Riot not due to 'built-up dissatisfaction' of foreign workers' living conditions in Singapore

The overturned police cars at the aftermath of the Little India riot on Dec 9, 2013. -- ST FILE PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
The overturned police cars at the aftermath of the Little India riot on Dec 9, 2013. -- ST FILE PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

The riot in Little India was not the result of "any adverse" working or living conditions for migrant workers here, the public hearing into the Dec 8 unrest heard on Thursday. A study by the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees' Union (Batu) after the outbreak of violence in the Indian enclave last year had found that there was "no build up of such dissatisfaction".

Responding to a question from Committee of Inquiry (COI) chairman G. Pannir Selvam on whether current working and living conditions in Singapore for migrant workers had led to the riot, Batu deputy executive secretary Jennie Yeo said, "No".

She added that most workers told Batu after the riot that they were "generally happy" here, even though she rated their living conditions "about five to six", on a scale of one to 10.

Ms Yeo also surprised the committee when she raised the issue of employers retaining the passports of workers - a practice which does not align with labour regulations here - and demanding a security deposit of up to $5,000 when workers request for their passports to open a bank account, for instance. She also told the committee that many employers do not share a copy of the employment contracts with the workers. She also said that the workers are rarely issued with pay-slips.

While these are common grievances among migrant workers here, Ms Yeo could not confirm if Batu has alerted the authorities about them or if there were any investigations into such practices.

When asked by former NTUC president John De Payva if it would have helped if all migrant workers were unionised, Ms Yeo said yes, the "situation will improve".

Batu, she added, is now working with the Migrant Workers Centre (MWC) on getting more workers unionised.