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Singapore strikes shed light on workers' woes

Strikes by migrant workers in the Southeast Asian nation are exposing fault lines in the country's social fabric.
Last Modified: 25 Dec 2012 06:54
The workers' dormitory in the Serangoon Gardens estate is closed off from public view [Heather Tan/Al Jazeera]

Singapore, RoS - After 26 years without a strike, labour unrest over low wages and appalling living conditions has roiled Singapore - drawing attention to the country's often-exploited migrant worker community.

Over the past month, several groups of Chinese migrant workers staged labour strikesprotests and sit-ins. Similarly, in February, a group of 200 Bangladeshi construction workers launched a seven-hour sit-out to protest unpaid salaries and the dismal food served by their employers.

In response to a strike of 171 Chinese bus drivers in November, the Singaporean government deported 29 people and imposed $2,000 fines and jail terms for several others for instigating "illegal" action.

Singapore's acting minister for manpower, Tan Chuan-Jin, criticised the bus drivers' strike, saying, "We have zero tolerance for such unlawful action because disrupted essential services not only affected the workers in the industry, but also affect the daily life of all in the community."

Striking a balance

The minister's unsupportive comments reflect the odds migrant workers are confronted with in Singapore.

"We have zero tolerance for such unlawful action."

- Tan Chuan-Jin, acting manpower minister

R Sakthivel is a construction worker from a village in southern India. He is just one among the many who made the costly voyage to Singapore hoping for a better future.

Sakthivel has worked in Singapore for four years, building skyscrapers and high-rise luxury apartments which only society's elite get to enjoy. He recalls a stern warning from his boss on his first day on the job.

"I was told that foreigners must not be seen or heard, because it makes people here uncomfortable and angry," Sakthivel said. "At the end of the day, we must remember that we are here to work, not to enjoy life or become [part of] society."

His words highlight Singapore's contradictions: a beacon of prosperity that marries free-trade economics with traditional Asian values, but which is also home to some of capitalism's worst excesses. The luxurious lifestyle of its rich and middle-class largely depends on the toiling of more than one million migrant workers.

Singapore is home to nearly 1.5 million foreigners, many of whom provide cheap, menial labour in the construction, shipyard, transportation and garbage refuse industries - positions often shunned by affluent citizens.

Chris Leggett, an adjunct professor specialising in industrial relations at Australia's James Cook University, said while labour strikes and protests are still "a comparatively new phenomenon" in Singapore, many foreign workers likely see staging strikes as ordinary.

"Chinese workers will have experienced conflict that has characterised industrial relations in China over the past decade, so naturally they will have learned that protest often works and that it is no use relying on officials, especially trade union officials," said Leggett.

"In its urgency to remain regionally and internationally competitive, policymakers in Singapore rarely address the social consequences of the presence of foreigners."

Leggett's analysis draws attention to the bigger picture: the influx of foreigners has placed the government in a difficult position. It has to satisfy its citizens' needs, but at the same time keep migrant worker disputes in check so that economic growth does not falter.

Xenophobia is a reality in Singapore [Heather Tan/Al Jazeera]

While the government has publicly defended its immigration policies as "adaptive" and "practical", Singapore's Manpower Ministry recently pledged it would do more to help foreign workers in an effort to silence critics such as the Humane Organisation for Migrant Economics.

The group has questioned Singapore's way of dealing with migrant worker issues. Founder Bridget Tan has called on  authorities to review management policies that discriminate against migrant workers.

"At the end of the day, the biggest priority here is making money," said Lional Toh, an undergraduate student at Nanyang Technological University who has been following the trials of the Chinese bus drivers closely. "Whether the state actually follows up on its promise not to exploit foreigners for economic gain is another thing."

Anti-foreigner sentiment

Political campaigns in the country have often drawn on anti-foreigner sentiment, calling for limits on the number of foreign workers in an attempt to win votes from disgruntled Singaporeans. Stories of foreigners misbehaving or committing crimes are often played up by the Singapore media, which in turn tends to spark xenophobic comments online.

"This is very much a symptom of the kind of society Singapore has become," said Alex Au, a local blogger and prominent internet personality who writes on various social issues in Singapore. "Singapore has become a society in which we don't seem to recognise that human beings have inherent rights."

"We see ourselves as part of a natural pecking order where the rulers are at the top and the average people are just subjects of a king rather than citizens of a republic."

Leggett noted it is easy for affluent societies such as Singapore to "despise" those from countries that have not been as economically successful. "For more than 40 years, Singaporeans have been socialised into a national sense of themselves - politically, economically and culturally - as something special, leading them to sometimes smugly dismiss foreigners as lesser-deserving," said Leggett. 

"I'm still not happy that they are here. But what can I do?"

- Mrs Tan, Serangoon Gardens resident

In 2008, the government's proposal to build a foreign workers' dormitory in the middle of Serangoon Gardens, an affluent residential estate, drew a huge outcry from residents in the area. To allay their concerns, the dormitory was fenced off and trees were planted to hide it from view. The exit leading to the neighbourhood was also sealed. 

Mrs Tan, a resident who has lived in the area for more than 20 years - who requested her first name not be used in this article - lives in a house overlooking the site. She said she has to shut her windows and doors at night to avoid hearing noise coming from migrant workers who "fight among themselves" and disturb her peace.

She even switched political sides during last year's election, blaming her previous parliamentary representative for not addressing residents' concerns about the dormitory.

"Until today, I'm still not happy that they are here. But what can I do?"

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Source:
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