Singapore’s Migrant Workers Dilemma

Singapore, a small nation in Southeast Asia, made up of one main island, 42 km long by 23 km wide with approximately 5.4 million inhabitants. The main spoken languages are English, Tamil and Malay. A fully functioning ‘western’ republic, with a parliamentary system of government and an elected President. As a member of the ‘Association of South East Asian Nation (ASEAN) it enhances its competitiveness on every level, and tries to in cooperate international might’s as the United States of America and the Peoples Republic of China into the ASEAN. A nation with a dynamic economy and the highest gross domestic product (GDP) worldwide, it is one of the most westernized and prosperous nations inside Asia. This is foremost due to their extensive trade relationships such as the Singapore-Australia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA). Unemployment is at an all time low with averaging 2 % in 2012. 1

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“Western” Expats in Singapore (TIME Magazine)

Looking at these facts one may think Singapore is the best place to be when seeking for a well paid job inside Asia as a domestic worker seeking for a better future. But in practice this is a different story. Expats from ‘western’ nations enjoy prosperity, high levels of social security and respect from the permanent residence in Singapore. The three biggest ethnic groups inside Singapore on the contrary tell a different story. Chinese expats are the biggest foreign group inside Singapore, which make about 74 % of the total foreign workforce. They are followed by the Malay (13%) and Indian workers (9%). 2  These three ethnic minorities face daily discrimination. The issue of migrant workers in Singapore is a growing problem that can affect the Singaporean society, which is already heavily dependent on these workers.

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Riots in Singapore

There are different reasons why Singaporeans see themselves as better or even more worth. Which is quite astonishing when looking back into history, and seeing that the native Singaporean people are very mixed.

At first the Singaporean government continued to go on with the policy of restricting basic rights such as free expression, peaceful assembly, and association. But there are according to the Human Rights Watch (HRW) some improvements, even on protecting the rights of migrant workers. 3 But is this really working for migrant workers? The statistical facts show a different ‘truth’. 208,000 migrant workers inside Singapore are excluded from the Employment Act and other important labor protections. An example of this important labor protection is a limited number of hours a worker may work per day. 4 Next, many migrant workers face forced labor debts owed to employers ore recruitment agents. This makes the line between a discriminated migrants worker to a human trafficking victim less hard to distinguish. The movie below gives an example in what unberable circumstances many foreign workers must live in.

Living Circumstances Foreign Workers Singapore

Moreover, human rights associations such as the HRW face the constant risks of being bankrupted, imprisoned, fined or even banned to travel outside Singapore. This creates an even worse situation for migrant workers, who are heavily discriminated and cannot do anything to better their situation without facing the risk of heavy fines by the government.

A man covers his mouth during a protest against new media regulations, in Singapore

Is this freedom? 

It is not only the government which makes use of discrimination on a daily basis. On a social context there are many Singaporeans which see themselves as ‘better’ than their fellow non- Singaporean workers. This could create a growing conflict between these two groups with economic and political uprisings as outcome. Formally migrant workers did the jobs most Singaporeans did not want to do at all. Things are gradually changing. Today, foreign workers compete on almost every level. This development creates distrust by Singaporeans. Historically getting the better jobs, they now feel migrant workers are taking away their jobs. Similar as can be seen in Europe receiving various foreign workers. Especially during the recession fear of too much foreign interference tends to rise. As a result, the prime minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong stated that Singapore will slow down the inflow of migrant workers. In my opinion this is the wrong approach. 5 

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Protest Against Migrant Workers

Being a member of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), it cannot imply economic integration but stop work migration. One of the main principles of the ASEAN states to promote active collaboration and mutual assistance on matters of common interest in the economic, social, cultural, technical, scientific and administrative fields. 6 Even though the foreign workers are not all from nations which are a part of ASEAN. Concerning ASEAN, which enhances economical and political ties with most Southeast Asian nations, there are various initiatives to change social problems. But the look for solutions for more fair treatement doesn’t end there. The World Health Organisation (WHO) brought up the ‘Jakarta Decleration’ that tries to promote health issues to achieve a greater equity in health worldwide. 7. Furthermore, the ‘Bali Proces’ was set up by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) that has one of its objectives to improve cooperation among regional law enforcement agencies to deter and combat people smuggling and humant trafficking networks. 8. These two institutions show that change is possible. Singapore needs to start somewhere when wanting to start respecting foreign workers they are so heavily dependent on.

Singapore aims to stem rise in foreign workers, help poor

Foreign Workers backing Downtown Singapore

Concluding, Singapore is a nation other ASEAN member should learn from. Singapore has the strongest economic position inside the association. But the nation itself still has issues it needs to address. This starts by acknowledging a big part of their workforce more. Migrant workers are of growing importance for the country. Singapore must start giving them the respect they deserve. As they make up a large part of the working power, the Singaporeans must start understanding the effect they have on their daily lives. Even though this could mean job losses for Singaporeans, in the end it will benefit not only the national economy of Singapore, but it may also improve the situation for other migrant workers inside the ASEAN. As mentioned the WHO and the IOM have made a start to create more equality. As the most developed state of ASEAN it is up to Singapore too finally take responsibility and show the other nations how things should be done.

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