There are almost a million work permit holders in Singapore, labouring in a range of low-wage, stigmatised professions: construction, manufacturing, domestic work. But many face physical and social segregation, and are excluded from data on Singapore’s resident population.
This week, Dr Stephanie Chok from the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) and Debbie Fordyce from Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) join New Naratif to talk about this marginalised segment of Singapore’s population, and what the impact is on not just Singaporeans, but also the workers and their families back home.
PJ Thum: Hello and welcome to New Naratif’s Political Agenda, our fortnightly podcast on Singaporean politics and current affairs. Political Agenda is brought to you by New Naratif, a Southeast Asian platform for journalism, research and community organisation. I’m your host PJ Thum, but enough about me today. Today we have a fantastic podcast for you. And with me, as always, is our wonderful, wonderful Editor-in-Chief, my co-host Kirsten Han, who, this very morning we found out received an Honourable Mention by the World Justice Project for her extraordinary reporting on rule of law issues in Singapore, as part of the Anthony Lewis Prize for Exceptional Rule of Law Journalism. Hooray! Yay! Congratulations, Kirsten, how do you feel?
Kirsten Han: Um, I didn’t think that I would get it. I didn’t even know that they gave out Honourable Mentions. Everybody keeps asking me if I get a trophy now, but I don’t think I do, but it’s very nice anyway.
PJ Thum: Did they specifically cite any articles that you wrote, or is it just for your body of work over the past year?
Kirsten Han: They just sent me a letter saying I got an Honourable Mention, but it didn’t tell me what articles specifically they were looking at.
PJ Thum: So if our audience wants to read more of your work over the past year, can they go to your website or something?
Kirsten Han: Yeah. I have a portfolio that’s just on kirstenhan.com and then there’s a portfolio of the work that I’ve done that’s been published.
PJ Thum: Fantastic. Great. Okay. So with us today are two experts in the field of migrant workers in Singapore. To my right, Dr Steph Chok, who is advocacy and communications manager with the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics or HOME, and she has a PhD from Murdoch University. Her PhD thesis actually was on the migrant construction workers in Singapore who built the Marina Bay Sands, and she’s volunteered for HOME since 2008 and actually spent a year as the case manager at their shelter. Is that correct?
Stephanie Chok: Yes, that’s right.
PJ Thum: Welcome, Steph.
Stephanie Chok: Thanks for having me.
PJ Thum: How are you feeling today?
Stephanie Chok: Well, good, good… Revived after this cup of tea.
PJ Thum: Magic tea! And also with us today is Debbie Fordyce who is the coordinator for the Cuff Road Project, which is a meal programme in Little India, which has been running for more than 10 years and recently celebrated a million meals served. And she’s also on the executive committee of Transient Workers Count Too or TWC2. Welcome Debbie.
Debbie Fordyce: Thank you very much.
PJ Thum: How are you today?
Debbie Fordyce: I’m fine. And I’m honoured to be here.
PJ Thum: No, the honour is all ours. So today we’re talking about migrant workers and I think the first question that we need to ask, to set the context is: who are we talking about? Who are migrant workers? So Debbie, would you like to start first?
Debbie Fordyce: I think we need to make clear that when we talk about foreign workers, we’re not talking about the foreign professionals. We’re talking about the low wage workers, work permit holders. And what distinguishes them from other foreigners that people might notice is that they have no minimum salary. They’re usually relegated to jobs that Singaporeans would not want to do because they’re the 3D jobs: Dirty, Dangerous, Demeaning. And there are almost a million people in this category. So I deal mostly with male migrant workers, specifically those people who’ve made a claim for work injury compensation or salary nonpayment or some other kind of claim or complaint. And I think Stephii will talk more about the female workers.
Stephanie Chok: Yeah. We don’t just have male migrant workers in Singapore. We also have a large number of migrant domestic workers. I think Singapore has… I think the second largest concentration of documented migrant domestic workers in Asia. So we have about almost 250,000 domestic workers. Approximately one in five, some people say one in three, households in Singapore hire migrant domestic workers. We’re highly dependent on them for care work. We also have migrant workers in a wide range of sectors from construction to manufacturing to the service sectors. So like Debbie said, they are all in stigmatised professions in Singapore.
PJ Thum: So it sounds like this is a very diverse community then.
Debbie Fordyce: It’s a diverse community, certainly in terms of nationality. And that’s something that we wish that we were able to get more figures on. We don’t actually know how many people there are from each nationality. Among the male workers we see mostly Bangladeshi, Indian, Chinese… as far as TWC2, we don’t deal with Malaysian work permit holders, and that’s largely because if they have some problem with their work, it’s easy for them to go home and it’s easy for them, easier for them to negotiate the terms of their other job. The lowest paid workers are Bangladeshis, and so the majority of the people we deal with at TWC2 are the Bangladeshi male workers. They are about over 80% of the men that we deal with.
Stephanie Chok: We also have source country restrictions in Singapore under the work permit regime. So unlike for Employment Pass or S Pass holders, the state doesn’t determine what job you can work in based on your nationality. But if you’re a work permit holder, the state will determine if you are from this country, then you can only work in this occupation. So that’s why for domestic work, we only have women from Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar or India because those are the countries that are so-called approved source countries. For construction, South Asia and China. But for the service sector, for example, Bangladeshis are not supposed to work in the service sector, unless the cleaning company has a town council contract, then they can hire Bangladeshi men. Otherwise they’re not allowed to work in service sectors or in manufacturing, but we don’t have figures because the state doesn’t release figures, disaggregated data on how many workers from which country are actually in Singapore.
Debbie Fordyce: I think that generally Singaporeans are largely unaware of the kinds of restrictions that apply to work permit holders and the nature of their jobs, and the nature of the problems that they face in these jobs.
PJ Thum: Let’s talk about some of these problems. There’s this broad understanding that there’s some exploitation going on, but I think for most people it’s just this vague idea that people are being exploited. What is the problem, really?
Debbie Fordyce: Right. Where does that exploitation come from? I think that a lot of it starts with the recruitment and so recruitment for Bangladeshi workers, for instance, could cost them, for their first job up to between $15,000 and $20,000, for a job with an average salary of $500 a month.
PJ Thum: That’s Singapore dollars?
Debbie Fordyce: That’s Singapore dollars. Yeah. And so this is not something that’s extracted by a legal employment agent in Singapore, but I think it has a lot to do with the lack of employment opportunities in Bangladesh. So they’re desperate to go abroad. So with those kinds of recruitment fees, exploitation is much easier. Once you’re indebted to that extent either to banks, to moneylenders, to friends and family, by the sale or lease of your family’s land or by sale of family’s jewellery… Once that happens, you’re in a position where you will continue to work no matter what the conditions.
PJ Thum: Just back of the envelope… $15,000 to $20,000. So a worker has to work for basically three years just to make back the recruitment fee.
Debbie Fordyce: It sounds like it doesn’t make sense and people say, “Can’t they just do the math? Can’t they do that back of the envelope calculation?” But it’s often because when they’re told, when they first meet the recruiter, they’re told, “You have to pay this amount of money first for the training”, which might cost $10,000. The same training that if they did in Singapore, would have cost $1,000 to $2,000. So they’re told they have to pay $10,000 for the training and then a few more thousand to take the exam to get the training certificate, and then more to arrange the passport, and then more to speed things up so that they don’t have to remain at the training centre, and then they’re promised a salary which might be twice that, they’re promised you’ll be able to get $1,000 a month and they think, “That sounds fine, it won’t take that long to get back this money. It should be done within a year.”
Then they find that they’re actually going to be given only $500 and perhaps not the overtime opportunities that they expected. And there may be deductions that they hadn’t expected and they may have to pay kickbacks to the employer for things that they hadn’t expected. Kickbacks for the extension of the work permit or kickbacks just to get that overtime. So there are a lot of unexpected things that go on there. And so just about everyone we find who’s making a salary claim has not anticipated these kinds of things, has not anticipated the amount of money he has to pay to get here or the amount of money that is going to be deducted from his salary.
PJ Thum: Two weeks ago we had, on this podcast, we were talking to Singaporean hawkers who told us about ridiculous contract terms that they were getting and it seemed to me like that was the height of exploitation. But this is way beyond that. And all of this is legal?
Debbie Fordyce: No, no, of course not. Of course not.
Stephanie Chok: Well, some things are, some things aren’t. So kickbacks are illegal. It’s an offence. The problem, though, is that there’s very little evidence. Usually when somebody extracts an illegal payment, they’re not going to give you a receipt, right, or leave a paper trail. So even though it’s an offence, very few workers would be able to have the evidence even if they wanted to make a claim. And often they don’t want to make a claim because it means risking their jobs. So that’s illegal. But then there are things that are not illegal, so paying somebody $1 an hour, it’s not illegal in Singapore because we don’t have a minimum wage.
Kirsten Han: And hasn’t HOME seen cases of workers who are shown an In-Principle Agreement that they would be paid a certain amount of money and then they show up in Singapore and they’re given another In-Principle Agreement, which is like half or third of the amount of money? How often does that happen that the contracts are substituted or the In-Principle Agreement—which some workers don’t realise it’s not legally binding—gets changed?
Stephanie Chok: So contract substitution and deceptive recruitment and also wage manipulation or manipulation of documents is something that we see quite regularly. So it would be like the situation you described, where they are promised one amount in their country of origin and then another amount surfaces when they are here. Sometimes those salary rates are revised after they arrive, which is also legal if you get the worker’s consent. After the worker arrives and if they are already heavily indebted, it’s not difficult to extract that consent from a worker.
Debbie Fordyce: Let’s call it an In-Principle Approval. So that’s the name for it. And Stephii, because you’ve worked with more Chinese workers, you’ve probably seen contracts. Working with Bangladeshi workers, we rarely see a contract. So all the man often has to show how much he expects to get is his In-Principle Approval and as she says that can be… They may be shown one paper before they leave their country and then another paper as soon as they get here, or they may just be given a salary slip that has an amount that’s very different and perhaps it’s been adjusted. So it does have to have the man’s consent, but we have seen quite a number of cases where the employer has notified MOM that they’re adjusting the salary downwards. Another thing about wage theft that we hear quite often from the men that come to us is being forced to sign salary slips when they start work or before they start work, they might be given 12 monthly salary slips that just have nothing written on them at all and they’re asked to sign these 12 slips. So if they’re not paid or if they’re underpaid, if and when they do decide to make a complaint about that, the employer has all the evidence he needs to show that he has been paid his wages.
PJ Thum: What about working conditions? We hear a lot about injuries to the workers. Is that a major issue?
Debbie Fordyce: I think it is. I think it is, but that’s partly because most of them I see are injured. It does have a lot to do with working conditions. And I think that, for instance, back injuries are very common and a lot of these men are being asked to carry things that are beyond the legal limit. I think it’s 25kg that should be the limit of what they carry. And we do hear quite often of people who have to lift and carry things that are far beyond that limit. So there’s that and there’s substandard PPE. Personal Protective Equipment or equipment that is broken or is not effective, and there’s no way of replacing it. So that, that certainly does happen too.
PJ Thum: What about the domestic workers?
Stephanie Chok: At our shelter, we’ve housed about over 800 women in a year. So the top problem reported is overwork. Excessive hours of work. Domestic workers are not covered under the Employment Act, so there are no regulations on working hours. So we see women who, at our shelter, complain about working 17 to 18 hours a day, sometimes every day. Complaints of overwork and also emotional abuse. Verbal abuse is another top complaint as well as illegal deployment, and inadequate food, which is something that really surprised me when I started working at the shelter. That in Singapore, where there’s so much food wastage and where we are celebrated for being a culinary capital, that we saw so many domestic workers regularly complaining of inadequate food. Of course, there are also salary complaints and then physical and sexual abuse and harassment, but also things like being denied rest days, and having their communication devices confiscated or severely restricted. So it’s really a combination of all these things, right? That keeps them really isolated and vulnerable.
PJ Thum: New Naratif published an article a while back on Indonesia’s first female suicide bomber. And one of the things that struck me was that she didn’t get radicalised in Indonesia. She got radicalised while she was a migrant worker, first in Singapore, and then in Taiwan because of, fundamentally, the dehumanising effect of her employment. She was denied time off, denied the ability to meet her friends. She ended up spending all her time alone and online and that’s where she then got in touch with the group which radicalised her, and so it sounds like we are damaging people’s mental health through what they are experiencing, either as a construction worker, a domestic worker, as a low-wage migrant worker in Singapore.
Kirsten Han: I believe HOME has done research on the mental health of domestic workers and found the first year is the most vulnerable because of the indebtedness. So they’re homesick and there’s culture shock, but they can’t go home because they owe so much money.
So domestic workers, it’s slightly different from the male migrant workers because the domestic workers, they basically get what is called a “loan” and then they spend the first, almost the best part of the first year, paying back the loan. So I’ve interviewed domestic workers who say that their first seven to nine months in Singapore, they’ve worked with no rest days but actually didn’t get any salary because they owe this “loan”, which is actually like their agent fee. And so on those days, in that seven to nine months, she doesn’t get to go out, she doesn’t meet friends because she has to literally no money and sometimes no phone, because the employer confiscates the phone.
I’ve also met domestic workers who were very stressed. And when you talk to them, it sounds like what they’re getting is culture shock because… in the one case where we went back to her village in Indonesia—and she lives in a very rural Surabaya—you go to a house and it’s got dirt flooring and there’s one light bulb in the whole house. And suddenly she was in Singapore and everything had buttons and microwaves had buttons and there were washing machines. And she didn’t really speak much English. And when she told her employer that “I don’t want to do this anymore, I want to go home”, the employer was like, “But I paid the levy and I paid this loan thing for you. You can’t go now. What will happen to me?” So it became a situation where both she and the employer was stressed about different things, because both of them had put money into this and it was a situation that wasn’t working for either one.
Stephanie Chok: The loan repayment system is very problematic, like you said, because for six to eight months… Because employers pay this upfront fee to the agency and then deduct it off the domestic worker’s salary. So during that period of time, they often impose additional restrictions, because they are very concerned that the fee they paid upfront is not going to be recovered through the labour of the domestic worker. So they might impose no rest days during that period, they might confiscate her mobile phone or restrict her communication with others, so that kind of further isolates the domestic worker at a period where she’s still trying to familiarise herself with being in a new country and working for this family with their specific demands. And we have had several cases where domestic workers want to leave and the employer will say, “No, I paid X amount of money for you.” And this is very commodifying kind of language used, right? “I paid for you”…
Debbie Fordyce: As if they belong to that employer.
Stephanie Chok: Yeah. And I think if you think about how recently MOM had to fine an agency for “selling” domestic workers on Carousell… did you read about that in the papers? So that’s like a manifestation of how we commodify migrant workers and domestic workers.
Kirsten Han: You see it a lot when you go to Katong Shopping Complex and things like, “Oh you know, if you don’t like her you can bring her back” as if you’re trading in a fridge or something, or like celebrity endorsement.
Stephanie Chok: Yeah. So like “free replacement”. Or a certain number of replacements. And then if you go to the agency they will say, “Oh, do you want a fresh maid?” Meaning someone who’s just… for the first time.
PJ Thum: Why is the system structured this way instead of a normal system of employment contracts like the rest of us have? Do you know the history of this and how it evolved to become this really exploitative and dehumanising sort of system?
Debbie Fordyce: I feel that with the Bangladeshi workers and their recruitment fees, it’s because of this extreme desperation to go abroad to work. It’s a lack of job opportunities at home. So a lot of these men come from fairly well-to-do families, landowning families, and families where the man is not expected to do manual work. So he’s been brought up in such a way that he would expect to do something that’s an office type job. So they might be equipped to do that, but those jobs are simply not available. And because of the demand for these overseas jobs which pay foreign currency and should pay money or promise to pay money, there has been created this layer upon layer of middlemen who are extracting money from the worker to go abroad. And so this is not of Singapore’s devising.
Singapore has tried to do something about that by saying that everyone should go through a legal employment agency, but the men that we see don’t go through legal employment agencies. Most of the money they spend is spent before they arrive here. Now some of it we do know goes to the company here, and the company is probably thinking “if everyone else is taking a cut, I should get my cut too.” But I suppose the authorities here, they are somewhat aware of this, the amounts that are extracted from the men before they come. But the result of it is it works out to Singapore’s advantage to have people who are so indebted that they will continue to work long hours at very low pay.
So this is not something that was devised by Singapore, but I think that the result of that has been that a lot of that corruption from their country has filtered into Singapore. And so we hear people talk about having to pay directly to their Singapore bosses here or to their Bangladeshi supervisors. So with that kind of corruption, it finds its way into Singapore and I think that the construction and the marine industries here have developed this system of corruption, of exploiting the workers by asking them to pay and also expecting them to work exceedingly long hours for very low wages.
PJ Thum: As a historian, it doesn’t make sense to me because we had an oversupply of labour in the 60s and 70s. We had a strong trade union movement and part of the reason, why historically we regard the People’s Action Party as such a success, and Lee Kuan Yew as such a success, was that he was, they were able to address this major problem of an oversupply of labour and do so while still respecting labour rights. So how did we get from that to our current situation? Somewhere along the line, something must have happened. Was it a gradual corruption of the system? Do you know anything about this?
Debbie Fordyce: It’s a really good point. And the little that I know about it is because I’ve been here very long. I first came to Singapore in 1975 and there was, it was nothing like you see now, and I’m older than you. So I remember those days when Singaporeans were doing these jobs, Singaporeans and Malaysians and I had ang moh friends who were also working in construction to make money. And I was working with Vietnamese refugees in the 80s and I knew Vietnamese refugees who would illegally go onto construction sites and make money while they were waiting for their next move.
But that was long before Singapore started to look the way it looks now. So the tall buildings that you see, very few of them existed in the 70s. So there was this mad rush to build and so construction with roads and underpasses, overpasses, tall buildings, MRT, all of these things really started up in the 80s. And it was from the early 80s that we started to see this huge number of migrant workers come in as domestic workers and as construction and marine workers. So Singapore was a very different place in the 50s and 60s.
I think that that’s probably also coupled with this intensive growth, the kind that you see in the Middle East as well, and possibly also with the destruction of traditional agricultural ways of living in the sending countries. So if we look at who the migrant workers are now, we’re seeing a big gap, a difference between, say, the South Asians and the Chinese. The Chinese, because they do have better job opportunities at home, for the same work in Singapore, they will command maybe two or three times as much as the Bangladeshi workers make. The Indians might make as much as twice as much as the Bangladeshis for the same jobs. So if you look at what their country is facing, that has to do a lot with the desperation to go abroad and I think it’s extremely damaging for some of these sending countries as well that rely so much on migration abroad as a way of dealing with the problems of unemployment at home and dealing with agricultural decline.
Kirsten Han: For the domestic workers, it was coming up… So I did this research project with AWARE in 2015 where we looked at different aspects of women’s issues and women’s movement in Singapore. For the domestic workers, what we found was they introduced this foreign domestic workers law in 1978 because there was this kind of labour shortage and they saw that Singaporean women, who were getting better levels of education and had more and more skills and wanted to do more and more… So they wanted to get the Singaporean women into work, but because there was also this mindset that the woman’s job is to take care of the home, so then it just became, okay, then we outsource that woman’s work to foreign women… So bring in the foreign domestic workers so that Singaporean women can go to work and that was… So that was their policy shift, which, from the way I see it, it hasn’t changed from there. We’ve just built more and more and more so it seems very much like foreign domestic workers in Singapore are the crutch for childcare, elder care and all sorts of care work.
Debbie Fordyce: And it’s also more economical than having the wife stay home to do all those jobs because she’s making more than that outside of the home. And she doesn’t want to do those jobs.
Stephanie Chok: This structural dependence on domestic workers, live-in domestic workers for care work is anticipated to increase. So the White Paper that the government released, they predicted that the population of migrant domestic workers will increase to 300,000 by 2030.
PJ Thum: I’m assuming it’s also primarily a very, it’s an elite… I mean that’s a word which has been thrown about a lot, but uh, people of higher socio-economic backgrounds who have domestic workers.
Stephanie Chok: When I started doing casework at the domestic worker helpdesk shelter, I was always very interested in looking at the addresses of the employers. And I realised that really it stretched from HDBs in all estates to somewhere in District 10, 11. So really it’s across demographics… So you had a family with eight people living in a HDB flat, to an elderly… to a family on Sentosa Cove. It really ranges wide.
So that’s also why I really think we need to do something about our care infrastructure because the situation is that all families are pressured to seek help for care work and rely on domestic workers and for families who are in that kind of lower middle income range, this is also the most financially feasible option for them and they might then choose to hire a domestic worker from Myanmar, because their salary’s a bit lower, and expect a lot more work from her because of that. And the family may also feel resentful at having very little alternatives to this option. So it’s really not a win-win for anybody in that situation except perhaps the state in deferring the responsibility for caring for its citizens. And transferring that burden onto individual families and then it gets transferred on to a migrant domestic worker.
PJ Thum: And you mentioned the state shifting the burden, which for me is always one of the big ironies of Singapore, that we have a state which is so over-regulated and invasive, and the state interferes with so many different aspects of our lives and then says, “Oh, you know, we don’t want to create a crutch mentality, you must take care of yourselves.” But with all this regulation, we don’t really have a choice. We’re constantly burdened to meet all the demands that the state imposes on us.
Stephanie Chok: I think it also aligns with this certain view that as Asians we want to also care for our family. Kind of nosedives in with that kind of… What’s that term that you use now? Aging in place, right? Like that. And it’s not completely untrue as well, which is why it’s effective. There are a lot of elderly persons who do prefer not to be in a nursing home, but wish to be living in the house and still need that kind of care. And there are a lot families who would prefer to look after their children in the home. So there’s kind of this alignment, which I think fits in with that, but then I think we do need to consider, if that really is the case, then how do we provide that kind of working conditions.
If we really want to depend on someone else to do our care work, it must be recognised as work, it must be recognised as a profession. We need to put in place certain structures and protections, and maybe it doesn’t have to be a live-in requirement, if that’s causing a lot of the problems that we are seeing. And at the same time there may be persons who do prefer to have other options that work in other countries, like more childcare centres, more elderly care centres, or more day centres that are better run. Maybe part of the problem also is the stigmatisation of nursing homes, perhaps also based on empirical evidence that they tend to be a place that’s not run properly or doesn’t provide a certain quality of care. So these are also things that we need to address. It’s a parallel issue. It’s not a separate problem.
Kirsten Han: Some of these issues kind of intertwine. So for example, previously one of the reasons a government official, I think, to Human Rights Watch or someone, they said foreign domestic workers are not regulated under the Employment Act because then you have to like… Then there’s limits on overtime hours, work hours and they say, “Oh, how can you regulate that if they never leave the workplace, how would you ever know?” So from this government official’s point of view, the live-in requirement actually makes it impossible to regulate. So let’s just not put them in the Employment Act or regulate because if they never leave the workplace, you never know if they’re doing overtime. So it’s too hard, let’s not do it.
PJ Thum: And this is the same government which has laws allowing officers to enter any household if they suspect that you’ve got mosquitoes breeding malaria, if you’ve been watching a political film… I mean, the cognitive dissonance a lot of the time of the government, it’s really frustrating and it feels like very often it’s ideologically driven rather than having a clear line, a clear idea of what they want to achieve or a clear vision… or at least a clear standard.
Kirsten Han: But I think this double standard exists when it comes to migrant workers among a huge majority of Singaporeans, sometimes, who I see online talking about migrant workers’ issues, because things that would be absolutely unacceptable to themselves or their colleagues suddenly seem extremely reasonable to them when you’re talking about a migrant worker.
So I’ve seen employer Facebook groups, which are really eye-opening… If you get into an employer Facebook group, the things they say about the domestic workers are not outright abusive, but the mindset that you see is shocking. So I’ve seen employer Facebook groups where they would actually go to an agency to interview two workers and they will take both workers’ photos and post it in a group and say “Which one should I get?”
And then people will comment below like, “Oh, the one on the left looks dodgy, the one on the right looks prettier and more honest.”
They talk like it’s some sort of commodity, you know, like, “Which car should I buy? What looks better to you?”
Or they’ll say things like… they feel like they are kind to allow the domestic worker two hours on her phone a day or you know, “I should take her passport. I should not let her go out and have these friends.”
And they say all these things that, if you replace the word “domestic worker” with “my assistant manager at work”, it would clearly be ridiculous.
You know, the amount of time that migrant workers’ groups like TWC2 and HOME have had to fight to say something like “migrant workers need a weekly day off”. It’s astounding to me that it took that long to even fight for that and get it from the government because if you replaced “migrant worker” with any other sort of work, it becomes immediately apparent that they should have a weekly day off. Like, why are we even talking about this? But when it comes to migrant workers it’s up for debate, you know, should migrant workers have a weekly day off? Maybe they don’t need it or Singaporeans will go, “Oh, if they have a weekly day off, who’s gonna look after my kids on Sunday” when it’s like, it’s your kids.
Kirsten Han: Yeah, and HOME recently finally had success that the government said employers should not be able to keep the domestic workers’ money.
Stephanie Chok: Safekeep. That’s the euphemism.
Kirsten Han: And this is just like, it’s ludicrous, right? Like if my mum’s boss said “I’m going to safekeep your salary for a year”, it would be immediately apparent to Singaporeans that this is not acceptable.
Debbie Fordyce: Another side to that is I’ve often thought, whenever I read things that are put out by the SPCA about how you should treat your dog or your cat and it talks about making sure that the animal is able to exhibit its natural behaviours and eat food that’s good for it and have a good supply of water and get exercise and have so much room to move around. And I feel like if you substituted a foreign worker, whether domestic worker or male construction worker, that people would say, “No, no, why should we allow that?” So there is a lot more leeway given, I think, for even pets than often for foreign workers.
PJ Thum: So the question is… we’ve talked a bit about the sort of government regulations side… But what, why does society, accept these attitudes, why do they seem so widespread?
Stephanie Chok: One more policy I think is important to discuss would be the security bond, so that’s also a unique feature of our work permit system. Every employer of a migrant worker has to furnish a $5,000 security bond to the government and if you breach conditions of the work permit, a part of that bond is liable to be forfeited.
So quite commonly employers will impose additional control measures because, and justify it as… because they’re concerned that this $5,000 would be lost. So not giving or withholding the passport, which is fairly common, like nine out of 10 of the migrant workers we see do not hold on to their passports, holding on to their other documents, restricting their communications… All this is justified as “I am responsible for her. I’m the one who had to furnish this $5,000 bond. I’m the one liable to lose it if anything happens to her.”
Debbie Fordyce: Well, yeah, I think that’s a very important thing about the security bond and it’s something that MOM takes very seriously. When we see workers who are no longer working, the work permit has been cancelled, their Special Pass, which allows them to remain in Singapore but doesn’t permit them to work, shows the security bond expiry date, and when it gets close to that expiry date, often there’s pressure put on the man himself to make sure that his employer extends that security bond because he’s required to remain in Singapore, say for his work injury compensation or for his salary claim, the resolution of that.
But he’s not allowed to remain in Singapore if his security bond expires and it’s not renewed. So they won’t allow him to complete his claim if the employer doesn’t do that. So if the employer, for instance, has gone bankrupt or something, he might not be able to remain in Singapore and he gets pressured for that.
PJ Thum: So there’s pressure on both ends to maintain a system that breeds an attitude of exploitation.
Debbie Fordyce: Well, I think in this case, it’s to make sure that the state is not responsible for doing anything for that migrant worker. So we occasionally, we see people who have overstayed, they’ve overstayed their work permit or they’ve overstayed a visit pass. And then if long enough they will be jailed and caned and then they’re released on Special Pass while there’s an investigation going on.
Now these people have no security bond to fall back on. So who’s supposed to fund their ticket home? They’re pressured by ICA to do that. So they’re told you are not permitted to work, but you have to provide a ticket that’s open-ended for, that’s good for one year so that when we’ve completed this police investigation that we’re able to fly you home. So it’s really just to make sure that the state doesn’t have to pick up any of the funds for repatriating the worker.
PJ Thum: What about the rest of us though? We’ve been talking about employers and workers, but the rest of us… I don’t have a domestic worker, so I’m not part of this exploitative arrangement. I feel very strongly that it’s exploitation, but you know, we talked about, at most estimates go from one in three… So a majority of Singaporeans don’t have a domestic worker. Why do they accept this current situation?
Debbie Fordyce: Stephii will talk about the domestic workers, but I think for the male workers, they’re very much Otherised. So the fact that we don’t get to see them, we don’t… They’re not competing with Singaporeans for jobs, they’re not allowed to live wherever they want. There’s very little social interaction between Singapore residents and the foreign workers and so it is easy to put them in a different category. And the fact that, where can you see a lot of migrant male workers is, say Little India on a Sunday when they have a day off. You see huge numbers of people and I think a lot of Singaporeans are reluctant to go to those areas because they see all these brown men and they assume that these men are responsible for crime and filth and you know, they’ll rob you, attack you or rape you, things like that.
Kirsten Han: Yeah, you’ve seen MPs refer to them as walking time bombs, ticking time bombs.
Debbie Fordyce: I often give tours in those areas on Sunday nights to force people to go and take a look and see what these people are doing and what it’s like and why they’re there and how they gather and how they socialise, that sort of thing.
PJ Thum: Live-in domestic workers. Are they… It sounds like there’s a different kind of segregation going on. Less a physical one and more of a social, mental, spiritual…
Stephanie Chok: So if you think about, say, some regulations in condominiums where they stipulate the domestic worker is not allowed to use the shared facilities, not allowed to use the swimming pool. So there’s already the separation of a domestic worker as not a resident, not recognised as a full resident that is entitled to use of shared space.
And I think there was a time when there was a sign and a club that said that domestic workers were not allowed in a particular dining room. And even within homes, there will be some homes where domestic workers will have a special space, that they wouldn’t eat at the dining table with the family, for example. So these are small gestures that then signify to the rest of the persons in the home, including the children, that the domestic worker is different, right? It sets in place a certain hierarchy that then gets replicated… Is either replicated or is a reflection of, I think larger attitudes in society. You can see that and it’s very much accepted behaviour.
If you go to a certain party, for example, where there are lots of domestic workers, you would see that segregation, right? The family members and all be sitting here and all the domestic workers would be somewhere else. It’s okay for them to eat separate food. There’ll be families that will stipulate that they cannot use the washing machine, for example. They have to hand wash their own clothes, cannot mix the clothes together. Or if you buy your own food, you cannot put it in my fridge. You can only put it in a certain separate part of this particular space of the cupboard.
I remember when I was at the shelter, the first domestic worker I interviewed was one where the employer said, “You’re not allowed to bring any of your clothes into my home because your things are dirty.” So she may her through all her clothes away. And then bought her three sets of clothing, three large T-shirts and three ill-fitting kind of berms. I’m not saying all employers like that, but there’s generally a treatment of them as kind of separate different entities, and that’s how that kind of social segregation…
Kirsten Han: You sometimes see that with Singaporean families eating in restaurants and the domestic worker is feeding the children, but she’s not eating with the family at the restaurant. You know, you kind of see that and it’s quite common but people don’t seem… It doesn’t seem to strike people as unacceptable as much as it should.
Stephanie Chok: So I see the dehumanisation also reflected in very binary representations. So they’re either sort of threatening and therefore should be treated with suspicion, or they are kind of revered as martyrs or very sacrificial figures or then as pitiable kind of victims, you know, so they’re not kind of recognised as fully fleshed out complex humans like the rest of us have, have the freedom and agency to be.
PJ Thum: And I suppose either of those narratives then leads to a sort of chain of reasoning where because of one or the other, therefore that’s why they end up in jobs where they’re exploited and therefore they deserve to be exploited, or we’re doing a kindness by exploiting them. So kind of either explanation rationalises the exploitation?
Stephanie Chok: In some senses… Because I’ve spoken to a lot of employers while working at the shelter and a lot of employers don’t see their actions… I mean, except for those that maybe are guilty of severe physical abuse, but when there’s no physical abuse, what I find really, I really grappled with is the fact that a lot of them do not even acknowledge that what they’re doing is exploitative.
So for example, a domestic worker who works long hours, has to massage the employer maybe three times a week, and is not allowed to use a mobile phone. Real example. She ran away and the employer called and said, “Why is she there? You know, your shelter is for women who are abused. I did not abuse her. You have no right to house her, you are just giving an outlet for people who want to breach their contracts to stay there.”
So there’s no recognition that this is exploitative, and I think that is part of the problem, that we don’t even recognise certain types of actions as exploitative because it’s so normalised and non-stigmatised in our society.
Kirsten Han: I think there’s also a mindset where people say, “Oh, they chose to come. So yes, the conditions are hard, but they chose to do it and so they should, you know, like accept that this is what they signed up for.”
There doesn’t seem to be a sense that even if people did voluntarily get on a plane and voluntarily come to Singapore, that there are many other ways to coerce a person to do something. We shouldn’t see coercion as oh, they were beaten until they agreed, or they were confined and locked up and chained to a radiator until they agreed. You know, there’s so many different ways that coercion happens, but I’ve seen so many people say like, “Oh they’re so desperate in Bangladesh. That’s why they came to Singapore, so it’s still better in Singapore than in Bangladesh and they voluntarily came, so you know, they should have known that they will be working 18 hours on a construction site.”
Stephanie Chok: I don’t accept that rationalisation. We need to also be responsible as a country of destination, as a host country that is so dependent on their labour. Structurally, we are so dependent on them in every single industry, in every single sector in Singapore. We like to benchmark ourselves internationally to countries that are doing so much better in other areas. Why is it, when it comes to labour standards, we aim so low? And if we consider it acceptable that we are in constant breach of international labour standards for such a large community of workers.
Kirsten Han: These work permit people, they’re almost, they’re almost like, what, one-fifth of our population, almost one million of them in a country that has five-and-a-half million people.
PJ Thum: It’s like, who was saying earlier? Both of you, right? If you just substitute “Singaporean” for the foreign worker and then put it through the whole same set of circumstances, no single Singaporean would stand for it.
Debbie Fordyce: No, not at all. Absolutely not. We were visited before by people who studied labour trafficking and I asked this one man from Harvard, “Would you consider this label? Would you consider any of these men to be trafficked?”
And he said, “Absolutely.”
We try not to talk too much about that, you know, we try to look at it in terms of what the existing legislation is and what can be done within the legislation, or how we can change that legislation and improve it. But if we were to say that we felt that all these people had been trafficked, we wouldn’t get anywhere with it, but there are some people who would consider it to be that way.
PJ Thum: I’ve heard it called modern day slavery. There’s this idea of slavery as Africans taken from Africa, sent to the US or Europe in chains and then whipped. But the fact is most of the people we considered slaves were actually on indentured, sort of debt bondage, right, which is the same situation we’ve just been talking about where people are coerced or seduced into an idea that you could make a better life. But first you have to get into debt before you go off and then you end up having to pay off that debt and the terms on which you’re paying it off, and you know, often legal contracts are so onerous and there’s so many penalties and punishments that somehow you end up never… Taking years, decades to pay it off. And when we think about that historically we condemn it, but it’s happening right here in front of us and we don’t. It’s become invisible to us.
Debbie Fordyce: With one significant difference that these people will not be allowed to remain in Singapore. So what happens to them whether or not they can work off that debt, it won’t become one of Singapore’s problems.
As I like to point out all the time, Singapore is, as you say, very well organised, very well controlled. A lot of things are heavily subsidised. So education, medicine and housing. Yeah, very heavily subsidised and these are things that don’t apply to this one-fifth of the population in Singapore. So they can’t access that.
Of course they can’t access the housing, but medical is something that affects a lot of the male workers quite a lot because of the injuries at the workplace. And so they’re charged several times more than what would be charged a Singaporean for the same thing.
Just two days ago, I was at the hospital talking to a doctor and he said, “I would have treated a Singaporean differently for this operation because I know that the Singaporean would be able to remain longer in hospital.”
And this was an operation that TWC2 had paid for. So he knew that it was donated funds for this operation. He said, “I did it much less aggressively than I would have done for a Singaporean” because a Singaporean could’ve remained in hospital longer, could have had access to longer physiotherapy as a result of, you know, as a result of this. But he knew that this man would have to go back to Bangladesh at some time in the near future. And of course he paid much more.
Stephanie Chok: Medical subsidies were withdrawn for foreigners some years back. So previously they were subsidised patients…
Debbie Fordyce: Until about 2007 or 2008. And that made a big difference. It also happened at the same time that they increased the insurance policy for workplace injuries, but they increased it from $30,000 to $36,000. And yet removing the subsidies meant that their cost is going to go up by at least three times.
Stephanie Chok: And insurance policies often don’t cover diagnostic procedures which are very expensive, like the MRIs, and the CT scans. So what we have also seen is when a domestic worker manifests certain symptoms which requires diagnosis, that’s when they get repatriated because those are costs that are expensive but not covered by insurance. And also, what if you do the diagnosis and something is discovered? What then? Does the employer want to pay for really expensive treatment for someone who has cancer, some other terminal illness? So at that point, the employer will just choose to repatriate the domestic worker instead.
Kirsten Han: That’s one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot. The impact of our policies and the way we treat migrant workers here don’t end in Singapore. Definitely as a journalist, when I look at the stories, I’m always often very dissatisfied because as Singaporean journalists, our stories about these migrant workers tend to end at repatriation. So we’re like, “Oh, and then this person resolved their claim and then they got this money and then they were sent back.”
But I’ve spent time at the Cuff Road Project, I’ve talked to workers in the shelter and quite a lot of these workers make it very clear to me that when they go home, it’s just the start of a whole new cycle of problems.
So some workers from the Cuff Road Project go home with injuries that would feasibly not allow them to work again. People who have lost fingers, who have lost mobility in an arm… They’re not going to work again when they go home. But if they were the main breadwinner, we basically brought them here, worked them to the bone and then sent them back. Their bodies are broken. We’d broken their bodies in Singapore and then we sent them back where they can’t work anymore. So what does that family do now?
When we send them back… There were workers who told me that, “When I get back to Dhaka (Bangladesh’s capital), I’m not going back to my village because I haven’t made the money that I owe and if they know that I’m back in Bangladesh, they’re gonna come after me for the money and I don’t have it, so I’m just going to stay in Dhaka, and I might not tell my family I’m back because I don’t want anyone to know that I’m back.”
There was even a worker who said that because of his salary case dragged for so long, his family missed the loan repayments that they had to make and the bank took the land. So the family now has no land, so even less ways to make money. And then they missed another instalment, so there’s a police case about him out against him now because the bank basically reported him for not paying his loans.
I interviewed him just before he was flying back and he had only recouped a small fraction of the money that he was owed and he said, “When I get back, I’m probably going to get arrested because the bank reported me.” And he was actually building HDBs, so it wasn’t some big private development. He was building HDB public housing that Singaporeans live in. We’re going to raise our families in there, but we are sending him back to huge problems that his family are probably going to struggle with for at least one or two generations, to try to fix because now they don’t have the money that he was supposed to have made, and they’ve also lost the land.
So when people say, “These people are so lucky to come to Singapore anyway because it was so much worse at home” I often just tell them, “But do you realise how many people we send back in worse situations than when they came?”
Debbie Fordyce: Those are not uncommon stories at all that you tell, and a long time ago I read a study that was done from NUS, 2009, and it said that about 80% go back worse off than they came. And when I heard that I was really shocked. 80%, yeah. So I happened to be in the Bangladesh High Commission for some reason and I talked to someone there and I said, “You know, I’ve read this study that says 80% go…” And I asked him, “How many go back better off?”
And he said, “Better off, about 20%.”
And I said, “No, no, no, let me rephrase the question because perhaps you didn’t understand me.”
And he had read the same thing and he accepted it, that, at that time at least, 80% went back worse off. Now, from my personal experience, it’s about 100%, but I won’t use that.
The fact is these kinds of things, this indebtedness is very hard to get over. We know what work is like in Singapore, we know that it’s 3D work, it’s the kind of work that nobody would choose to do, and it’s the kind of work that most of these men don’t admit to their families that they’re doing. They all try to glorify their position a little bit.
But what’s developed from this is this whole system of middlemen who are out to scalp men before they get here and after they get here. So this is a system that’s developed because of this desperation. A lot of the money is made by the banks, by the moneylenders and families and friends are loaning money. But they do that because they expect that they will make money. They’ve heard that money can be made abroad. And if you have one in 10 who goes back and builds a nice house, that house will stand for a long time. And hundreds of people will see that house, and they say, “That could be me. I can do every bit as well as that man can. I’m not going to be unlucky.” And the man who loses everything, like you said, stays in Dhaka and hides and tries to scrape together a bit of money. Does whatever he can in order to avoid going home because he knows that maybe the moneylenders won’t go after his parents, but they will go after him.
Kirsten Han: With the domestic worker that I went to visit in her village… She was living in a very simple, very plain, wooden and some parts brick and cement house that was completely unvarnished, no paint, nothing. Very, very simple.
And then in her village you would see dotted among the village, houses that were painted with bright colours or they would have those nice decorative stained glass windows. And we looked at the houses. So you have this plain house and this really colourful house, and a plain house, and then down the road is another colourful house. And she would point at all these colourful houses, and she said, “That one went to Malaysia, that one went to Singapore, that one went to Dubai.”
And so she saw it and she thought, “I should do that. You know, if everybody who has the nicest house here is because the wife went and was a domestic worker somewhere, I should do that.”
And I heard the same when I was in Bangladesh and I was actually in Dhaka, I was talking to this Bangladeshi guy who was working as a bellboy in a guest house. He worked long hours but it was not a terrible job. They gave him accommodation, they gave him food, he had friends in the guest house and he seemed to be doing quite well. And he was saying, “Where do you come from?”
I told him that I was from Singapore and he got very excited and he said, “I’m working in this guest house, I’m going to save my money and I’m going to come to Singapore.”
And I tried to tell him. I was like, “Look, your job looks like it’s… a hard job, I know, but you seem fairly happy here. I would not work for years in this guest house to pay $10,000 to come to Singapore and do construction work because I don’t think it’s worth your while, and Singapore is not as good as you think it is.”
And he’s like, “No, but a lot of my friends say it’s great.”
And I was like, “No, no, it’s not as good as you think it is. It’s going to be really backbreaking work, you might lose the money” and then he just looks at me and he goes, “I don’t think that’s true. I see it on the TV and it’s very shiny.”
And it’s just this kind of… because friends who have done well will brag about having done well. Friends who have not done well will not talk about it, so that there’s this kind of sense that, “Oh, the unlucky ones, that’s not very common and it’s not going to be me.”
And I’ve also seen that with workers who have come, had bad experiences, gone back and come again because they are like, “First time unlucky, maybe second time will be better, because what am I staying at home for anyway?” And I’ve talked to workers who’ve come three, four times and lost money every single time, but still like, “Maybe the next time…”
Debbie Fordyce: You’re a hero. You can save your family. You’re a hero, you’re enterprising, you’re desirable. And for those men that stay home after they’ve finished studying, they stay home, they’re seen as lazy and no good. And unmarriageable, actually. So a lot of these men, your social capital raises, whether you make money or not, by coming abroad, your social capital will rise because you’ve been to a wonderful place like Singapore and you come back with the swagger and some nice clothes and you look like you’ve been abroad.
But it even affects the rest of the family as well. So often the sisters are more marriageable if the brother is working abroad. And the converse is also true. I knew one man who was injured at work and he said after he was injured, his sister’s husband started beating her and then she was torn between staying with her husband who was beating her and the son, or going back to the parents where she would be another mouth to feed. And it was because he was injured and had stopped sending money. The brother-in-law thought, “This woman, she’s a good wife because I know that there’ll always be money if I need something, because of this brother who’s in Singapore.” So it affects the whole family in lots of ways.
Kirsten Han: So we often talk about just the worker but not see that sort of cross border impact of migration.
Debbie Fordyce: And the other thing which affects the men and the women who go abroad… So in Bangladesh you have a huge number of families where, the same thing you can say, “This man is in Saudi Arabia. That one’s in Kuwait, that one’s in Dubai, that one’s in Malaysia and Singapore.” There are families that are left without their men.
So the women are there to try to hold the family together, and yet are prevented from doing a lot of things because they’re women, they can’t go out alone, they can’t do things without a proper male escort. So it’s changing the family dynamics, the same way it changes when the women go abroad, then the family is without the mother, the sister, the daughter.
Kirsten Han: Even when I’ve interviewed domestic workers who are considered good news stories… When I’ve talked to them, those who have been here for like 12 years, almost 16 years, and they’re considered good news stories because they get along well with their employer, they have no problems, in fact they are more like friends of their employer… So these are supposed to be the happy stories.
But then they tell me things like, “But when I go back to Indonesia, my children don’t call me mum because as far as they’re concerned, I’m not their mother because I’ve not been here for 12 years.”
So she’s supposed to be telling me about her great success in Singapore and how happy she is to be in Singapore, but then it comes at the cost of her children.
That’s why I always find it so problematic when Singaporeans tell me that migrant workers are lucky to be here, because I’m like, “You’re not even thinking about what they’ve given up.”
PJ Thum: Coming back to Singaporean attitudes, there is this frankly disgusting attitude that comes from the very top that says “if we don’t eat other people’s lunch, they will eat our lunch.” How would you respond to someone who says that?
Debbie Fordyce: I hate to think that people actually live with that thought. Maybe they do. But I think that with that thought, it seems to then justify these kinds of things. And I worry with the sort of treatment that many migrant workers receive, or the attitudes towards migrant workers, I think that it hardens people into this attitude that there are deserving people, and less, non-deserving people. That we can very easily draw a line and say “I will protect and look after and care about the people on this side of the line and on that side of the line, I don’t care.”
Now I can understand it when we’re talking about people that are on the other side of the world, people that we never have any contact with, that we don’t hear about, we don’t know, we never have a chance to deal with. But I hate to think that that happens in a place like Singapore where we’re all frankly—as secluded as they are—we’re all pretty close together and they are working to build the economy.
I like to think of Singapore as the kind of place where the government can do anything it wants. As strong and controlling as it is, if they had a will, I think they could do a lot to alleviate these problems.
Yet I remember once I was talking to a group of university students here and they said, “Yes, but if we had a minimum wage or if we paid them more and created better conditions for these migrant workers, wouldn’t that mean everything would be more expensive?” Yes, it would! It would be more expensive and things would take longer to get done and I think that these construction projects, and all of the things that they’re used for would definitely be more expensive, and I think that that’s the cost that has to be paid. At some point we have to look and see what do we think of as a reasonable cost, not how much can we can we coerce people, how little can we coerce people to work for?
PJ Thum: I think also that is only true in a pure free market economy, but Singapore is by no means a free market economy. The government regulates us to death, right? And there are all sorts of ways already in which it manipulates our living costs, our living conditions. So, you know, the principle of yes, we should be willing to pay more for human dignity… I’m totally behind it, but it’s not even, I think, really true in Singapore because of the sheer amount of regulation and the ability of the government to intervene in our lives, which means that they can create and they were going to create—we forget in the 60s, right—a very strong welfare state that takes care of all people and makes this sort of exploitation a legacy of a much more uncivilised past.
Debbie Fordyce: Sometimes I think I get a glimpse of what a market economy might be like in Singapore and that’s when I see men working illegally. So when men work legally, they’re apt to get maybe a basic salary of $20 a day, but their employer is required to pay the levy to the government, the security bond, pay for the two insurance policies and housing, feed the worker and make sure that they get the project that they can put the workers to work on. But when a worker is not permitted to go to work, he will probably find illegal work on his own and then he can make several times more than that. He might be able to make $200 or $300 a day because his employer isn’t required to pay all of those things. So is that possibly what a market economy is? If the employer weren’t required to pay all of these other things and the man could negotiate the job, and he could quit that job and try another one, he would be able to make a whole lot more.
Stephanie Chok: So the levy, maybe just to let your listeners know, the foreign worker levy is a tax that employers have to pay to the Singapore government every month for every construction worker, every work permit holder they hire. In the construction industry, it ranges from about $300 to $400 to $950 a month. That is double the salary of a construction worker. So it’s not always true when they say it is cheaper to hire a migrant worker, if you factor in all the costs from a business perspective for the employer that has to pay that amount in full. It’s just that a large chunk of it actually goes to the state rather than the migrant worker himself.
Kirsten Han: So why is it that after they’ve collected this levy and then there are the insurance policies and things like that, when a migrant worker has his salary withheld or if the boss goes bankrupt, why is it so difficult for them to get money back? Because it seems like a huge amount of money has gone in. Why is it so difficult for them to get it back?
Debbie Fordyce: That money is not earmarked for the worker. So the levy just goes into the government coffers. It’s used for other things. It’s not meant to be used for the benefit of the migrant worker. The security bond… Recently we’ve seen some cases where if the worker is not paid his salary and he makes a salary claim and the company is not willing to pay or has gone bankrupt, they might be able to get $2,000 from the $5,000 bond, but not more than that. So this is a payment, it’s sort of a consolation. Even if his salary claim is $20,000, he might go home with $2,000 and it’s considered a resolved case. But the government has to make sure that they retain the bulk of that security bond in order to make sure that man will eventually leave Singapore, that the state is not having to be responsible for repatriating him.
PJ Thum: So I guess the question that comes to my mind is, who is profiting from this whole system? And it really sounds like what we have are middlemen, the companies, employers, the government, but not the workers. And as far as I can tell, society is not profiting either.
Stephanie Chok: Maybe in terms of lower costs. If you think about all the different sectors that migrant workers work in and how their underpayment may… Say for example, even in food manufacturing. So we saw one woman from China who was working in a factory that de-shells, you know those cockles that they put in the char kway teow? Yeah. She was working such long hours and paid quite little for it. And then these are the food manufacturers that… I guess it’s because it’s related to the fact that a lot of food now is centralised, right? A lot of hawkers or food establishments don’t do their own de-shelling and all that. It’s all centralised and then it’s sent out.
So I think it’s part of how this whole system artificially depresses the cost of a lot of things for ordinary Singaporeans in our everyday life. How do we keep our economy running where we pay lower costs for a lot of things, from food to other types of services? In our coffee shops, if you look at the person who’s serving you, that person is probably Malaysian or Chinese. I mean from China, even in our massage parlours.
Debbie Fordyce: I think another thing to consider is what does it do to us as a society when everyone we know is sort of a white-collar worker. That we don’t know personally, people who are doing some of these low-level jobs. In other societies you might have a neighbour who’s a construction worker or a neighbour who’s, you know, a dog catcher or people who do various other kinds of things. And I think it makes for a different kind of society if you know people at lots of different levels of work and where people are all getting a reasonable salary. So I think that it insulates us from people who are working with their hands, with their muscles, with their bodies. We come to look down on that kind of thing. And I think that this is part of creating a more wholesome society if you happen to know people who are doing lots of different things, a variety of different things. Not only people who’ve had a similar form of education, living in similar form of housing.
PJ Thum: This isn’t some sort of theoretical counterfactual, right? We know of societies where construction workers are well respected and well paid and where the industry is efficient and things work well, and it’s not as if costs are ridiculously high.
Kirsten Han: We also need to think about how this large foreign workforce with very depressed wages then also depresses Singaporean wages. Because you can’t bring in almost one million people on no minimum wage, who work for very low wages and expect it not to have an impact on the rest of the people who are working here. So yes, things maybe will get more expensive if we paid migrant workers better, but perhaps they wouldn’t be depressing some Singaporeans wages so much either. There are a lot of moving parts to this so it’s not so easy to be like, “Oh we can’t pay them more because if we paid them more then I have to pay more for my noodles at lunch.” There are so many other things that are happening.
Stephanie Chok: Because wage levels for Singaporeans, at least for a certain section of the community also too low, right? They’re not earning living wages as well.
PJ Thum: So what’s the solution then? What can we do? And I guess part of that question, given all that we’ve discussed, is how do we make Singaporeans care about this issue? It seems like there are laws in place, there are regulations in place, the government has the capability of doing it. It’s not economically unfeasible, but until there is a popular will, this won’t change. So how do we make Singapore care?
Stephanie Chok: I’m not sure if I would say that Singaporeans don’t care. I just feel that sometimes that care is shown in very particular ways. So because we run a shelter, we have direct services. I do see that theres’s care shown in terms of providing welfare, kind of a welfarist approach. I think what’s missing is, I think what Kirsten has mentioned before, it’s more about moving towards a rights-based approach.
So what’s very popular in Singapore is recognition, right? Like, “Oh, let’s have the Domestic Worker of the Year award or let’s have some sort of dance competition, or some way to appreciate them for their work.”
But what I don’t see so much is a political and popular will to move towards recognising the rights that should be accorded to all workers, a more rights-based approach to the issues that we have raised. So it’s about channeling that care into wanting this person to have the same rights that you would want for yourself. And the rights that we don’t have as a citizen, to not say, “Well, I don’t have those rights so you shouldn’t” but to fight for those rights that we all should have in Singapore.
Kirsten Han: My sense is that it’s something that we are generally not very good at in the first place. We are not very good at talking about systemic issues and rights across the board, not just migrant workers.
Like when I speak to students and I talk to them, whether it’s migrant workers, whether it’s the death penalty, whether it’s sex workers… They’re like, “Oh, so you know, they are very poor thing” and I’m kind of, “I don’t need you to feel like they are poor thing.” I don’t even think a sex worker necessarily feels that she is poor thing, you know. She’s doing a job and she wants to be treated fairly and with respect for the job that she’s doing.
We need a lot more political awareness and education to talk about rights rather than, “Oh, you know, it’s Foreign Domestic Worker Appreciation Day, so I will buy her cake but for the rest of the year I’ll confiscate her mobile phone”. We need to break out of that.
Stephanie Chok: We get invited a lot to talk to schools, but I think we need to address the fact that a lot of the issues are depoliticised for students. So we recently had a session… Because we had so many students from JCs who were doing project work, and all of them wanted to focus on the abuse of domestic workers.
So first of all, we had to tell them that it wasn’t just those that were beaten up, that you’ve seen in the newspapers. The whole idea of abuse should include other exploitative practices, not just physical violence. And then secondly, I talked to them about all the issues that we talked about, all the systemic problems, right? And then part of the project or exercise was to come up with a solution, and then they wanted to do things like develop an app or a brochure to teach employers how to be kind, to show that they were human.
And I was getting increasingly flustered. I kept repeating all the things that are we talking about today. And finally one of them said, “But we can’t.”
I said, “What? What do you mean you can’t, do you understand? What I’ve been explaining to you?”
“Yes, but our instruction was to come up with a solution but to not challenge policy, to not criticise the government.”
So they are already socialised into thinking about a problem… So that direction from the school is to focus on a social problem or policy, but to address it only in a particular kind of depoliticised way. So that’s very, very troubling for me because these are all students from elite junior colleges who are probably earmarked to take on certain roles within the civil service and they are already being taught at this age, and they were all very bright students who caught on to what I was saying.
So I was very confused initially because I thought, “Are they confused, am I not getting my message across?” But they understood but even though they understood they still kept going back to “help me finish my assignment properly. What is the solution that I can propose that does not challenge the system?” And I said, “I can’t help you. I can’t.”
PJ Thum: The problem is the system.
Stephanie Chok: So I said, “I can only help you in understanding the issues that we see. That’s my contribution today.” And I said, “Please can I speak to your teacher?” But nobody responded to me.
Kirsten Han: But you see that with MOM as well, right? Like some of their responses are, “Oh, we will create videos that will teach migrant workers more about what they are entitled to when they come.” Which are important, but also don’t necessarily address the scenarios in which, even if they know what their rights are, they can’t say.
Stephanie Chok: So that’s only the first part of the problem, right? So again, there’s a lot of interest. We get a lot of inquiries, people want to do pre-departure trainings. They want to develop pre-departure materials, they want to tell them about their rights. What we are dealing with at the grassroots level is the problems they face when trying to claim those rights, when trying to assert those rights. So a lot of disproportionate emphasis on the first part. Very little on the second part.
Debbie Fordyce: Also the idea that you can simply provide a solution. So this is where a lot of these students… What they come with is “I have a solution to this. I’m going to provide a solution.” And I’ll give an example of some of the solutions that I’ve heard.
They’ve heard that some of these men are living in substandard housing, so why don’t we take old disused buses and convert them into dormitories for the men? There’s a solution.
Another one is men working in hot conditions, in the hot sun, so one group said, “We want to make a temperature sensitive band that they can wear around their head and when it turns red, then the employer will know that overheating and they shouldn’t continue working in the sun.”
And I thought, “Why don’t you think the person himself wouldn’t be able to speak up to the employer and say, ‘I think I’m about to get sick, I’m suffering heatstroke’?” But a technological solution to avoid having to open your mouth and speak to the employer.
Another one was a lunchbox that’s solar powered so that the food will stay warm. And I said, “So if 300 of these lunch boxes were delivered to the construction site, someone would have to lay them out. Can’t stack them up, so that each one would be able to activate the solar power thing. And the worker would then have to take it and eat it and make sure that it’s cleaned and return to the caterer who then would fill it up again for the next day.”
So there are these, it’s technology and a lot of it is apps… But the assumption that if you just tell someone about their rights, that they will be able to access those rights.
The other very common solution that people have is because the narrative in Singapore is of a multiracial, multiethnic, harmonious society. So if we become multiethnic, multiracial together with migrant workers, then all their problems will be solved, because that obviously has solved all the problems for Singapore. So let’s just integrate with them and then the problems are solved. And I point out the difficulty of doing that and how that’s not the objective of the government, the workers or Singapore residents to integrate with migrant workers. They came here to work. We’re talking about salaries. It’s a matter of recruitment fees and salaries and going home. Being able to provide for your family. It’s not a matter of integrating, but that seems to be the all-purpose solution to everything… Is multiethnic integration.
Kirsten Han: think it was in 2014 or something like that, around then. I attended this MOM event, mostly because MOM was ignoring my emails, so I went to an event to try to see if I could get someone in person. But it was a hackathon for migrant workers… well not migrant workers, for migrant workers issues. So I got there and there were a lot of app developers and tech people. They were like, “Yes, we are going to have a hackathon this weekend.” And then if your app is good MOM will actually fund you to develop it and then we could take it to market and things like that. It wasn’t clear to me if any of the people there had ever spoken to a migrant worker about what they were going to hack. So they were like, “It’s a hackathon!” I was like, “But have any of you talked about the issue that you’re going to hack?”
And so the ideas were like, “We’re going to make… migrant workers keep losing their work permit cards so we are going to make the work permit smart and it’s going to be like a QR code type thing that you can put in your phone and then MOM can just scan your phone and then they will have all the information about the migrant worker.”
Debbie Fordyce: And that’s what we have now, the work permit does have a QR code.
Kirsten Han: So they were like, “Oh yeah, and then it will be so much easier because then MOM can track their case and blah blah blah blah blah.” And I thought we were still at the level of a Bangladeshi worker saying that his employer forges paper payslips, he’s not getting paid electronically. He’s getting paid cash that’s short and he doesn’t have the paperwork or the payslip or the timesheet to prove it and that’s his problem. But they had this big thing about “we are going to make an app.”
Debbie Fordyce: That’s his problem, but that’s not the way the government sees the problem, so they did have a problem with the work permits. If you look at your IC card, how many times have you lost it? Maybe never. Maybe once, but you don’t lose it. You keep it until it has to be replaced because you’ve gotten a certain age, but with their work permits, their work permits are for one year or two years, but they’re being terminated so quickly that MOM finds that they’re creating this card quite quickly for migrant workers. Whereas Singaporeans don’t ever lose their ICs. So that’s why they developed this QR code, because the QR code, the information can be updated for the worker. So all of this information, if you download the app, you can see all this information. You have his picture, you have a lot of information, they can update it without having to change the work permit.
And I don’t know, because change of job is not really anything that’s feasible these days, but they’re still looking at apps and so one of the app, you might’ve seen this… Apptivate. It’s an app that’s supposed to help workers to change jobs, which generally is allowed only in certain exceptional cases. But Apptivate, you need the worker as well as the employer to buy into the system. And the workers are always looking for new jobs if they’re given permission to change jobs, but there aren’t very many employers who sign up to that because they would lose all those kickbacks that they would otherwise get. So the companies are so addicted to the money that they squeeze from the worker to give the job, that they don’t want to sign up for it. So this Apptivate app would work if the companies would sign up, but they don’t. And so, we see a lot of students coming around trying to interest the workers in this new app to find a new job. But MOM has also admitted that they haven’t gotten a lot of companies to sign up for it.
So what’s the solution? I think I like your question better. How can we make Singaporeans care more? I like that question better than “what’s the solution?” Because that’s maybe not beyond your pay grade, Stephii, but it’s beyond mine.
PJ Thum: I think that certain patterns are emerging. Last week, sorry, two weeks ago, the last Political Agenda podcast, and this week, we see severe problems, not just with the regulation of the industry, but how the regulations are implemented. There’s a severe mismatch of incentives which, you know, a prioritisation on profitability rather than human welfare. There’s these contractual shenanigans going on sometimes legally, sometimes illegally. There’s a sort of subservience to broader political ideological aims which results in manipulation… So fundamentally to sum it up, there’s a deep systemic issue, and deep systemic issues can only be addressed through deep systemic change and challenges to the status quo, which we are not permitted to do in Singapore. And that’s the quandary we find ourselves in.
Stephanie Chok: I do recommend policy change, legislative change. Because we do continue to say certain things and make certain recommendations. Definitely I think that in terms of the systemic flaws, we should do what we can to address the imbalances of power. So the policies that exacerbate the uneven bargaining powers, the blacklisting framework, the security bond, the levy, we would recommend that those be reformed and eventually removed, because we can see the practical impacts that are disadvantageous to the workers.
Debbie Fordyce: The lack of job mobility.
Stephanie Chok: Yeah, and the lack of labour mobility, in which they’re so highly dependent on employers. And of course something about the recruitment fees because these are…
Debbie Fordyce: It can be addressed.
Stephanie Chok: It exerts a very coercive power on workers, right? So basically for me, what we need to do is to find ways to empower workers because it’s really not about informing them about their rights. It’s not really information only, right? It’s about how do we ensure that even after they know their rights, that they are empowered enough to claim them, and how do we create an environment in which they can claim those rights without penalty, without being punished for it. And I see that as a project that doesn’t only involve migrant workers, we cannot make this an exclusive project. It’s a project in which we need to have greater empowerment of workers in Singapore generally.
Debbie Fordyce: And the empowerment is not left for them. It’s really putting together a system in which they can be empowered. So it’s not a matter of working on them. I think that if there weren’t these constraints on them, they would be very much empowered so they know what to do and how to do it. They just know that within the Singapore context they’re not allowed to. But I was gonna say another thing that we do, because I think HOME and TWC2 are getting a higher profile… We know that things won’t change quickly, but with our higher profile, we have a lot more people coming to us to ask questions, to do projects, to intern with us, to volunteer with us. And this I think also makes a big difference. So I feel sometimes that we have a good amount of success with our volunteers and our interns, and that eventually will lead somewhere. Even though with the government, we have very slow success or very limited amount of contact where we feel that we’re at enabling change.
PJ Thum: I think historically there already is a very good mechanism for empowering workers. It’s called the trade union. Right? It’s the most historically successful device for empowering workers. Especially in such a formalised structured economy and the problem is it’s thoroughly coopted by the government who, you know, I think we’d agree are not honest brokers in this, you know, between capital and labour. Between management and workers. And so, you know, again, we come back to this problem. We know the solution, but the current political system won’t let us have it.
Debbie Fordyce: Once I was speaking to a group of rather young kids from an international school and these two young boys, one whose family was from Pakistan, one from India. They said, “The reason I am where I am is because when my grandfather went to the US”—both of them, their grandfathers went—”it was because of labour unions and the minimum wage.”
PJ Thum: So on that note, I think we’re gonna call this to a close. I want to thank our guests, Debbie Fordyce and Dr Stephii Chok for coming here and speaking with us today about this hugely complicated and important issue. I feel like I’ve learned a lot today.
Stephanie Chok: Thank you.
Debbie Fordyce: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure being here.
PJ Thum: So thank you to you, the listener, for listening in. Be sure to tune in to New Naratif’s Southeast Asia Dispatches next week, which is our fortnightly podcast series which brings you news, interviews and commentary from around Southeast Asia. And please do check out our website at newnaratif.com for more stories and information about Southeast Asia. And if you enjoy what we’re doing, please do support our work by subscribing to New Naratif at newnaratif.com/join. Subscription starts at just US$52 a year. That’s just US$1 a week. So from my cohost, Kirsten…
Kirsten Han: Yep. Thank you all for listening and I hope this has some new insight into this whole, this huge, massive industry in Singapore.
PJ Thum: …and from myself. Have a good week and see you next time. Thank you very much.