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Growing Number of Migrant Workers Stirs Debate in Singapore




Elaine Huang



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By Elaine Huang

SINGAPORE, Mar 17 (IPS Asia-Pacific) – Take a walk in Singapore and you’ll find that the city-state is clean, green ­– and multi-national.

Data published by Singapore Department of Statistics in mid-2012 say that there ware 5.18 million people in the country: 3.81 million are citizens and permanent residents, and 1.37 million are foreigners.

Data from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) also show that there are a total of 1.27 million people who make up the foreign workforce. Ministry statistics also show that at the end of 2010, there were 201,000 foreign domestic workers in Singapore – or 61,000 more than what was reported in 2002.

Most of these migrant workers work in sectors like construction, domestic and manufacturing services. According to an article published early 2011 by Channel News Asia, out of 871,000 work permits handed out in Singapore, 28.4 percent are in the construction industry. In the construction industry, a large majority of the workers are from Bangladesh and China. As for the domestic services industry, it is rather fragmented with a large majority from the Philippines, followed by mixed numbers from Indonesia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

These figures reflect changes in the demographic mix in Singapore, a city-state that has long had a good number of expatriates but where the growing number of foreign and migrant workers has also leading to adjustment challenges.

For instance, two incidents – the November 2012 strike by 171 Chinese bus drivers protesting unfair treatment and the March 2012 announcement by Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan Jin of a compulsory rest day for domestic workers – drew both xenophobic remarks and sympathetic responses from locals.

So, what do Singaporeans have to say about migrant workers in their midst?


“I think Singaporeans are taking advantage of the fact that we have migrant workers and complaining too much. If they leave, then who is going to do the job they are doing now?” asked Calvin Eng, 20.

Some Singaporeans mistakenly think that migrant workers are entitled to more privileges, says John Gee, head of the Research Sub-committee and ex-President of the migrant advocacy group, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).

He added that people often appear to be surprised or shocked by cases of abuse, like terrible living conditions and violence, but it is nothing new.

Stephanie Chok, a researcher and activist for low-wage migrant workers, said in an e-mail interview: “It saddens me that basic rights such as sufficient rest (through a day off a week) are so contentious – even now, with the new regulations, it has been reported that most domestic workers will not have a weekly day off. Comparatively, domestic workers in Hong Kong have higher salaries and are better protected in terms of labour rights – it is shameful we are lagging behind in this area.”

She added, “The problem though is how other so-called ‘lesser’ violations – overwork, inadequate rest, poor living conditions, low and discriminatory pay – tend to become normalised such that people accept it as a ‘condition’ of low-wage migrant workers’ employment experience in Singapore.”

Her husband, Patrick Chng, also said in an e-mail interview, “I think the cause of these complaints is because Singaporeans feel that they are superior to these migrant workers. I get the feeling that Singaporeans think that we are an advanced society, a First World nation whereas these migrant workers are from the Third World. Hence, ‘these migrant workers should be grateful that they are working here and not cause any problems.’”

But it is unjust to pay migrant workers according to their nationalities, he opines. “It is discrimination and should have no place here. Why should people be paid according to where they come from? They should be paid fairly for the work done.”

Chok also added that with regards to the Chinese workers’ bus strike, the drivers have been cast by the mainstream media as law-breakers. “Some commentaries have also expressed fears about disruptions to public services if we are over-reliant on foreigners to maintain vital services. Yet we need to consider the broader implications of the strike – that we are essentially criminalising workers who decided to collectively protest after their work grievances were not addressed by management.”

Liza Marie Goh, 18, a student, agreed, “I think Singaporeans are very unappreciative of these migrant workers. They are always labelled as bad people and there’s a lot of stereotyping.”

Jaybalan said, “I think it’s not that they’re not welcome but they’re welcome as long as they maintain their boundaries, then it’s okay. Singaporeans don’t want them to be seen. It’s like the story of the shoemaker and his elves, Singaporeans want the migrant workers to be like all those little elves.”

Goh added that it is easy to spot discrimination even on public transport. She said, “Sometimes, if they (migrant workers) sit next to Singaporeans, they would move or shift, and look disgusted.”

Jaybalan said, “I’ve seen some where they expect migrant workers to give up their seats for them.”

“But Singaporeans are not bad people,” she added. “They just haven’t had the opportunity to really get to know them. When I did a project about them, and my friends and I had the chance to talk to them, they were all really nice.”

Eng mused, “I think the government should just send them all back for a day. Then, people (Singaporeans) will finally realise how important they (migrant workers) are.”

Chng added, “We must stop viewing these foreign workers as economic digits and start treating them as human beings, as people who feel, who have families they love, who have aspirations, who come here to work because they want a better life for their loved ones. We must have laws and strict enforcement to protect these foreign workers from abuse and unfair treatment.”


Although there are cases of discrimination in affluent Singapore, there are also exceptions.

For the past six years, 42-year-old Aileen Urbano, a Filipino, has been working in Singapore as a caregiver at a children’s shelter.

She said, “I didn’t feel that (discrimination) because usually, when I go out, I look like a local. Once, I went a polyclinic and the person asked me after I showed my work permit, “You’re not local?” I didn’t experience such things like they treat me as a different person.”

“(But) I’ve noticed that when it comes to the Bangladesh workers, people don’t want to get near them, especially on the bus. Most of the time, it is mostly this group of people,” she added.

She added, “I’m actually aware that the population of the foreign workers (in Singapore) is getting higher and higher. I think they’re (the government) trying to control it now. Maybe it’s because your population is not that big and you really need the help of foreign workers.”

Mary, who has been in Singapore for four years as a Filipino domestic worker, agrees that she has had good experiences here. However, she says that her friends, fellow domestic workers, have faced stares and mean comments from Singaporeans about their dressing when out on a rest day.


As the numbers of migrant workers in the city-state grow, so do support groups and social safety nets for them, among them organisations like TWC2.

TWC2 has a volunteer pool of 50 to 60 people, and half of those help run the food programme, as explained by Gee. He added that volunteer activities include research work and direct services, which could even be as simple as making sure a migrant worker keeps his or her hospital appointment.

Some migrant workers approach TWC2 directly by using their hotline (1800-888-1515). Others come in contact with the non-profit organisation by going to their outreach events and food projects.

In its ‘Cuff Road Project’, volunteers assist migrant workers in need of some assistance. The workers get to consult someone from the advocacy group about their problems, apart from getting a good lunch.

“One area I think we are still not reaching out adequately is still the Burmese workers. It’s a matter of having people who can manage the language, so that’s hard,” said Gee.

“Generally, MOM’s treatment of the workers has improved over the years. We’ve got to say that. For example, when we started reaching out to male workers, we found out that some cases were taking two years and more to resolve,” Ge added. “But these days, we find that the great majority of cases are resolved within a year. So that’s definitely a step forward.”

However, Gee added that the Ministry of Manpower needs to probe deeper into issues like abuse. He cited an example, “If a male worker is beaten by an employer, most male workers are more resistant, more hesitant, to complain. You actually need a more proactive approach to get these kinds of issues raised and considered seriously. Plus, we know that the government is taking lots of money on the levy (for hiring migrant workers), so why can’t some more of this go toward providing workers?”

According to an article published by Channel News Asia, in late January 2013, the ministry closed in on 1,062 employers providing their migrant workers with poor living quarters.

Gee added, “The main issues that tend to come up directly from workers are complaints about not being paid what they are supposed to be and also, working and compensation issues. Some of the other issues that come to light as we talk to workers are living in bad conditions or being verbally abused by an employer. But those are things they tend not to bring to the foreground when they come to see us.”

Chng also said, “Singaporeans should advocate fair treatment for all workers, whether they are migrant or local workers. Migrant workers should be protected under the same labour laws for Singaporean workers.” (END)



migrant workers, Singaporian

Economic sectors

General relevance - all sectors

Content types

Statistics on work and life conditions

Target groups

Policymakers, Public awareness, Researchers, and NGOs/community groups/solidarity networks

Geographical focuses

China, Philippines, Bangladesh, and Regional relevance

Spheres of activity

Social work