Are migrant workers treated better in Singapore?

JUNE 27 — Earlier this month, Vice magazine asked: Has Singapore learned to treat its migrant workers better. 

A pertinent question considering it was a year ago that the conditions of some of these workers’ dorms came to light. 

Laws restricting the movement of foreign workers were passed over a year ago as a response to Covid-19 but there has been little easing of their movement even though cases among residents of these dorms have been near zero for months.   

Their movements and we are talking about over 300,000 people here depend on the whims of their employers who could be basically just about anyone — except another migrant worker. 

So, an enormous amount of power has been given to one class of person over another. 

Singapore proudly declares itself a developed country with a sky high per-capita GDP.  But if one looks at the world’s other financial capitals there simply aren’t hundreds of thousands of people living as interned labour at the mercy of their employers.  

Now I’m not saying the policies one finds in global cities like New York or London are at all perfect — these places have severe issues with migration and inequality but this sort of open discrimination within the city itself is really not seen in other developed nations. 

Singapore is now a mature financial centre, and, in many respects, we are a leading global city not a regional star playing catch-up but a real global powerhouse. 

But fundamentally you judge a society by how it treats its weakest members; these workers are members of our society, and we are not treating them well and this reflects on all of us.  

Logically, the situation we have put these workers in makes no sense. Workers need permission from their employers to leave their dorms but often it is from their employers that they receive abuse and unfair treatment. 

If they face abuse, how can these people be expected to make a complaint against their employer to an outside authority when they need their employer’s permission to leave their building?

It’s an absurd situation with a clear conflict of interest and our capable policy makers are certainly quite aware. So, the question is why does this situation persist?  Is this just an economic calculation? 

I would imagine there is considerable benefit to be gained from having a well-controlled low wage workforce, but I think the blame lies not only with our policy makers — the blame lies with us.

The word “privilege” has become a popular word in most social justice discussions — this is one the clearest examples of this privilege. 

We are fortunate — by the random luck of birth — to be born in a wealthy country and have access to all the luxuries and freedoms it affords us.

We need to use this privilege to pull others up. And if simply being there for a fellow human being sounds too much like emotional claptrap — then I will make the argument that we are all poorer for it. 

It is in our interest to insist our society recognises inequality and makes it right. It is in all of our interest to demand every person on our island have access to justice and basic freedoms.

If we normalise treating an entire other class of people in our own city so differently simply on the basis of their work permit status — which is simply a marker of their class — then what is to stop us from treating other races differently based on other perceived differences?

Ultimately, acts of cruelty are never truly isolated or insulated. I believe our treatment of these workers makes us more callous as a nation — it rots our soul. 

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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