Adopting a rights and care approach for Migrant Workers in Singapore

23 Oct

I am filled with a sense of anger and horror upon watching Tony Birtley’s news video clip of ,’The Plight of South Asian Migrant Workers‘. Outraged because this is no decent way to treat any human beings. I am also horrified at how the managers think they can get away with it not just by threatening the journalist with a law suit’ but also threatening and coercing the workers to keep their mouth shut and live behind a ‘cage’.

While the Ministry of Manpower in Singapore has promised to investigate San Marine, the company allegedly involved in the ‘job scam’ scandal, this is unlikely to be a single isolated case. The shabby and mistreatment of migrant workers have persisted because Singapore laws do not adequately protect migrant workers. As the same written report from Al Jazeera, ‘Singapore raids ‘job scam’ firm‘ notes, more than 50 migrant workers, with similar living conditions, had, at the time of reporting, ran away from their employers. Given that the Singapore government has always come down hard on illegal workers with fines, jail sentences and even caning, I hesitate and fear for the safety of these workers, who have no recourse to justice.

Earlier this year, Straits Times reported that 50 Indian workers were left stranded and living on the streets after being cheated by their work agents. Meghanathan Panchatchasam, one of those who was willing to talk to the journalist, claimed that he was being caught by the police after being stranded in Singapore. Because he has worked illegally, he was sentenced to a month in jail and four strokes of the cane. Even when he wanted to go back to India after the horrible ordeal, the Singapore authorities had continued to detain him because they needed his help with police investigations. While the Ministry of Manpower claims that foreigners can apply for a Temporary Job Scheme during these investigations, it did not disclose details of the scheme.

The issue, if one probes deeper, is systemic and revolves around ingrained racial prejudices. In a recent debate on government’s plans to built foreign workers’ dormitories within the middle class Serangoon Gardens neighbourhood, the residents were so upset that they submitted a petition against the decision. According to a blogger, the residents objected to workers living in their neighbourhood because they do not want: ‘ “half-naked men” hanging around their neighbourhood’; that the ‘neighbourhood will become unsafe for old people’ ; the ‘estimated 1,400 properties worth over $1 million each would see a drop in asset value’ among other concerns. The blogger went on to justify the government’s decision as he felt the dormitories would ensure that migrant workers live in much more decent standard living conditions.

However, to build a workers’ dormitory amidst vocal opposition from the neighbourhood is barely solving a potentially explosive issue. The solution, while, painfully obvious, remains blind to many, including the bureaucrats and politicians, for they have internalised their deep-seated values and considered migrant workers as mere digits to the economic system. What is at work is racial discrimination targeted against vulnerable migrant workers without an effective voice.

There is, without a doubt, a need to adopt a human rights and care approach when it comes to migrant workers issues. Unfortunately, that is also the language which PAP despises. Migrant workers such as Meghanathan Panchatchasam who have been cheated and forced to work illegally should never have been persecuted by the state in the first place. To jail and cane a man whose only crime was to be cheated by unscrupulous work agents and thereby stranded without a shelter, is to inflict more injustice upon the victim. To force him to stay in Singapore when he wants to leave, is to restrict his freedom of movement, another travesty against his basic human right.

Adopting a care approach means consultation with the various actors and parties involved. In this case, the voices of migrant workers must be heard. This is witnessed in the debate involving the Serangoon Gardens dispute where no one was smart enough to point out that the workers themselves should have a say on where and how they should be accommodated.

Civil society, activists and opposition politicians need to raise awareness for migrant workers issues for they are entitled to human rights as much as citizens do. In that respect, heavy penalties inflicted on illegal immigrants needs to be re-examined. Policies need to be debated on how migrant workers who fall through the cracks, whether forced to work illegally or cheated by their work agent, are suitably protected by the law and not subjected to a second round of unjust punishments.

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