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View foreign workers' rights in proper context

I have four points to make in response to the letter by Mr Jolovan Wham ("Singapore can lead the way in foreign workers' rights"; Dec 27, 2015).

First, the United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families is a pre-globalisation treaty. It is arguable that this treaty has been overtaken by present concerns of migration management.

The treaty was proposed in the 1970s. It endured a long and difficult drafting process throughout the 1980s. When the text was signed as a multilateral treaty in 1990, it was right for the time. The Cold War's end was near; neoliberalism triumphed.

Human rights are universal, universalised by and determined from Western perspectives.

Second, the protection of migrant workers, therefore, is likely to be framed differently if it were negotiated today. For instance, it was previously thought that countries of destination for migrant workers principally bore the legal obligations of protection. Now, it is likely that more emphasis would be placed on the legal duty of countries of origin to protect their own nationals who leave as migrant workers for elsewhere.

Third, Mr Wham said that the provisions of the convention on migrant workers "are in no way different" from the human rights obligations that Singapore agreed to in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) and Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

But the three treaties are different. Because Singapore entered declarations and reservations to the Cedaw and CRC, its obligations and rights as a party to both are different, from which different legal consequences arise.

Fourth, it was argued that Singapore should sign the convention on migrant workers to set an example in the region.

There is law of the jungle, but it is set by those who are bigger and stronger. The large states, especially the countries of destination, must at least tacitly support shared understandings of protecting migrant workers in legal terms. To this extent, it is the United States, Canada and Malaysia which can act most convincingly as exemplars, but have also been disinclined to sign the treaty.

Daniel Seah Chin Aun

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 10, 2016, with the headline 'View foreign workers' rights in proper context'. Print Edition | Subscribe