When Cheryl Tang, Sharifah Mohamed and I embarked on our book, Doing Good Great: Thirteen Asian Heroes And Their Causes, in 2013, we wanted to feature an Asian social entrepreneur who championed an urgent social issue in each of their respective countries.
To zero in on the cause and person to feature, we extensively polled our contacts in each Asian country. We did not do the same for Singapore. We thought that we already knew since we live here. Without hesitation, we picked migrant workers as the No. 1 social issue and Ms Braema Mathi, who started TWC2, a non-profit organisation in Singapore dedicated to improving conditions for low-wage migrant workers, as the unsung hero.
What's interesting is that the few people we did speak to in Singapore did not even mention migrant workers as a key social cause, and Braema's name never came up.
After the book was published, some people told me that they disagreed with our choice of social issue and hero for Singapore.
This was despite the fact that a few years earlier, the Lien Centre for Social Innovation in its ground-breaking report, Unmet Social Needs in Singapore, had identified foreign workers as one of the six most vulnerable communities in Singapore.
And yet, over the years, foreign workers - unlike the other five vulnerable groups such as the disabled, the mentally ill, single-person-headed households - continued to be mostly overlooked as a priority by key social sector organisations that should have included them.
Of course, recent months have cast fresh light on this problem as the coronavirus pandemic rages across migrant worker dormitories, accounting for more than 90 per cent of Singapore's over 36,400 infected cases.
And it begs the question: Why the blind spot? After all, it should be almost impossible not to see the migrant workers. For starters, they number 1.4 million - a quarter of Singapore's population.
We certainly would not have missed the presence of the 260,000 who work in our homes as domestic helpers. A Catholic priest once told me that he did not like doing house blessings because he could not reconcile the helper's quarters and conditions with what he saw in the rest of the house.
As Professor Tommy Koh has pointed out, it is jarring in First World Singapore to see construction workers uncomfortably transported to and from their workplaces in flatbed trucks with no seats, or sitting on the ground eating their lunches or stretching out to rest - because employers are not required to, and do not, provide proper eating areas or buses to ferry them to work.
In my view, when it comes to foreign workers, most of us in Singapore don't want to see what's right in front of us. It's an absolute blind spot. Perhaps this is because we have been so effective at keeping them segregated at worksites, in their dormitories, and even in our own homes. We see them, but we don't see them. We certainly don't see them as equal human beings. We don't treat them well, and many of us are, generally, quite comfortable with that.
In 2003, TWC2 and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) started a "One Day Off" campaign to lobby the Government and to persuade employers to give domestic helpers one rest day a week. At the time, more than half of domestic workers worked 14-hour days, and only 12 per cent had a day off each week. However, it wasn't till 2012 that, amid pushback from some employers and maid agencies, the Government passed a law mandating a rest day. That a law had to be passed for helpers to get a day off, and that it took 10 years of campaigning for the law to be passed, did not speak well of us as a society.
Now, it's easy to blame, as some people do, the Government for the plight of foreign workers. It's convenient to observe that they suit the Government's economic agenda.
Low-cost, low-skilled foreign workers fuel the economy and keep Singapore competitive internationally.
When it comes to foreign workers, most of us in Singapore don't want to see what's right in front of us. It's an absolute blind spot. Perhaps this is because we have been so effective at keeping them segregated at worksites, in their dormitories, and even in our own homes. We see them, but we don't see them. We certainly don't see them as equal human beings. We don't treat them well, and many of us are, generally, quite comfortable with that.
And it's just as easy to see how the Government can ignore migrant workers because they have no votes. But isn't it the case that those of us who have the votes are the ones asking the Government to segregate them and keep them out of sight? And when workers' dormitories were planned too close to our residences, we protested. It's Nimby-ism in its purest form. Not in my backyard or neighbourhood.
But ignoring the problems hasn't made them go away. The fault lines have been showing. The SMRT bus driver strike in 2012 and the Little India riot that followed in 2013 were a preview. At the time, there was considerable public discourse over the mistreatment of migrant workers, but nothing much was done. Instead, the focus was on taking to task the delinquents and preventing a recurrence.
Over the years, several NGOs have fought valiantly to plug gaps in the system by providing shelters, direct services and advocacy. They have raised concerns with policymakers about abuse, overcrowding and poor living conditions among migrant workers, hoping for change. Instead, some of them, such as TWC2 and Home, have felt marginalised for being too vocal.
And now, the chickens have truly come home to roost. The Covid-19 outbreak and the surge of infections in the workers' dormitories have laid bare, for literally the whole world to see, the results of our collective indifference.
Rather than use this moment for intense self-reflection, a segment of the population has channelled racism and xenophobia to blame foreign workers for their plight. But others have stepped up to show they care, and Nimby (not in my backyard) has turned to Wimby (welcome in my backyard) ("Campaign to make workers feel welcome in housing estates", April 20).
While there's talk of restructuring the economy and workforce for a post-virus future, the reality is that we cannot do without migrant labour, at least not for a long while.
Meanwhile, the Covid-19 crisis and its solutions continue to play out. The most recent is that the Government is establishing new accommodation standards and will be creating 60,000 bed spaces for migrant workers by the year end, with another 100,000 in the next few years. Some of the new dorms will be near residential sites due to Singapore's land scarcity.
All these moves aim to reduce the density of workers' quarters and make them more resilient to public health risks. These are sound practical and safety reasons for the planned improvements in the foreign workers' accommodations.
But the driving reason should be respect for the dignity of the human person and the dignity of the work that migrant workers do - especially when they are doing the work that we cannot do or do not want to do.
This is the massive mindset shift that we, as a nation, need to make. With migrant workers better integrated within the community - using the same public spaces in the neighbourhood, buying groceries or eating at the same hawker centres as Singaporeans - this is an opportunity for all of us to open our eyes and our hearts to accept migrant workers as a valuable part of our community.
• Willie Cheng is a former managing partner at Accenture. He currently sits on several commercial and non-profit boards. His non-profit books include Doing Good Well, Doing Good Great, and The World That Changes The World.
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