Singapore – A heavy reliance on cheap foreign labour – and whether low-paid, low-status guest workers in this wealthy island-nation are treated fairly – is the cause for soul-searching and debate following a rare riot on December 8 in the Little India neighborhood.
The city-state will deport 53 people who were allegedly involved in the unrest.
Government officials blame alcohol for the riot – Singapore’s first in 44 years – which started after an Indian national was struck and killed by a bus that was ferrying foreign labourers from the Indian district to their dormitory-style living quarters. Some 400 people charged the bus and first responders, threw objects, and overturned police cars and damaged other vehicles, injuring 39 people and sending shock waves through the orderly, law-abiding country.
“The riot happened spontaneously, it was localised,” Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was quoted as saying in The Sunday Times. “The people who were involved in the riot were not from one company, or one dorm (dormitory); they were from several dorms, many different companies, and it is unlikely that all the companies will have the same problem.”
But others see the treatment of guest workers, whose numbers are projected to increase as Singapore continues to expand its economic miracle, as an increasingly vexing social issue.
“We believe that chronic maltreatment and disempowerment can lead to a sense of frustrated alienation, which may set the tone in how migrant workers view authority,” said Russell Heng, president of the advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).
Vincent Wijeysingha, an activist with the group Workfair Singapore, said: “What we are saying is that given that we have had years of very exploitative conditions, isn’t it sensible to at least pose the question as to whether those (labour) grievances might have had some relationship to the riot?”
The activist group was handing out flowers to migrant workers, police officers and passers-by on Sunday evening at the site of the riot one week earlier.
Most South Asian migrant workers approached for comment declined to be interviewed, citing fears they might get into trouble somehow.
However, one construction worker from Tamil Nadu, India, speaking on condition of anonymity, described his harsh life in Singapore briefly.
“I work about 10 hours a day in the hot sun, six days a week. The work is difficult but I have to do it for my family in India because they depend on me,” he said in Tamil.
“The accommodation is not good, but I don’t want to complain. I can adjust and I am okay with it. My focus is just to earn money and support my family no matter any hardship.”
He said that sometimes he and his friends have a few beers on Sundays, their only off day to relax. “Our bodies hurt from all the physical work and sometimes a beer helps. But we never go overboard. We are here to help our families in India. Why would we want to start fighting?” he asked, reiterating that most of the migrant workers in Singapore were not troublemakers.
Government officials say there are existing channels for migrant worker grievances and add that they have dealt with 3,700 employment related claims in 2013 so far.
‘We shouldn’t generalise’
In a Facebook post, Singapore’s Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said most of the cases are usually settled within a month.
“We have about nearly 1 million foreign workers on work permits. These cases amount to less than one per cent of the workforce. Every problem is one case too many but neither should we generalise without basis,” he pointed out.
However, Workfair Singapore said that the number of complaints is not a true reflection of the exploitation faced by lowly-paid migrant workers.
In a statement to the media it said, “Many workers choose to work and live under oppressive conditions for fear of losing their jobs should they report to the authorities.”
“For migrant workers, this is exacerbated by huge recruitment debts and the inflexible work pass system which disallows them from switching jobs,” it added.
There have been other recent signs of guest worker disaffection. The riot followed a November 2012 wildcat strike by bus drivers from mainland China demanding better wages and living conditions – it was the first industrial strike in Singapore since 1986. The official response was swift: Singapore declared the strike illegal and jailed five of the drivers, while 29 others were deported without trial.
Meanwhile, a highly unpopular government white paper projects an increased reliance on foreign labour needed to continue building Singapore’s infrastructure, a prospect that was widely criticized by Singaporean citizens already concerned about the large foreign presence.
Currently there are some 1.3 million foreign workers in Singapore, making up some 20 percent of the country’s 5.3 million population and over a third of the total labour force. The government projects the overall population will increase to 6.9 million by 2030, with up to 36 percent of that total, or 2.5 million, to be made up of foreign workers.
‘Our foreign friends’
The vast majority – around 80 per cent – of guest workers hold low-skilled jobs that are considered undesirable by Singapore standards. Construction workers, for example, a field dominated by male workers from India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, earn a basic monthly salary of between S$460 and S$700 (US$366 and US$560), according to TWC2. The average Singaporean monthly wage is about S$4,433 (US$3,532).
Now we are going to do some soul-searching and make some suitable recommendations
TWC2 says migrant workers frequently pay thousands of dollars in agency fees to secure a job in Singapore, and are routinely shortchanged and threatened with deportation by unscrupulous employers.
In addition to better working and living conditions, some say access to more recreational activities would be more constructive than the ritual congregating and public drinking in Little India popular among migrant workers from South Asia.
Tens of thousands South Asian labourers gather in Little India on Sundays, generally their one day of the week off, filling up sidewalks and open spaces, drinking and socialising.
But a government clampdown made for an eerily quiet weekend on December 14-15. Alcohol sales in Little India were banned in a 1.1 square kilometer area dense with restaurants and stores selling alcohol, and guest workers were urged by employers to stay at home. Buses that normally bring South Asian manual labourers from their dormitory quarters to Little India were cancelled for the weekend. New security cameras were installed, and police kept a visible presence.
SR Gopal, vice president of the Little India Shopkeepers And Heritage Association and a retired police officer, said the riot is sparking an important dialogue over how Singaporeans can best get along with what he calls “our foreign friends”.
“Now we are going to do some soul-searching and make some suitable recommendations,” he said.