “By treating the domestic worker as part of the family, it reinforces that she is not an employee. So limits on working hours, holiday entitlements and union protection are not given.”

Wham argued that domestic workers have to be included in the Labour Act. But, fellow panellist, Tan Fang Qun, Deputy Director of Workforce Policy and Strategy of Ministry of Manpower (MOM) disagreed, arguing that the domestic workplace is very difficult to be included in a legal framework. He cited a recent foreign worker survey conducted by his ministry that found that only one in ten foreign workers were unhappy with working conditions in Singapore.

Alex Au from the NGO Transient Workers Count Too, another NGO that handles thousands of migrant worker complains each year, disagreed and in a passionate address to the students and academics, he argued that the structure of the Singapore economy need to be understood before healing the problem of exploitation of foreign labour. “Migrant workers are disposable, Singapore gives priority to corporate rights over human rights and workers’ rights,” he lamented.

Both Wham and Au pointed out that one of the biggest areas where migrant workers are exploited is by recruitment agents.

As of December 2014, there have been more than 1.3 million migrant workers in Singapore. 73% of these workers are work permit holders who are classified as unskilled or low-skilled workers and they come here through recruitment agents who charge them anything between $3,000 to $10,000 to find them a job that would pay you as little as $400- 600 a month.

Most of the workers who come under this category are from the Philippines, Bangladesh, Myanmar, India, Indonesia, Nepal and China, where these payments are not documented. Thus, even though such payments are outlawed in Singapore, MOM is unable to stop the practice.

Both Wham and Au believe that if the future lawyers are made aware of the problem they may be able to help to find legal remedies to this modern day scourge. “All the NGOs give plenty of opportunities for volunteers to participate in our work” said Au, adding that they take sometimes 100s of students at a time to help them to conduct surveys, to go out to the community and talk to workers and find out if they get proper salaries and so forth.

Wham pointed out that HOME has only 6 full time staff and the missing link is to translate awareness into action. He believes that law students in particular should be well equipped to help in this task.

“You need to go and talk to your MPs (member of parliament) about migrant worker rights,” he argues. “Let your MP know that we care about global issues – about rights of migrant workers”.

Law student Lau says that with the seminars involving the NGOs, they are trying to reach out to the academically oriented students. “Not only that these students will bring these issues into their assignments, but also need to incorporate it in their work as well,” he argues. “Education is not only about studying but also creating a social effect and if we can bring these social ideas to their work it will be great.”

*The author is a Sri Lanka born journalist and academic, who teaches regional communication issues at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Please click here for the writer’s articles on IDN. [IDN-InDepthNews – 6 February 2016]

Photo: A student viewing the migrant worker exhibition at the National University of Singapore (NUS) library | Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne

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