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Singapore can lead the way in foreign workers' rights

We urge the Ministry of Manpower to reconsider its view that it is unable to accede to the United Nations Convention for the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families because Singapore's "specific circumstances" do not make it possible to give equal rights to migrants ("More help and treats for foreign workers"; Dec 13).

While we acknowledge that there are certain benefits which only citizens should enjoy, such as the right to vote or hold political office, a person's nationality should not determine whether he is treated fairly at the workplace or whether he has affordable access to health services.

Given the enormous contributions that migrant workers make to the economy,

the lack of resources should not be a reason to deny them such basic rights.

Research has shown that a work culture which upholds human rights and does not discriminate based on social status leads to higher productivity and encourages staff retention.

The provisions contained in the Convention for Migrant Workers are in no way different from Singapore's other human rights obligations. For example, the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention for the Rights of the Child, both of which Singapore has ratified, contain provisions which apply to migrant women and children too.

Singapore has signed the Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which contains provisions addressing discrimination based on nationality.

Therefore, signing the migrant workers convention would be a logical next step.

The Government has said that the majority of states have not ratified the convention. But Singapore can certainly be a leader by setting an example in the region by signing the convention, even though many countries have not.

It is important to realise that granting equal rights to migrants does not disadvantage locals in any way.

Research has shown that a work culture which upholds human rights and does not discriminate based on social status leads to higher productivity and encourages staff retention.

Indeed, multinational corporations, in particular, recognise this fact and have established diversity committees to create inclusive work environments.  

Governments can and should retain the right to decide on the number of immigrants to let in, based on the state's size, infrastructure and impact on the population at large.

However, to allow the systematic discrimination of migrant workers who are resident in Singapore runs counter to the kind of society which Singapore prides itself on: one which is multiracial, diverse and meritocratic.            

Jolovan Wham

Executive Director

Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 27, 2015, with the headline 'Singapore can lead the way in foreign workers' rights'. Print Edition | Subscribe