More than dormitory space: A chance for reform

Let's get real: Singapore still needs migrant workers. The spotlight on their work and living conditions offers a chance to reform other related practices

During the Covid-19 outbreak, a spotlight has been shone upon the conditions under which male migrant workers, particularly those in the construction sector, live and work. As Singapore takes cautious steps to restore normal economic life, there is an opportunity to look again at policies that affect their rights and well-being.

There is widespread agreement that action has to be taken to prevent another epidemic from spreading rapidly among migrant workers.

But what action?

Opinions differ, at least beyond the kind of measures that the Government has already inaugurated - providing more space per worker and an improved ratio of utilities to workers.

One reaction to the spread of Covid-19 in dormitories has been to argue that Singapore should employ fewer migrant workers. This seems illogical. The presence of large numbers of migrant workers of itself is not responsible for the illness many of them have suffered: It is their cramped living conditions that exposed them to contagion, that have been, and need to be, improved.

If the real point at issue here is not the workers' welfare but the disruption their illness can cause to Singapore's economy, then that is unethical, inhumane and, in any case, unrealistic: While crucial elements of many work processes continue to require human labour, they can still be brought to a halt whether those elements are supplied by a large or small number of workers.

Singapore has made efforts over decades to encourage the adoption of labour-saving technologies, but the hard fact is that there are some jobs from which it is hard to displace people, and these include many in construction, cleaning, repair and maintenance, landscaping, care work and retail. Innovation has made these sectors less labour-intensive than they would otherwise have been, but workers are still required to enable them to function efficiently. Many of them are migrant workers.

These workers, for whom technology does not yet provide a practical substitute, cannot be replaced by locals to any great extent. As many employers readily affirm, Singaporeans don't want to do the "3-D" jobs - those that are regarded as dirty, demeaning and dangerous. They certainly won't do them at the salaries on offer - not just what migrant workers are now paid, but likely even for double or triple the amount. The problem goes further: Even if the pay and conditions could be made attractive enough to lure Singaporeans, there would not be enough of them to fill most of the jobs now done by migrant workers.

In these circumstances, anyone who seriously wants to see a major reduction in the employment of migrant workers should be prepared to offer a list of what Singaporeans ought to be ready to sacrifice in order to make that possible.

It is unlikely that many would think that axing half the construction industry, for example, would be desirable, even though it would certainly be effective in cutting migrant worker numbers.

To be realistic, Singapore is going to need to employ substantial numbers of migrant workers for years to come, though there will be changes in their distribution sector-wise. With the experience of the Covid-19 outbreak in the background, now is the time to undertake reforms that put the relationship between these workers and Singapore as a host society on a sounder footing.

Any reform of the conditions of migrant worker employment, including accommodation, will not be cost-free, but now that there is a widespread feeling that there must be changes, there is a chance to make a good job of reform.

The present restrictions on the movement and interaction of migrant workers should be seen as extraordinary emergency measures. They will not endure into a time when Covid-19 has been overcome. Isolating workers so that they can mix only with a relatively small number of colleagues and must spend their whole time in their accommodation, at their work places or travelling between the two, would be a restriction that infringed on basic rights and standards and be unenforceable in normal circumstances, but can take place under present conditions because workers are ready to comply with restrictions that they can see as being for the general good - their own included. They will neither be ethically acceptable nor feasible in practice once the extraordinary conditions of the Covid-19 outbreak are a thing of the past. No one should hanker for their perpetuation.

What might reform look like?

In accommodation, here are some suggestions.

One might keep the practice now being tried out, of concentrating workers employed on specific projects in the same accommodation, rather than being dispersed in different dormitories, preferably close to, though not on - who wants to spend their hours off work in their workplace? - their worksite.

This would make it easier to contain any future infection, and also help to reduce the time many workers spend waiting and being transported to and from their workplaces.

Overall policy on accommodation should be directed towards raising its standard for workers. Also to be considered is dispersal among smaller housing blocs: This is plainly recognised by the Government as desirable. With an eye to both present needs and future trends, new accommodation for workers should be built to a standard that would allow its easy transformation, when employment of migrant workers in sectors such as construction does fall, into other uses such as residential accommodation for local people. Its durability and quality should ultimately make it work out to be less expensive than constructing more basic dormitories that are expected to function for only a few years and that would have to charge higher rents in compensation.

But improvements in accommodation should be only one element in the reforms undertaken in the near future.

The flexibility allowing for workers to change employers and even sectors, introduced as a temporary measure, should simply be extended and normalised under the work permit system.

This encourages the retention of workers with skills developed in Singapore who have adapted to life here. It also helps to free them from less scrupulous employers' coercion to hold them back from seeking time off when ill, complaining about lapses in safety standards or poor accommodation conditions, or protesting if told that they must pay money to have their contracts renewed - all things that are currently enabled, despite protective laws, by the right accorded to employers to fire and repatriate workers at will, and some of which can facilitate the undetected spread of disease.

It has been evident, even in the midst of the pandemic, that migrant workers are worried about having the money to support their families, and this drew the attention of many observers to their very low wages. After the outpouring of sympathy and support from much of the public for the workers confined to dormitories, it should not be acceptable that pay levels continue to languish at levels that, in many cases, have not risen for 10 or 15 years, despite inflation: It remains quite normal to find Bangladeshi men being on a basic pay of $18 a day.

Singapore does not have a minimum wage, but it has found ways to raise the salaries of lowly paid locals, including cleaners. It should do the same for migrant workers, stipulating a basic pay, without deductions, of $1,000 a month. The levy might be reduced to assist employers to manage this. It would likely lead to higher costs, but in the construction sector, this should not affect most Singaporeans who live in public housing, which are priced at levels within the Government's control.

After all the solicitude expressed for the welfare of male migrant workers in the past, and the words of tribute to their role in building Singapore, reforms such as these ought to be made. It is the right thing to do.

John Gee was president of migrant worker advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too from 2007 to 2011.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2020, with the headline 'More than dormitory space: A chance for reform'. Print Edition | Subscribe