Singapore: Stop Sending Migrant Workers Back to Crisis in Myanmar

A Myanmar migrant worker. Photo: UN Women/Pornvit Visitoran

Moe Chan*, a domestic worker from Myanmar, sounds exasperated and anxious as she imagines what will happen when her work contract in Singapore ends. Speaking in May, she says her contract is due to expire in less than two months, and there is little chance her boss will sign the transfer letter she needs to continue working in the country. 

“I don’t think she [will] give me [the transfer letter], so then I have to return,” Moe Chan says, adding that her relationship with her employer is “not so good”. She also describes her fear at the prospect of having to return to Myanmar, whose cities and villages have been racked with violence and bloodshed since the military coup in February.

“I was scared for my family; now I’m scared for myself too,” she tells New Naratif.

Moe Chan is one of the many migrant domestic workers from Myanmar whose contracts have been terminated in Singapore and are being sent back to what the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has called a “human rights catastrophe”, where nearly 900 civilians have been killed by security forces and more than 6,500 have been arrested for alleged anti-coup activities. 

This treatment is emblematic of Singapore’s “use-and-discard” approach toward migrant labour, which affords migrant workers no care or concern for their wellbeing after their presence in Singapore is deemed no longer necessary, regardless of their past contributions to the country. Rather than supporting migrant workers from Myanmar by making it easier for them to continue working in the country, Singapore is opting to send them back to a conflict zone.  

Returning to Economic Despair

Moe Chan has no idea where her family is, so she has nowhere safe to go when she arrives back in Myanmar. She does not know whether she will be able to travel to her hometown, whether she should, or how she would make a living once there. 

On a previous visit home, between periods of overseas work, she stayed in a monastery before travelling on to her home village, but she thinks it is unlikely this will be an option, now that the military has effectively banned all charity and social support in the country, leading to widespread economic despair.

Seng*, a mental health practitioner based in Yangon, explains that armed conflict in rural regions is making farming challenging, and that with so many people losing jobs in factories, foreign companies leaving the country and limited international assistance, they anticipate that levels of poverty will double or even triple in the near future. The latest UN Development Programme report on human development in Myanmar affirms Seng’s fear, warning that the combined impacts of COVID-19 and the military coup will place half of the country’s population below the national poverty line by early 2022—“a level of impoverishment not seen in the country since 2005”. 

Economic anxiety is even worse among domestic workers who are being forced to return to Myanmar before they have paid off their debts to employment agencies in both Singapore and Myanmar, according to one spokesperson for a Singapore-based NGO that aids domestic workers from Myanmar, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by the Singapore government. These indebted workers will return to Myanmar with no money, no job prospects and agents demanding repayment nonetheless.

“I was scared for my family; now I’m scared for myself too.”

The economic woes of being sent back to Myanmar are compounded by the months of not being able to send bank remittances home to relatives due to banks and transfer services such as Western Union suspending their remittance services in the wake of the coup.

Migrant workers whose families rely on remittances now worry about how their children, spouses, parents and grandparents back home will be able to support themselves.

One Singapore-based migrant worker named Zin Ma says: “I came because I needed to provide for my family, and now what?”

“Ready to Run”

One of the most pressing concerns domestic workers highlight during interviews is their inability to contact their families. Khin Aye Than*, a domestic worker based in Macau, says her family are based in a rural village where many residents have been displaced by the military since the 1 February coup. Her parents do not have access to private Wi-Fi or knowledge of VPNs that would allow them to circumvent the military-imposed internet shutdown

During an interview in April, she says she has not heard from her father since the end of January, and she fears what may have happened to him and the rest of her family in Myanmar. 

“I can’t even connect with my family. I don’t know if they [are] good or not. I don’t know if they [are] safe or still in our home village,” Khin Aye Than says, before praying that they are all alive and well.

Protesters in Myanmar stand behind a barricade set up to obstruct security forces in March 2021.
Protesters in Myanmar stand behind a barricade set up to obstruct security forces in March 2021. Credit: Flickr/Brian Kelley

Six other domestic workers from Myanmar, most of them based in Singapore, all describe the same concerns in subsequent interviews. They are afraid for their families and friends; they are all struggling with either limited contact or none at all. They all report heightened anxiety.

One domestic worker, Aye Myint*, says she managed to maintain regular contact with her family, speaking to them using a VPN and a private Wi-Fi network. They told her they were prepared to flee their home if violence broke out in their area; they described the sound of gunshots moving ever closer every night. 

“They told me they [are] ready to run; they prepare everything that they need because they don’t know when the shooting will come,” Aye Myint says. 

She says she feels relieved her family are prepared to leave, but she remains concerned that her elderly grandparents, who live with her parents and siblings, would struggle to flee quickly. 

“Nearby our village [there is] a mountain, but the military are there too,” she says. “If [the military comes to our village], I don’t know where they are going to run.”

Working for Their Lives

Singapore has infamously abstained from signing onto the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. As such, there are no routes for people to claim asylum in Singapore, nor any routes for migrant workers to claim residency or citizenship. No matter how long they live or work in Singapore, they will one day be forced to return home, even to conflict, unemployment and poverty. 

Migrant domestic workers’ stay in Singapore is at their employers’ mercy; they cannot even change jobs without the previous employer’s signature, even when the previous contract ends. Since the coup in Myanmar, with migrant workers more desperate than ever to stay in Singapore in safety, the power imbalance between employer and worker has grown more stark. Domestic workers report a rise in threats by employers to have their foreign employees deported if they do not renew their contracts.

“I came because I needed to provide for my family, and now what?”

The aforementioned NGO spokesperson says some domestic workers are being forced to remain in jobs they are unhappy with—where they may face abuse or mistreatment—in order to avoid returning to a conflict zone. 

“They just want an opportunity to stay and work,” the spokesperson says.

How to Close the Power Gap

Giving migrant workers the freedom to transfer from one employer to another within Singapore would reduce the power imbalance between workers and the employers, and make workers less likely to remain in jobs where they are abused or mistreated. International agencies, NGOs, activists and academics have all proposed revising Singapore’s laws to make this possible, as well as to prevent employers from repatriating their employees at will and to create more equitable working conditions for migrant workers.

These policy changes would have the added benefit of sparing migrant domestic workers from Myanmar the turmoil of having to return home to joblessness, poverty and conflict. Having gained so much from the labour of migrant domestic workers—an estimated 2.4% of GDP in 2019—Singaporeans should demand these changes from their government. 

Given the emotional burden migrant workers from Myanmar are currently facing, new mental health services and systems of care should be established. While limited effort has been made to care for the mental health of other migrant workers in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, there must be a concerted effort to make sure all migrant workers, including marginalised migrant domestic workers, can access these services easily.

These services should also be expanded to include immediate, dedicated support for migrants from Myanmar in particular. One NGO employee who works with migrant workers in Singapore, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, suggested mental health check-ups included in every domestic worker’s mandatory health screening, which is already offered every six months. This would not only be a simple intervention but would provide more holistic care for this vulnerable population.  

Of course, Singapore is not the only country that is sending migrant workers back to conflict in Myanmar. Domestic workers based in Macau and Hong Kong also recount stories of their friends being sent back when their contracts ended, with no opportunities to seek new employers. 

Destination countries continue to profit both economically and socially from the labour of migrant domestic workers. It is therefore imperative that they provide these workers with greater social protection and care, both while they are working and beyond.  

*Pseudonyms have been used due to sources’ fear of reprisals.

Call to Action: Contact Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and request that migrant domestic workers be able to seek new jobs in Singapore without needing permission from their previous employer. Request the inclusion of mental health check-ups in migrant workers’ mandatory health screenings.

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