The question of whether or not foreign workers in Singapore suffer systemic abuses continues to attract government denials and rebuttals, but to many observers the answer has long been settled with an obvious and resounding yes. In recent years Singapore has twice been rocked by apparently disgruntled workers, firstly with the SMRT bus drivers strike, and secondly the Little India riots. The plight of SMRT’s Chinese drivers was well documented in the months after they refused to work, but as the government continues to deny such realities in the wake of last year’s riots, it seems clear that crucial lessons have not been learned. As long as such problems go ignored, denied and unresolved, relations between foreign workers and locals are likely to be volatile.
Lynn Lee is the award winning local documentary producer who endured almost eight hours of questioning at police headquarters last year after reporting allegations that two former SMRT bus drivers were abused in custody. But her probing interviews with the drivers unearthed more than just those incendiary headlines. In a blog post written almost exactly one year ago, Lee outlined in detail a number of issues the drivers faced, ranging from the obviously unlawful, to the exploitative, the dangerous and the insulting. Her findings, now a year old, represent clear evidence of the sort of systemic and institutionalised exploitation that foreign workers suffer. But MOM, even now in the aftermath of the Little India riot, appears to still labour in denial.
The most obvious place to start is with passport confiscation. No one seemed to bat an eyelid at the scene in Ilo Ilo when the newly arrived maid’s passport was taken away for “safe keeping”, despite such behaviour being illegal. Of course, life imitates art, and despite the illegality, passport confiscation is not uncommon in Singapore – not at all – and it was one of the many injustices suffered by SMRT’s drivers.
But SMRT’s drivers faced much more than just life without their passports. In her research Lynn Lee uncovered a litany of grievances behind the drivers’ decision to go on strike – including broken promises, contracts either not provided or written in foreign languages, forced repatriation and unilateral changes to working conditions. All of which issues were under-pinned by the fact that almost all foreign workers in Singapore are at the mercy of their employers by virtue of the debts they are forced to take on to pay the agent fees necessary to secure work here in the first place.
“Hu [a former bus driver for SMRT] never received a copy of the contract. His agent told him the terms included among other things, a 13th-month bonus and a flight allowance. In Singapore, Hu quickly learnt that this was not the case. He was also uneasy when SMRT confiscated his passport.
“Despite his misgivings, Hu decided not to kick up a fuss. He had spent a lot of money getting to Singapore. It was not in his interest to jeopardise relations with his employer.”
Lynn Lee. The SMRT Saga: Anatomy Of A Strike – Part 1. April 3 2013
The government leads the way
Just think about it. If government controlled SMRT can treat their workers with such disdain, if government controlled SMRT can openly and unlawfully confiscate workers passports, if government controlled SMRT can hire workers through dishonest overseas agents without providing native language employment contracts, if government controlled SMRT can hire a repatriation company (“they acted like gangsters”) to detain and deport employees that complain about unsanitary living conditions, then who is to say the problem is not widespread? Who is to say the problem is not systemic? Government controlled corporations and other related entities are almost certainly the largest employers in Singapore. If GLCs do not set a good example, what hope is there for hiring practices elsewhere? Clearly, in the case of their Chinese bus drivers, SMRT set the worst possible example.
I wrote some time ago about why Singapore has no minimum wage – with the government owning or controlling more than one hundred billion dollars of investments in Singapore’s largest listed companies, the ruling party have a huge incentive to keep the cost of doing business as cheap as possible. Unfortunately, exploiting workers by not paying bonuses, providing cheap but unsanitary dormitaries and unilaterally re-writing contracts to reduce overtime pay would all be ways to achieve that goal. While it is impossible to say for sure that a desire to keep costs down is an actual driving force behind GLCs such as SMRT treating workers badly, the government sets itself up for huge conflicts of interest by being such a large and active player in the same labour market which MOM appears to regulate so ineffectively.
Some of the solutions to the problems faced by foreign workers are obvious. Singapore is lucky to have some very committed and thoughtful NGOs working in this field and it is time for MOM to listen to them. Requiring companies to issue payslips would apparently help to resolve many low level disputes. Beyond that it is time for the government to reduce its level of political involement in the local economy. Temasek and GIC should move away from holding politically sensitive controlling stakes in key local industries. A balanced, passive investment model which attempts to track local and global benchmark indicies would almost certainly be cheaper, give better returns and also remove many of the conflicts of interest inherent in Singapore’s current economic and investment model. But with PM Lee as Chairman of GIC and his wife CEO of Temasek, it is clear that the government is anything but concerned about such questions.