Foreign workers 'need to be integrated'

Workers’ dormitories in Jurong West. Migrant worker NGOs agree that problems could arise if foreign workers feel isolated, or if they have nowhere to go outside of their dormitories. -- ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
Workers’ dormitories in Jurong West. Migrant worker NGOs agree that problems could arise if foreign workers feel isolated, or if they have nowhere to go outside of their dormitories. -- ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

It won't be easy but isolating them could lead to social problems

Integrating foreign workers into neighbourhoods, rather than isolating them in far-flung dormitories, is ideal but not easy, said analysts and activists.

Most Singaporeans may agree that foreign workers are needed, but are uncomfortable with living alongside them, said observers.

Yet, a solution is needed. Failure to do so could lead to social problems, as Banyan Tree executive chairman Ho Kwon Ping observed on Wednesday.

Instead of Dubai's "dormitory towns" far from the city centre, foreign worker housing could be better incorporated in residential neighbourhoods, he said at a conference on Singapore's physical transformation.

In response, migrant worker non-governmental organisations agreed that problems could arise if workers feel isolated, or if they have nowhere to go outside of their dormitories.

Tensions could lead to fights, and workers might be disruptive when they do venture out.

To avoid this, Mr Bernard Menon, executive director of strategy at the Migrant Workers' Centre, suggested having more recreational centres where foreign workers can play sports, watch movies and attend classes.

But physical integration is tricky. In 2008, Serangoon Gardens residents objected to a new foreign worker dormitory in their neighbourhood.

As National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Tan Ern Ser pointed out: "It's a desirable aspiration, but it entails careful planning and implementation."

He thinks that rather than a "conspicuous concentration of foreign workers in a few blocks", it would be better to disperse foreign workers across the neighbourhood.

But factors such as class and nationality differences, and estate capacity, must be considered when deciding on integration, he added.

For physical integration to work, social integration is also important. More activities could be organised for Singaporeans and foreign workers to mingle, suggested Mr John Gee, an executive committee member of migrants' organisation Transient Workers Count Too.

He cited the example of street carnivals in Britain where people of different cultures set up booths and play games.

"In these relaxed environments, Singaporeans can see a different side of the foreign workers," he said. "They get to learn about their cultures and see them as individuals."

But NUS sociologist Ho Kong Chong thinks two other groups take priority in social integration, "because they are here to stay": the resident poor, and new citizens and permanent residents.

Foreign workers are transient, so the question of social integration does not apply to them in the same way, said Dr Ho.

"It's more important, as the host country, to think of their more urgent needs" such as health and housing, he said.

ameltan@sph.com.sg

janiceh@sph.com.sg