Time to clean up cleaners' housing woes

Cleaners in the bin centre at Block 105, Aljunied Crescent.
Cleaners in the bin centre at Block 105, Aljunied Crescent.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

We welcome the spotlight on the welfare of Bangladeshi cleaners in Housing Board estates ("Life in the dumps"; last Saturday).

Efforts to deal with the issue of workers sleeping, eating and resting in bin centres need to fully consider why workers have ended up there in the first place.

Bangladeshi cleaners in HDB estates typically work 12-hour days, every day. They do not get rest days. Those who clean the wet markets may work 16-hour days. They are on call 24/7 and may have to attend to residents' demands at odd hours.

It was briefly mentioned in the article that cleaners may be resting in bin centres because these centres are closer to their workplace and less crowded than employer-provided housing.

The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics has heard of instances where workers are housed in remote locations, crammed conditions, and/or prohibited from cooking at employer-sponsored housing.

There are other disturbing dimensions of their working lives that need to be highlighted.

Bangladeshi cleaners' recruitment fees are extremely high ($8,000 to $12,000 or more), while their starting basic salaries are as low as $400 a month, which is less than the foreign worker levy employers have to pay.

Workers are sometimes asked to pay $2,000 to $3,000 to renew their contracts, thus adding to the men's considerable debt burdens.

It is vital to consider the broader context of "choices" made by migrant workers, and juxtapose any such judgments with the grim reality that workers may "prefer" to rest or reside in objectionable surroundings because of a lack of decent alternatives.

Raids to remove and prohibit workers from bin centres are surface interventions that may appear to solve the "problem" without substantively improving workers' well-being.

Interventions to resolve poor living conditions must also take into account the exploitative working conditions of men who perform daily essential work in our country, and the grave asymmetries in bargaining power that lead many to live in the dumps in a country renowned for its high living standards.

Tam Peck Hoon (Ms)
Legal, Advocacy & Awareness
Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2015, with the headline 'Time to clean up cleaners' housing woes'. Print Edition | Subscribe