Forum: Migrant cleaners deserve fair wages, rest days

A cleaner working outside Dhoby Ghaut MRT station on Oct 31, 2019.
A cleaner working outside Dhoby Ghaut MRT station on Oct 31, 2019.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

April 26, 2020, has been designated CleanSG Day and town council cleaners will be given a day off (Cleaners to pass broom to residents on CleanSG Day, Nov 20).

The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) welcomes this effort by the Public Hygiene Council to raise Singaporeans' awareness of how much litter they generate daily.

Hopefully, this will also encourage greater acknowledgement of the crucial role town council cleaners, many of whom are migrant workers, play in keeping our housing estates clean.

Home has been involved in outreach activities among Bangladeshi migrant cleaners. These men work extremely long hours for very low pay: Typically 12 hours daily, with wages between $500 and $800 monthly. During festive periods, workloads increase significantly.

All the migrant cleaners have no rest days as rubbish must be cleared daily. Their financial hardship is exacerbated by heavy debts, incurred from paying recruitment fees of up to $12,000.

A sustainable waste management system should not be dependent on the daily exploitation of low-wage workers. Appreciation of our cleaners must go beyond encouraging attitudinal shifts among residents. Systemic change is also necessary.

We urge the Government to review current policies and practices that lead to abuse and exploitation in the sector.

The Government and NTUC have taken a first step by implementing an accreditation system which requires cleaning companies to pay a basic salary of $1,000 under the progressive wage model.

But this scheme does not apply to migrant workers. Concerns about the costs of including migrant workers in this scheme can be mitigated if the levy amount employers are required to pay for each migrant worker is reviewed.

Cleaning is stigmatised work that is necessary but grossly undervalued. An annual "cleanup" by residents cannot replace the necessity for living wages and weekly rostered rest days for cleaners.

Significant industry reform is necessary to ensure that the individuals who toil to keep Singapore a "clean and green" city are treated fairly.

Desiree Leong

Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics