Just one in four Singaporeans says there is a need for migrant workers, even though seven in 10 agree there is a labour shortage here.
Underscoring some resistance to migrant labour, more than half also believe crime has increased and the country's culture and heritage have been threatened because of migrant workers, according to a new survey of four Asian countries by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and United Nations Women.
The findings were in line with those in Japan, Malaysia and Thailand. Positive attitudes towards migrant workers have declined over the last decade even as migration has increased overall, said the report, released yesterday to mark International Migrants Day.
Nonetheless, Singaporeans have a more positive view of migrant workers compared with their Asian counterparts.
About 58 per cent of respondents here see migrant workers as having an overall positive net effect on the national economy, a greater proportion than respondents in Japan (34 per cent), Thailand (32 per cent) and Malaysia (30 per cent).
About 30 per cent here view migrant workers as a "drain on the national economy", lower than the 47 per cent in Malaysia, 40 per cent in Thailand and 32 per cent in Japan who agree with the statement.
The report, Public Attitudes Towards Migrant Workers In Japan, Malaysia, Singapore And Thailand, was based on a survey of 4,099 nationals of the four countries, including 1,005 Singaporeans. It also included interviews with governments, employers' bodies and non-government organisations, among others.
It was conducted between last December and January this year.
There were 1.4 million foreigners working here as of June, according to Ministry of Manpower data.
These include 255,800 domestic helpers, 284,300 construction workers on work permits and 189,000 employment pass holders.
The ILO report also said 32 per cent of respondents here felt migrant workers have poor work ethic and cannot be trusted, the lowest percentage among the four countries surveyed.
But 60 per cent felt that migrant workers should not receive the same pay benefits as local workers, the highest share among the four countries.
The report noted that popular beliefs in the region include migrant workers receiving more workplace benefits than they actually do and such workers taking away jobs from citizens.
But it also said the Singapore public seems better informed about socio-economic migration trends and realities than people in the other countries.
They are also more likely to have closer relationships with foreigners, such as having friends, colleagues, subordinates or employees who are migrant workers.
But overall support for migrant workers here has declined. A score to measure knowledge, attitudes and practices towards migrant workers compared against that of a similar survey done in 2010 showed Singapore's score had dropped seven points to 29.
The report: Some recommendations
• Promote social inclusion through city planning by avoiding ghettoisation of migrant workers' accommodation.
• Encourage inclusion in the workplace by working with employers and trade unions to promote the rights of migrant workers.
• Promote evidence of the beneficial impacts of migrant workers to strengthen positive attitudes while at the same time debunking common myths, such as the characterisation of migrant workers as criminals or as taking jobs from citizens.
• Implement interventions to encourage more balanced and inclusive reporting, and to encourage the news media to use non-discriminatory terminology when reporting stories about migrant workers.
• Work with governments, trade unions, and NGOs to ensure the availability of shelters and comprehensive services designed to meet the needs of survivors of violence among women migrant workers.
• Conduct further research to understand the knowledge, attitudes, and work entitlements provided by employers of foreign domestic workers.
However, this was still higher than the scores of Malaysia (down three points to 13) and Thailand (down seven points to 12). Japan was not surveyed in 2010.
The score is based on 15 questions, such as whether migrants commit a high number of crimes in the country and whether the respondent has helped a migrant integrate into the community or get ahead in his work.
More frequent and better quality interactions with migrant workers, such as having friends or staff who are foreigners, helped drive support for them, said the report.
In the three countries, the decline in support was far greater among respondents with no interactions with migrant workers.
"It is critical, therefore, to encourage more interaction of communities with migrant workers," said the report. "Decreasing the distance between nationals in countries of destination and migrant workers requires a multi-pronged approach, including changes to laws and policy to ensure there are no exclusions or 'special rules' that apply to migrant workers; that they receive fair and equal treatment; and that city planning, workplace inclusion and community platforms work to encourage social interaction."