The Straits Times
Published on Dec 06, 2012

Use levy to help workers, not 'profit' from them


THE recent work stoppage by some of SMRT's bus drivers from China raises the need to review our dependence on cheap foreign workers to sustain our economy ("A strike that raises many questions"; last Saturday).

While it helps to keep labour costs low, this framework has often not factored in the more invisible long-term external social costs.

Leaving the plight of migrant workers' welfare unresolved may have a negative effect on Singapore's longer-term stability, which last week's significant SMRT stoppage revealed poignantly.

One way to address such issues is for the Government to set aside part of its foreign worker levies to improve the material welfare of these workers.

The levies range from $210 to $500 per month per worker, and about one million foreign workers are included in this scheme, which amounts to revenues of several hundred million dollars a month.

Rather than be seen to profit from the labour of foreign workers, the Government should channel the levies back to the workers. This can be done through subsidies to the rental of their accommodation, improving the housing conditions in the dormitories, covering the fees for trade union membership, as well as helping them with more extensive medical insurance.

The Ministry of Manpower should perhaps consider giving rebates to our foreign workers, as is being done with Singaporeans, when the economy performs well.

In addition, the scheme can be given greater flexibility to punish exploitative employers with higher levies, and offer rebates for those that are more welfare-oriented.

The ministry can also take a cue from the ways the Singapore Armed Forces recognises the contributions of its National Servicemen, through building community clubs and offering discounts for basic necessities in outlets frequented by foreign workers.

Like our forefathers in the colonial era, migrant workers have contributed significantly to our economy.

We should not let history repeat itself and force them to endure the same low wages, unfair work conditions and dilapidated and overcrowded living environments that we see in museum exhibitions of 19th century Singapore.

Rather than a golden age defined by dazzling signature skyscrapers, I would be prouder if we have golden hearts instead, whereby we treat migrant workers with dignity and share the fruits of our prosperity with them.

Liew Kai Khiun