IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Little India: A world apart and invisible?

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 15, 2013

Two worlds collided in Little India on the night of Dec 8.

The world we know is back in full control.

The charred remains of the violent riot have been cleared.

The police investigation and court proceedings are under way.

The Committee of Inquiry has been formed.

The leaders have spoken, as have Singaporeans on- and off-line.

Order has been restored.

The other world is back at work too, and likely back to Little India today though in much reduced numbers.

Thirty-three have been charged in court and they look set to face the full force of the law.

No matter how isolated the event was and how many were involved, it was traumatic for both worlds when, in that brief, mad moment, the two, locked in battle, became one.

But today, they are as distant as ever, perhaps even more so.

Let's face it - Singapore needs large numbers of cheap foreign labour to do the work its citizens do not want.

But beyond this economic contribution, there isn't much interest in what they do, how they cope here and what problems they face.

Contribute to the economy but keep out of our way of life.

That is why there was an uproar among Serangoon Gardens residents when they found out that a foreign workers' dormitory was to be built in their estate.

That dorm is now completed, housing 600 workers, but there is a specially built road leading to it, cut off from the neighbourhood, so the two worlds do not meet.

You couldn't ask for a more apt symbol of the segregation between the two communities. Those residents are probably representative of the rest of Singapore, and this reality is unlikely to change any time soon.

Perhaps that's what foreign workers want too - they know their stay here is transient, and prefer to be among themselves and do their own thing.

But even if Singaporeans do not want to mix with these communities, we ought to have a deeper understanding of who these people are, what brought them here, how they are doing and what issues they face.

Citizens here take pride that this is a multiracial country with harmonious relations among the races and say that this is a value that defines the nation.

But this claim rings hollow if they want to have nothing to do with, and care not about, the well-being of the hundreds of thousands of workers from the different nationalities here - Indians, Bangladeshis, mainland Chinese, Filipinos, Thais and Indonesians.

After the riot, almost everyone repeated this favourite line: The majority of them are law-abiding, they contribute to the economy and work hard to support their families back home.

I am sure they are all that, but they are also much more.

I asked some volunteers who help these workers what Singaporeans should know about these people, particularly those from India who are mainly employed in the construction industry.

I can't adequately capture all the details in this short space, but this is the gist of what they tell me: Contrary to popular belief, the workers do not come from the poorest segments of the sub-continent. If they did, they would not have been able to raise the money to pay labour agents there to help them secure jobs here.

Another common misperception - they are not illiterate and poorly educated. They have to pass tests set by the Building and Construction Authority here, and because they come mainly from lower middle-class families, most would have had some education.

A volunteer told me this story of a student here conducting a survey at a construction site. He tried to explain to an Indian worker in simple English what the survey was about, whereupon the man took the form from him and read it aloud in perfect English before proceeding to complete the survey on his own.

The labour agents, whom many blame for charging exorbitant fees, are all based in the workers' home countries. They are not based here.

For a typical Indian worker looking for his first job, the agents charge $3,000 to $5,000.

With a monthly salary which can be as low as $700, many have to take up to a year just to repay the loans they have had to incur.

It gets better with the second and subsequent contracts when the fees are lower - around $3,000. Their pay also goes up because of their experience, with many getting more than $1,000.

It's a tough life here - they work six to seven days a week in the hot sun, often in sites that have less than ideal safety conditions.

Because they want to make as much as possible, many work extra hours beyond the legally allowed limit, to get maximum overtime pay.

If the companies allow this because they need to get the work done, who is there to enforce the law?

This is probably more rampant now because the Government has tightened the work permit numbers in the midst of a building boom.

What issues do these workers face here?

According to the volunteer group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), their top complaints are: unpaid salaries, wages paid as "loans" which have to be paid back, unilateral deduction of previously agreed pay for various items such as levies, and unauthorised work for other companies.

One contentious issue that activists have raised is the law that binds a worker to the company that hires him. He cannot leave unless the company agrees to the request. If he quits, he will likely be sent back, which will be financially ruinous for most.

Critics argue that this makes workers vulnerable to exploitative companies, which know they have the upper hand in any dispute.

On the flip side, all foreign workers are protected under the same Employment Act that governs Singaporean workers, and this is enforced by the Manpower Ministry.

To its credit, the ministry is now more open and willing to help resolve some of these issues, volunteers say.

Singapore should do more to acknowledge and support the work of these volunteers and their organisations. They include the Migrant Workers' Centre, TWC2, the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics and the Archdiocesan Commission for Pastoral Care of Migrant and Itinerant People, among others.

They operate with limited bud-gets in an area with little public support. But for a foreign worker in an unfamiliar setting, up against an errant company or stricken with illness, the help they offer may make all the difference in the world.

An active, thriving volunteer sector that seeks to improve the lot of foreign workers here, with strong support from the Government and the people, has to be a critical part of Singapore's approach to this issue.

It will also help counter the negative press that Singapore often gets over its treatment of these workers.

Whatever the cause of the riot and the measures being taken to prevent future occurrences, the hundreds of thousands of foreign workers are here to stay, every single one of them a hopeful, energetic human being working towards a better future.

As Singapore restructures its economy to operate at a higher level, the role played by its large foreign workers' population needs to be reviewed.

They can become highly productive and motivated workers given the right conditions and incentives, and if we change our attitudes to them.

But if we continue to treat them as low-skilled economic digits, with whom we want to have as little to do as possible, they will deliver accordingly.

Then we deserve to suffer the consequences.

hanfk@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 15, 2013

To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/