About a third of Singapore’s three-million-strong labour force is non-resident with almost 90% of this comprising of low-wage temporary migrant workers holding work permits or S-passes.[1] These workers are concentrated in industrial sectors such as construction, shipbuilding and repair, and conservancy and household work where they make up almost the entire labour force. In addition, they make up almost half the workforce in the manufacturing and services sectors. Coming from countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, China, Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia, these migrant workers build our homes, offices and roads. They work to ensure that these places remain clean and functional. They produce commodities that are used domestically and traded abroad. Low-wage temporary migrant workers are thus crucial to how Singapore society operates.

Because of their importance, strict laws govern the employment and presence of migrant workers in Singapore. They are deprived of the opportunity to settle down in the country and are not allowed to bring family members with them here. They are not allowed to change jobs and must leave the country when their contracts end or are terminated. The problems faced by these workers have been highlighted in the state-controlled media from the late1980s. These include low and unpaid wages, harsh working environments, poor living conditions, indebtedness, sudden termination of employment, abandonment by employers, physical and psychological abuse, and forceful repatriation. More recently, the actions of these workers have come under the spotlight in the wake of the SMRT bus drivers strike in 2012 and the Little India riot the following year.

In this article, I reveal three central myths in the portrayal and understanding of low-wage temporary migrant workers that have been perpetuated by state authorities and by society in general. They are:

  1. Migrant workers will be rich when they return home.
  2. Migrant workers are victims of errant employers.
  3. Migrant workers are a threat to society.

These myths are significant in that they shape the way migrant workers are treated by their employers, governed by the authorities and perceived by the rest of society. Not only are these portrayals inaccurate, they also serve to legitimise the way migrant workers are treated. As a result, Singapore, as a society, is not able to properly comprehend, let alone address, the precise problems facing migrant workers.

More significantly, these myths serve to depoliticise the struggles of migrant workers and civil society groups to improve the working and living conditions of the workers. The myths portray the migrant workers as victims of unscrupulous employers and as threats to our society who are fortunate to be here anyway, in spite of their low wages and poor working conditions. These myths prevent us from understanding the workers’ lived realities, and the opportunities, obstacles and dilemmas they face. In unpacking these myths and the vested interests behind them, this article provides an alternative narrative of low-wage migrant workers that are rooted in their lived realties. In particular, the article emphasises the systemic factors – recruitment systems, industrial policy, laws/regulations, or the lack thereof – that undermine the workers’ well-being.

Myth #1: Migrant workers will be rich when they return home

There is a general perception among Singaporeans that while migrant workers may earn low wages (between S$250-S$1,000 a month), this is “big money” in their country of origin.[2] When they return home, the myth goes, they are able to build big houses for themselves and their family and live comfortably. This sentiment is especially prevalent among employers and managers in industries with a high concentration of migrant workers. For instance, it is not uncommon for Singaporean employees of construction firms to recount the time they visited a former colleague in Thailand or Bangladesh to find that they have built a “big house” in their village. This myth thus claims that the wages are not really low, because they are willing to take on these hard jobs for S$18 a day because it will make them rich in their country.[3]

Generally speaking, how far temporary labour migration economically benefits communities in developing countries is still a hotly debated issue among scholars in migration and development studies.[4] In Singapore, it is, in fact, possible for migrant workers to become wealthy upon returning home. However, due to the nature of recruitment systems and government regulations, such outcomes are highly unlikely due to a number of reasons.

Firstly, migrant workers in the construction, shipbuilding and conservancy industries have to pay exorbitant recruitment fees to secure employment in Singapore. Migrants from Bangladesh and India tend to pay between S$2,000 and S$12,000 to work in Singapore whilst often earning only between S$250 and S$1,000 a month. This is due to the many levels of unregulated sub-agents involved in recruitment and the kickbacks that many employers demand for hiring migrant workers. Significant portions of these fees are often borrowed from friends, relatives and local moneylenders. As a result, workers earning S$800 a month take about a year to service an S$8,000 recruitment loan, assuming that they spend only S$130 a month here on personal expenses such as food, off-day transport and mobile phone charges.

Typically, it takes workers five continuous years of work for the same employer to save up enough to renovate the family house or start a new business back home.[5] However, most workers do not last this long in one company. Work permits (and by default, employment contracts) are issued by the Ministry of Manpower only for one or two years. Work permit regulations in Singapore allow employers the right to unilaterally terminate the employment of workers and repatriate them at any time. Migrant workers who have been prematurely repatriated or have not had their contracts renewed will have to pay recruiters again to return to Singapore, oftentimes just to service previous recruitment debts.

Furthermore, agents’ fees come with no money-back guarantees. There are no legal regulations, in Singapore or in sending countries, that allow migrant workers to claim compensation for recruitment fees paid abroad when employment is prematurely terminated. Laws in Singapore also do not typically allow for migrant workers to change jobs – once their work permits expire or are terminated, they are required to return to their country.

In particular, migrant domestic workers (MDWs), who usually come from the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Myanmar, face similar issues. While certain countries have laws which restrict (Singapore, Indonesia) or prohibit (Philippines) recruitment agencies from charging fees to MDWs, these laws are often circumvented by transnational recruitment practices.[6] MDWs do not usually pay recruitment fees upfront, but owe sometimes-fraudulent “charges” for “training” and placement to agencies in both sending and destination countries. As a result, MDWs have to work without pay for up to seven months in order to service these “loans” to agencies.

For workers to financially benefit from temporary migration to Singapore, they would require stable tenure in order to service large recruitment loans and make savings.[7] However, while this is clearly possible, work permit regulations in Singapore allow employers the freedom to terminate employment at any given time, while denying workers the freedom to change employers without incurring further recruitment charges. The myth that migrant workers will be “rich” when they return home obscures very important realities of migrant worker recruitment and employment that leave them vulnerable to debt bondage. It also obscures the multitude of abuses they tend to face while working in Singapore.

Myth #2: Migrant workers are victims of errant employers

Since the 1990s, there have been regular reports of the exploitation and abuse of migrant workers in Singapore. Both male and female migrant workers have been subject to low or unpaid wages, physical, psychological and sexual abuse, abandonment, forced repatriation, and improper living and working conditions. In state-controlled media reports and Ministry of Manpower public statements, these abuses are often attributed to “errant employers” – deviant individuals who do not abide by government regulations or social norms.[8] Such mainstream narratives imply that existing government regulations are sufficient to protect migrant workers. This myth suggests that migrant workers are let down by individuals and not laws, and their abuse and exploitation are exceptional cases rather than systematic.

In actual fact, however, government regulations contribute substantially to the systematic exploitation and abuse migrant workers face. Migrant workers are abused not simply because some employers fail to follow the rules. Rather, certain rules create a propensity for employers to abuse and exploit workers. Some rules leave workers vulnerable to abuse. At the same time, insufficient rules exist to protect workers from abuse.

The Foreign Worker Levy system provides the most telling example of how government regulations create a propensity for employers to adopt exploitative practices in dealing with migrant workers. The levy system was introduced in 1987 to serve as a pricing mechanism or “import tax” to reduce the demand for cheap imported labour. This was in line with the government’s “Second Industrial Revolution” that involved replacing existing labour-intensive production techniques with capital-intensive ones.[9] Accordingly, a tax or levy was placed on importing labour into specific industries (particularly manufacturing, construction and shipbuilding) in order to spur employers to adopt labour-saving production techniques. However, local companies in industries such as construction, shipbuilding and conservancy struggled to cope with this as they were mostly small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). As SMEs, these contractors did not have the resources to invest in new production techniques and (in contrast to local manufacturers) were unable to relocate production outside of Singapore. Their reliance on cheap migrant labour continued whilst the levy only served to increase cost pressures on their business operations.[10]

As a result, many contractors abandon their migrant workers after defaulting on levy payments during lean times. Other contractors take to illegally hiring abandoned workers without having to pay the levy.[11] This has led to a rise in the number of immigration offenders in Singapore from the late1980s well into the 1990s. In 1989, the government responded by introducing mandatory caning for immigration offenders and employers who hired more than five immigration offenders. It was during this period that the discourse of the “errant employer” emerged – the proliferation of “illegal foreign workers” in the construction industry and their plight was put down to irresponsible employers who did not adhere to employment laws. In 1991, the government enacted the Employment of Foreign Workers Act (later renamed the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act or EFMA) which held employers legally responsible for the upkeep, maintenance and repatriation of their migrant workers. Yet, this legislation was not motivated by concerns about worker welfare but to ensure that employers would not dodge levies by abandoning their workers.[12]

In the construction industry, the government’s levy policy has worsened the situation. Despite demonstrating little impact on productivity in the industry, the levy system was retained and tweaked further. Between 1998 and 2013, the levy was raised at least four times from a range of S$100–S$430 in 1998 to S$300–S$950 in 2016. Interestingly, the dependency ceiling (percentage of work permit holders allowed in a firm) was also periodically raised from 50% in 1987 to 87.5% in 2013.[13] Together with rising housing costs for migrant workers, the levy system put huge pressures on contractors in a highly competitive construction industry.

As contractors did not have the means to invest in labour-saving production techniques, they responded by transferring the additional costs onto migrant workers, stagnating or reducing their wages. A quick comparison of wages for migrant construction workers in the 1990s and today reveals that little change despite inflation.[14] While there are a number of factors for this, my research has found that construction contractors actively stagnate wages in response to the rising costs of hiring migrant workers. Salary deductions for expenses such as the levy, food, utilities, housing, medical expenses, repatriation costs, absenteeism, and “security deposits” are also enforced in order to “share” some of the costs placed upon contractors by the state.[15]

Another important strategy used by employers to transfer levy costs onto migrant workers is through kickbacks for hiring and contract renewal. Kickbacks involve employers receiving a cut of workers’ recruitment fees. A prospective worker is connected to a prospective employer through several layers of formal and informal labour recruiters who each take a cut of the initial fee. The labour agent dealing directly with a prospective employer offers the employer a kickback – usually about S$2,000 to S$3,000 – as an incentive for hiring a worker. Aside from covering the cost of the levy, kickbacks are also used to defray housing, medical insurance and repatriation costs.[16] Kickbacks also come in the form of “contract renewal fees” charged by employers to workers to renew tenure. In these cases, workers are made to pay a sum of S$1,000 or S$2,000 in exchange to renew the work permit. These kickbacks are again used to defray various costs associated with the levy and the maintenance of the migrant workforce.

While the levy system is meant to motivate contractors to use fewer workers and increase productivity, it essentially leads to contractors making migrant workers bear the costs.[17] Instead of increasing productivity in migrant worker-reliant industries, the levy system has contributed towards depressing wages and increasing recruitment debt. The levy thus frequently undermines economic benefits that working in Singapore may have for temporary migrant workers. While employers cannot be absolved of their role in keeping wages low and receiving kickbacks, they can hardly be considered “errant”. The government’s levy system clearly generates a systematic tendency for SMEs to engage in employment practices that undermine the welfare of migrant workers.

Contrary to the myth of the “errant employer”, existing employment laws do not sufficiently protect migrant workers from exploitation and abuse. Singapore does not have a universal minimum wage. This gives employers de facto leeway in depressing the wages of migrant workers. Employers regularly make large salary deductions, such as for housing, food, and utilities; these are all legal under the Employment Act even though the EFMA states that employers are responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of work permit holders under their employ. Kickbacks were only prohibited by law in 2012.[18] This means that between 1987 and 2011, it was well within the law for employers to receive kickbacks for employment and contract renewal.

There are now laws and regulations to protect temporary migrant workers from certain employment abuses, such as under-paying overtime rates, salary deductions for levies, “security deposits”, medical bills, absenteeism, and kickbacks. However, workers continue to face obstacles in accessing labour justice when they encounter such problems.[19] Migrant workers who suffer these infringements are usually afraid to report them to the Ministry for fear of losing their job.[20] This is a genuine fear as migrants have large recruitment debts to service and are not allowed to change employers, while employers have the freedom to terminate their employment at any time.

Migrant workers who do report infringements while their claims are processed – which can be anywhere from two weeks to two years, depending on the case –are typically not allowed to work and have to fend for themselves.[21] While employers are required by law to provide for these workers, few do. Furthermore, few workers will risk forced repatriation and physical harm by residing at a dormitory provided by the employer during the course of a formal labour dispute and investigation. Even when they are successful in their claims, some employers refuse to pay what is owed.[22] Ministry regulations allow temporary migrants to remain in Singapore throughout the period of their claims. However, this period does not include the time needed to enforce the court order (should the need arise) as enforcing a court order is not considered part of a statutory claim.

Other government regulations leave migrant workers vulnerable to abuse in other ways. Laws regulating the employment of female MDWs are a case in point. The live-in rule requires the MDW to reside in the home of her employer. Employers are also held legally liable (to the tune of their S$5,000 bond with the Ministry) should the MDW become pregnant. As a result, employers often control the movement of the MDW by confining her to the home and lessening her interaction with outsiders. The worker often becomes isolated from other workers, and is unable to learn of her legal rights or seek assistance for work-related problems.[23] Workplace relations for MDWs can be highly idiosyncratic and contingent on the temperament of household members.

Coupled with other factors such as the lack of employment rights (MDWs are not covered by the Employment Act) and high recruitment debt, the isolation caused by the live-in rule makes MDWs vulnerable to various forms of abuse. A 2005 Human Rights Watch report on Singapore indicated that almost two-thirds of MDWs surveyed were subject to physical and psychological abuse, ranging from repatriation threats, constant name-calling, food and sleep deprivation, forced confinement, beatings, scalding, and sexual harassment and assault. The report also indicated that between 1999 and 2005, at least 147 MDWs died in the course of work, mostly from falling from heights.[24]

While mass media reports and the Ministry of Manpower’s public statements conveniently blame “errant employers” for exploiting and abusing migrant workers, government regulations play a significant role in increasing the vulnerability of migrant workers. The myth that migrant workers are victims of “errant” individuals serves to turn public debate away from policy discussions to employer attitudes. In order to properly address these issues, a frank debate is needed on the objectives and current viability of the levy system. There is also a need to consider how to reform the existing legal framework in Singapore and protect migrant workers from abuse.

Myth #3: Migrant workers are a threat to society

 When not portrayed as victims of “errant employers”, temporary migrant workers are commonly represented as threats to Singapore society. They are seen as potential immigration offenders who may also be involved in crimes such as theft, robbery and sexual offences. They are seen as people whose social norms and mores are inferior to and incompatible with our way of life. Their ways of doing things “back home” – their penchant for strikes, riots and terrorism – potentially threaten the peace and stability that we enjoy in Singapore. These myths are problematic not only because they are rarely backed up by conclusive evidence, but also because they significantly obstruct public debates on issues which impact both the well-being of migrant workers and the state of our society. When migrants are seen as potential criminals, who should be deported or punished for their acts, there is little space to debate pertinent issues surrounding forced repatriation, worker strikes and riots and religious “radicalisation”.

The myth of temporary migrant workers as potential criminals is held among many citizens in Singapore. This myth probably originated from the 1980s when the government was trying to phase out migrant workers amid the proliferation of immigration offenders in the construction industry. In 1983, Professor S. Jayakumar, the Labour Minister, claimed that more migrant workers were involved in crimes such as shoplifting and fighting.[25] A year later, the Straits Times reported,

On crime, Prof Jayakumar said there is cause for concern. “If we take the category of foreign offenders, the percentage of work permit holders is increasing. It was 33 per cent in 1982; in 1983 it was 37.8 percent.” Considering that 10 million social visit passes are issued every year (including to tourists) compared to only about 150,000 work permit holders, “this trend is disturbing,” he said.[26]

The narrative of migrant workers as criminal threats was emphasised in the mass media throughout the 1990s, but appeared to taper off in the following decade. It became an issue again in 2008 when government plans to build a migrant worker dormitory in an upper-class neighbourhood in Serangoon were met with apprehension and unhappiness among residents. The police clarified that temporary migrant workers have a lower rate of arrest compared to Singaporeans and that they are largely law-abiding.[27] While this was in stark contrast to Jayakumar’s statements in 1984, it is important to note the different contexts. In 1984, the government was attempting to phase out cheap migrant workers in its push towards higher technology production. In 2008, the government, now reliant on cheap migrant labour for infrastructural developments, was struggling to find spaces to house the workers amid land-use constraints.

Despite the statements by the police in 2008, migrant workers are still viewed by law enforcement officers as potential immigration offenders. This perception has severe consequences for their well-being. For instance, law enforcement officers have failed to curb the practice of forced repatriation of migrant workers. Employers commonly terminate their workers’ employment and forcibly repatriate them during an economic downturn or when employment disputes arise. They often engage repatriation companies to escort workers from their dormitory or workplace to their office premises, where the workers are confined until they are escorted to the airport for repatriation. The confinement can range from a few hours to over a week. Workers are often intimidated into accepting repatriation.[28]

Forced repatriation involves wrongful confinement and restraint that contravene criminal laws in Singapore. However, it seems that the police have not acted effectively against such practices. According to local NGOs, this is because the police see migrant workers as “social problems and potential immigration offenders” who should be removed from Singapore.[29] While the police have not publicly responded to these claims, the Ministry of Manpower conducted an investigation into the work of repatriation companies in 2011 and found no violations of employment laws.[30] NGO activists, on the other hand, claim that violations occur on a regular basis.[31] Migrant workers who are forcefully repatriated are not only subject to wrongful confinement and intimidation, but are also often prevented from making claims for work injury compensation and unpaid wages at the Ministry of Manpower.[32]

Temporary migrant workers are also viewed as potential perpetrators of strikes, riots and “terrorism” that threaten the stability of Singapore. These fears similarly originated in the early1980s amid the government’s drive to phase out migrant workers. In particular, migrant workers are depicted as a threat to peaceful industrial relations in Singapore, as Jayakumar warned in 1983, “they come from countries where they are used to confrontation with employers, instigation, taking up cudgels…”[33]

Such militancy is seen to be incompatible with the PAPstate’s tripartite labour system, where employers, the state and unions work together to promote harmonious industrial relations.[34]

On the contrary, my research on the workplace politics of Bangladeshi migrant construction workers between 2009 and 2013 reveals that such myths are inaccurate.[35] Rather than being militant, migrant workers consciously avoided confrontation with employers despite being unhappy with working conditions. This was because the workers felt powerless. This sense of powerlessness stemmed from the economic insecurity caused by recruitment debt and the fear of being removed from Singapore at any time.[36]

Work disputes occur only when working conditions or relations with employers deteriorate to the point that they severely undermine workers’ economic and physical well-being.[37] This happens when workers are worked to the point of exhaustion, are given neither work nor wages for long periods of time. They occur also when wage deductions become overbearing or when workers are denied the right to claim work injury compensation. Even then, “confrontation” often begins with a plea – for more rest time, wages to be paid up – or reporting the issue to the Ministry. However, employers typically respond with repatriation threats, physical and verbal abuse and sometimes forced repatriation. Migrant workers are often unable to confront the employer because of this power imbalance. More commonly, workers deserting the workplace to seek the assistance of friends, lawyers, NGOs, or the Ministry of Manpower.[38] Exaggerated stereotypes of labour militancy in other countries usually have negligible influence in Singapore.

Since the 1980s, public assertions of migrant workers as a security threat were not expressed again until the SMRT bus drivers’ strike and the Little India Riot in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Further assertions were made in 2016 when 27 “radicalised” Bangladeshi work permit holders were detained under the Internal Security Act for plans to wage armed “jihad” in their home country. In dealing with these issues as security threats, the government effectively closed-off public debates over a range of pertinent issues that affect both migrant workers and Singapore society.

In November 2012, around 171 SMRT bus drivers from China went on a two-day strike over dormitory conditions and remuneration matters. The workers were unhappy that their dormitories were cramped and unhygienic and that they did not receive the same employment benefits (performance incentives and bonuses) as drivers of other nationalities.[39] Authorities responded harshly – the “ringleaders” of the strike were arrested, prosecuted and jailed, while other participants were immediately deported without trial. SMRT later revised the remuneration system for drivers but denied this was a response to the strike. In the words of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the strike was an “illegal action” which sought to damage the country’s “harmonious industrial relations”.[40] By representing the strike in these terms, public debate on the working and living conditions of migrant workers, specifically the circumstances leading to the strike, was stifled. Rather than a threat to industrial relations, the strike had improved working and living conditions for SMRT bus drivers – as strikes are meant to do! SMRT subsequently also improved dormitory conditions while extending the same employment benefits to non-resident drivers of all nationalities.[41]

The Little India riot, barely a year following the bus drivers’ strike, was dealt with in a similar manner by the government. The riot, which involved an estimated 400 workers, occurred when an Indian migrant worker was run over by a private bus ferrying workers from Little India to their dormitories in the industrial areas.[42] A number of arrests were made at the scene and then at workers’ dormitories, but only a handful was eventually prosecuted. In all, 27 workers were charged in court while 57 were repatriated without trial and 200 were issued with police warnings.[43] Following a Committee of Inquiry into the incident, the riot was blamed on workers acting under the influence of alcohol.[44] The authorities accordingly placed restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol in the Little India district and significantly increased policing in the area.[45] The authorities also interfered with a civil society meeting organised to discuss the riot, although the meeting eventually did take place.[46]

By framing the riot in security terms – as a dangerous event caused by workers under the influence of alcohol –public debate on key issues was obstructed. These issues include intrusive and unfair policing of migrant workers’ leisure spaces by auxiliary police officers (such as those hired by CISCO) and the poor treatment of workers travelling in the private busses ferrying them between their dormitories and Little India. It was particularly telling that while rioters attacked busses and emergency response vehicles, none of the many shops in the surrounding areas were looted.[47] This pointed to that workers’ built-up resentment against bus operators and law enforcement/emergency response personnel. However, when authorities invoked the myth of migrant workers as security threats, the public lost a valuable opportunity to discuss the actual issues that led to the riot.

Another opportunity to debate migrant labour issues was lost when 27 “self-radicalised” workers of Bangladeshi origin were detained under the Internal Security Act in 2016. 26 were immediately deported while one was initially arrested for trying to leave Singapore illegally.[48] While the authorities admitted that they were planning “terror” attacks in Bangladesh, they were concerned that the targets would subsequently include Singapore. In contrast, the Bangladeshi government arrested only 14 of the returnees, charging them with criminal offences and releasing the remaining 12.[49]

While a genuine cause for concern, the securitisation of the issue meant that the public lost the opportunity to learn more about how political developments in origin countries can affect migrant workers in Singapore. Does the matter reflect the rise of political Islam in Bangladesh, a highly moderate Muslim-majority country? To what extent was it a response to the highly politicised war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh? Were the workers planning attacks back home because they saw few prospects there upon completing their contracts in Singapore? The role of the Internal Security Act as a preventive instrument to deal with such threats also needs to be debated and reviewed. Would a criminal justice model be more suitable than a law that has been used to suppress political opponents of the party-state in the past?

When migrant workers are seen as a security threat, they are swiftly arrested, punished and deported. Few efforts are made to determine the causes of unrest. Such measures are often politically motivated to undermine the collective capacity of workers, particularly to organise. Strikes involve workers using their collective strength to demand changes to working conditions; they do not have to be violent. While strikes affect the economic power of employers and the authority of the party-state, their chief purpose is to safeguard the workers’ interests. Riots, being violent and spontaneous, are a very different type of event. But they often share with strikes an important similarity: they are responses to collective and long-standing grievances. This makes it important to investigate the deeper causes of a riot, as of a strike.

By portraying migrant workers as security threats, the party-state thus ignores the underlying reasons for a strike or riot. At the same time, it is able to undermine the political power of labour and its capacity to organise by enforcing draconian measures such as detention and imprisonment, deportation and policing public areas. Ultimately, if strikes are barred and fundamental problems remain, Singapore may suffer further occurrences of violence. The depiction of migrant workers as security threats continues. In April 2016, calls were made by a PAP MP in Parliament to fence off communal areas in Little India from migrant workers because “congregations of such high density are walking time-bombs and public disorder incidents waiting to happen”.[50]


Since 2005, civil society groups such as the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) have been advocating for the rights of temporary migrant workers in Singapore. They provide direct services to migrant workers in need, such as legal assistance, food and shelter, etc. The non-governmental organisations (NGOs) also use the cases they handle to lobby policymakers and persuade the general public to support the reform of migrant labour laws.[51]

These efforts have yielded some success in legislation – kickbacks for employment and work permit renewal were criminalised in 2012 while MDWs were given a mandatory weekly day off the following year.[52] However, enforcement of these laws has been found questionable by NGOs and it remains to be seen how effective the laws are in protecting vulnerable migrant workers.[53] At the same time, calls by NGOs for MDWs to be formally recognised as workers under the Employment Act and for forced repatriation to be criminalized have been ignored by the authorities.

These developments indicate that while reforms may take place, more public pressure is required to truly improve the employment conditions of temporary migrant workers in Singapore. The myths I have outlined are counter-productive to the struggle to reform the laws that regulate the employment of migrant workers. The myth that migrant workers will be “rich” when they return home ignores the reality of recruitment debt, kickbacks and insecure tenure that they grapple with. The myth that the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers are caused by “errant” employers ignores the fact that existing policies and regulations (or the lack thereof) encourage abusive and exploitative employer practices. The myth of migrant workers as a security threat justifies various draconian practices, including as forceful repatriation, against them that undermine their physical and economic well-being. To be constructive, any public debate on migrant worker issues will have to do away with such myths and, instead focus on the realities experienced by the workers.

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This work was first published in “Living with Myths in Singapore” (Ethos Books, 2017). Our thanks to Ethos Books for permission to republish the article.



[1] B. Yeoh, Singapore: Hungry for Foreign Workers at All Skill Levels, 2007, accessed 8 September 2009, http://www.migrationinformation.org/feature/display.cfm?ID=570; Ministry of Manpower; Foreign Workforce Numbers, 28 November 2015, accessed 19 April 2016, http://www.mom.gov. sg/newsroom/press-replies/2014/employment-laws-in-place-to-protect-foreign-worker.

[2] Transitioning.org, Top 10 reasons why Singapore is the BEST place to work in for foreign workers, 16 April 2011, accessed 6 June 2016, http://www.transitioning.org/2011/04/16/top-10-reasons-why-singapore-is-the-best-place-to-work-in-for-foreign-workers/; Hard life, but foreign workers labour on, The Straits Times, 10 December 2012.

[3] Transitioning.org, Top 10 reasons why Singapore is the BEST place to work in for foreign works, 16 April 2011, accessed 6 June 2016, http://www.transitioning.org/2011/04/16/top-10-reasons-why-singapore-is-the-best-place-to-work-in-for-foreign-workers/

[4] See M. J. Piore, Birds of Passage: Migrant Labour in Industrial Societies (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1979); H. de Haas, International Migration, Remittances and Development: myths and facts. Third World Quarterly, 26 (8) 2005: 1269-1284.; World Bank, Migration and Remittances, 2011, accessed 18 April 2011, http://go.worldbank.org/1KDR0ZLEX0.

[5] C.S. Bal, The Politics of Obedience: Bangladeshi Construction Workers and the Migrant Labour Regime in Singapore (PhD Dissertation: Murdoch University, 2013), 89.

[6] N. Constable, Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Migrant Workers (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007), 63-89.

[7] See C.S. Bal, The Politics of Obedience, 83-95; for a more detailed discussion of such possibilities

[8] 8 Ministry of Manpower, Employment laws in place to protect foreign workers. [Press release] 28 November 2014, accessed 19 April 2016, http://www.mom.gov.sg/newsroom/press-replies/2014/ employment-laws-in-place-to-protect-foreign-worker

[9] C.S. Bal, The Politics of Obedience, 49-52.

[10] Ibid., 52-53, 56-58.

[11] Ibid., 53-56

[12] Ibid.

[13] Levy scheme to be extended, The Straits Times, 5 March 1987, 1; Construction 21 Steering Committee, Construction 21: Re-inventing Construction (Singapore: Ministry of Manpower and Ministry of National Development, 1999); Ministry of Manpower, Schedule of Foreign Worker Levy Changes, 2016, Accessed: 8 June 2016, http://www.mom.gov.sg/~/media/mom/documents/ services-forms/passes/schedule_of_levy_changes.pdf

[14] Construction Industry Development Board, Construction Industry Manpower Survey 1995 (Singapore: Construction Industry Development Board, 1995); C.S. Bal, The Politics of Obedience, 62.

[15] C.S. Bal, The Politics of Obedience, 58-63.

[16] Foreigners have lower arrest rate, TODAY,15 September 2008; Stiff penalty if bosses take kick-backs for hiring workers, The Straits Times, 21 June 2008, 51; Construction firm in ‘kickbacks for hiring’ probe, The Straits Times, 6 January 2011.

[17] C. S. Bal, The Politics of Obedience, 58-63.

[18] C. S. Bal, “Production Politics and Migrant Labour Advocacy in Singapore”. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 45 (2) 2015a: 238.

[19] HOME and TWC2, Humanitarian Organization of Migration Economics and Transient Workers Count Too, Justice Delayed, Justice Denied: The Experiences of Migrant Workers in Singapore (Singapore: HOME and TWC2, 2010)

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] J. Elias, “Gendered political economy and the politics of migrant worker rights: the view from South-East Asia”. Australian Journal of International Affairs 64, no 1 (2010): 73-74.

[24] Human Rights Watch, Maid to Order: Ending Abuses Against Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2005)

[25] Jayakumar tells why foreign workers must go, The Straits Times, 7 November1983, 20.

[26] Jaya: Keeping foreign workers has adverse implications, The Straits Times, 14 October 1984,14.

[27] Foreigners have lower arrest rate, TODAY, 15 September 2008.

[28] C.S. Bal, “Dealing with Deportability: Deportation Laws and the Political Personhood of Temporary Migrant Workers in Singapore”. Asian Journal of Law and Society.2, no 2 (2015b): 267-284.

[29] Holding area is a room in the office. Close tabs kept on workers in case they try to run off, The Straits Times, 31 January 2009; HOME and TWC2, Humanitarian Organization of Migration Economics and Transient Workers Count Too, Justice Delayed, Justice Denied: The Experiences of Migrant Workers in Singapore (Singapore: HOME and TWC2, 2010); Migrant workers hunted down in Singapore, The Jakarta Globe, 3 August 2011.

[30] Ministry of Manpower Singapore, Joint Proactive Enforcement Inspections on Repatriation Companies, 21 November 2011, accessed 2 March 2017, http://www.mom.gov.sg/newsroom/press-releases/2011/joint-proactive-enforcement-inspections-on-repatriation-companies

[31] J. Wham, Repatriation Companies: Manpower Minister’s Response Belittles the Efforts of Migrant Workers, 2011, accessed: 25 June 2015, http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2011/11/repartriation-companiesmanpower-ministers-response-belittles-the-efforts-of-migrant-workers/

[32] HOME and TWC2, Humanitarian Organization of Migration Economics and Transient Workers Count Too, Justice Delayed, Justice Denied: The Experiences of Migrant Workers in Singapore (Singapore: HOME and TWC2, 2010)

[33] Jayakumar tells why foreign workers must go, The Straits Times, 7 November 1983, 20.

[34] Ibid.

[35] C.S. Bal, The Politics of Obedience.

[36] C.S. Bal, “Production Politics”, 230-3.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] C. H. Wong, Singapore Strike: The Full Story, 2013, accessed 19 April 2016, http://blogs.wsj.com/indonesiarealtime/2013/08/31/singapore-strike-the-full-story/

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Little India Riot: 18 injured, 21 arrested, TODAY, 8 December 2013.

[43] Ministry of Home Affairs, Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Little India Riot on 8 December 2013. 27 June 2014, accessed 19 April 2016, https://www.mha.gov.sg/Newsroom/press- releases/PublishingImages/Pages/Report-of-the-Committee-of-Inquiry-into-the-Little-India- Riot-on-8-December-2013/Little%20India%20Riot%20COI%20report%20-%202014-06-27.pdf

[44] Ibid.

[45] Singapore Police Force, Calibrated measures to reinstate the bus services and liquor sales at Little India. [Press Release] 18 December 2013, accessed 19 April 2016, http://www.spf.gov.sg/mic/2013/12/20131218_others_riot_measures.html.

[46] T. Xu, Last minute change of venue due to “misrepresented” event, 2013, accessed: 16 April 2016, http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2013/12/last-minute-venue-change-due-to-misrepresented-event/

[47] C.S. Bal and G. Faure, Singapore’s Little India Riots: “Tensions had long been brewing”, 2013, accessed 19 April 2016, http://observers.france24.com/en/20131209-little-india-riots-tensions-singapore

[48] 27 radicalised Bangladeshis arrested in Singapore under Internal Security Act: MHA, e Straits Times, 20 January 2016(a).

[49] 14 of the 26 deported men arrested on their return home, The Straits Times, 21 January 2016(b).

[50] Thinking out of the box, The Straits Times, 7 April 2016(c).

[51] C.S. Bal, Production Politics, 219-242.

[52] C.S. Bal, Production Politics, 229; Singapore domestic workers’ day off. BBC, 26 September 2013, accessed 19 April 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-24216611.

[53] Singapore domestic workers’ day off. BBC, 26 September 2013, accessed 19 April 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-24216611; TWC2, Kickbacks are illegal, but how to eliminate them? 10 August 2015, accessed 19 April 2016, http://twc2.org.sg/2015/08/10/ kickbacks-are-illegal-but-how-to-eliminate-them/.


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Charanpal S. Bal is Deputy Head (Global Class) at the Department of International Relations, BINUS University, Jakarta. He received his PhD from the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University, Australia and was a joint-winner of the Asian Studies Association of Australia PhD prize 2014. Charanpal researches migrant labour politics and Southeast Asian political economy. He is the author of Production Politics and Migrant Labour Regimes published by Palgrave Macmillan, UK.