The desperation of migrant workers

Southeast Asia Globe speaks with foreign workers and the aid organisations that help them get back on their feet after on-the-job injuries force them to battle with employers. A new law that takes effect in April could change the game

Silvia Boccardi
January 25, 2019
The desperation of migrant workers
Nazir's wound. He was hit by a steel plate while working but was only operated months later, when his guts had become infected Photo: Silvia Boccardi

“I only remember waking up in the hospital,” says Shourav*, sitting on a camp bed. “I fell from a three-flight scaffolding. My backbone was damaged and I now am hooked up to an IV. I still don’t exactly know what happened to me. I believe they left me on the floor for hours.”

Shourav, from Bangladesh, has been working construction in Singapore for a few years. He can barely move now, and spends most of his time on a camp bed in the corner of a warm living room in Little India. He is one of the low-wage migrant workers sheltered at Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), an organisation that helps low-wage migrant workers in Singapore.

Labourers work on a construction site in Singapore Photo: Bob Low / AFP

The Singapore Tourism Board pushes a certain image of the city-state: luxury lifestyles and world-class attractions and food. It’s one of the richest countries in the world, but its economy relies on the more than one million non-resident, low-wage temporary migrants who make up a third of Singapore’s four-million-strong labour force. Many low-wage migrant workers don’t make it out of Singapore unscathed.

These workers are concentrated in industrial sectors such as construction, shipbuilding and repair, as well as care-giving and household work, where they make up almost the entire labour force. They are usually hooked up in their country of origin by agents or sub-agents of construction companies or care-giving agencies. They are promised a well-paid job in Singapore and then helped with permits, travel and accommodation for a recruitment fee that is high in comparison to their average income. Sometimes, the fee is withheld directly from their salary – even lowering the workers’ wages to the point that there’s no money left.

“Most of the these people are well-educated. They would have never done the same job in their country,” said Debbie Fordyce, who runs the TWC2 Cuff Road Project, a meals programme for transient workers from Bangladesh and India who have ongoing claims with the Ministry of Manpower or their former employer. “They had aspirations and hope to find in Singapore a better life. But some of them get trapped in the employment’s debt and cannot find another way to pay off other than keep on working here.”

Claims can be based on a disagreement over an injury compensation or salary, and claimants are not permitted to work during an open dispute. Once the claim is resolved, they’re repatriated to their country of origin.

“Their life in Singapore comes under some rigid restrictions,” said Fordyce. “They don’t have the right to change their employers once they are here, there is no minimum salary – when there is salary at all – and they often work beyond the maximum working hours. They are not permitted to stay here even if they were to marry a Singaporean, they are not allowed to choose the place that they live and they are not allowed to remain here over a certain number of years.”

Over 400 people come to the TWC2 office each night to pick up tokens to exchange for meals at restaurants in Little India. For many, this is their only source of food.

Health and Fear

“In 2017, I was working in a construction site and I was hit by a steel plate,” recounts Nazir. He has come from Bangladesh three times. His parents wanted a different future for him, but his ambition to work abroad to earn money for the family was too strong. The third time in Singapore, he was injured at work. “After months of delaying my operation and moving me from one hospital to another, the doctors found out my guts had become infected and were causing sepsis. I was on the brink of death.”

Men coming for the first time would pay around $11,000 to work at one of the construction or marine companies that pay the workers a basic salary of only $368 to $515 per month. Employers must pay a monthly levy to the government of up to $700 per worker.

“We calculate the amount… the government levies, [which] makes up approximately 8% of the state’s revenue,” said Fordyce. “The workers must work very hard. They can’t fall ill, otherwise they’ll be sent back to their countries. Workers could be fired for something as simple as sneezing.”

The UN hailed healthcare as a basic human right in 1948’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But that ideal remains aspirational. Migrant workers who suffer these infringements are sometimes afraid to report them to the Ministry for fear of losing their job.

“The majority of the people that come here for the meal programme do that because they’ve sustained a work injury and are undergoing medical treatment and [are] waiting for compensation,” said Fordyce. “During this time, they might go through many difficulties, infections, new operations – or, more simply, they don’t have the means to survive in Singapore, although they don’t want to lose their claims by going home.”

While employers are required by law to protect these workers from abuses like underpaid overtime rates, salary deductions for levies, food, utilities, housing and medical expenses, employers have been known to skirt these laws in various ways. Employers can deny injuries are work-related to avoid medical costs and fines for safety violations. Some workers are then left to face the often near-impossible task of validating their claim.

“Working in construction in Singapore can be very, very dangerous,” says Wang Wei as he caresses a scar. He found an agent back in China who promised him a job in construction in Singapore in exchange for all of his savings. The job was hard, but he was happy to earn money until he hurt his hand at work. At first, his boss did not want to bring him to the hospital, and Wang Wei had to wait eight hours before someone agreed to take him.

“It happens every time,” says Cheng, another Chinese worker. “My company wanted to cover up the injury, [so] they pretend nothing happened. In my case, after I hurt my eye by hammering on a wall, they did not do anything. I had to go to the hospital by myself and they told me I had to be operated [on] right away.” When Cheng got injured at work, his employer passed him on to another company in an effort to hide evidence, but finally had to pay for Cheng’s operation. Cheng now has a swollen eye and wears sunglasses. He believes his injuries would be less severe if he had been taken to the hospital right away.

Cheng hurt his eye by hammering on a wall. His company wanted to cover up the injury Photo: Silvia Boccardi

The Debt

While it is possible for transient workers to become wealthier in Singapore than what they’d be at home, recruitment systems and local regulations make that dream all but impossible.

“First three months, I did not get paid. They deducted my recruitment fee from my salary,” says Xing. He is wearing a red HealthServe tshirt. He rarely smiles. He worked for a construction company that he says wanted to cover up his injury. He might have to undergo another operation, so he doesn’t know when he’ll be able to go back home. “We were asked to work 16 to 17 hours a day. But we were happy because we could earn more money to repay the debt.”

Most foreign workers can’t repay their debt unless they work extra hours every day. “It’s illegal, of course, but companies would prefer to pay costs and upkeep for one person that works twice as long than for two workers,” said Fordyce. “And each worker needs the money to pay off his recruitment debt.”

The debt is what keeps the system working. As with all migrant flows around the world, there are always insiders taking advantage of others’ ambitions. The agents’ recruitment fees for migrant construction workers are exorbitant, usually between $1,475 and $8,850, while they often earning only between $184 and $737 a month. The unregulated sub-agents make it hard for migrant workers to save any money.

Emmy had to hide to escape repatriation Photo: Silvia Boccardi

“All in all, I gave [nearly $15,000],” says Nazir. “Now my goal is to open up a business in Bangladesh with the compensation money I hope to receive for my injury compensation.”

Trapped in these debts, some foreign workers live their work life in a frustrating hamster wheel: they get hired to work in construction companies, they work shifts of up to 24 hours (some say 36), they suddenly get sent back when they fall sick or get hurt on worksites – and the only way they have to pay off the debt is to come back to Singapore.

The Domestic Hustle

“I didn’t think of my debt at the time. My only concern was to change my family’s conditions and not be repatriated,” says Emmy, 30, who was just 19 when she first came to Singapore to work. In Singapore, workers can be as young as 13, but domestic workers need to be 23. Nonetheless, some domestic workers from the Philippines and Myanmar come to Singapore as young as 15, according to Singapore’s Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME).

Emmy worked for four families in ten years. According to Ministry of Manpower regulations, domestic workers have to live with the family that employs them. They should be given “reasonable privacy” and have at least one day a week of rest and eight hours of sleep, but they can be repatriated if the employer is not satisfied with their work.

Emmy was exhausted from overwork, restrictions, and verbal and physical abuse, but she wanted to keep sending money back to her family. In December 2016, her employer took her telephone and passport and drove her to the airport, where he had secretly bought her a ticket to return to the Philippines. She hid in the airport until her boss left, and a stranger let her use a cellphone to call her sister. She then explained to the airport police that she had not been paid for months.

Debbie Fordyce and Nazir Photo: Silvia Boccardi

A New Hope?

The issues these workers deal with have been highlighted in local media since the 1980s, when the size of the non-resident population in Singapore had doubled. The government has indeed improved workers’ lives in recent years. In 2017, Singapore’s Minister for Manpower Lim Swee Say stated before Parliament that more than 99.9% of the approximately 16,000 injured workers’ cases opened in 2016 were successfully resolved and that 95% of salary-related claims had been resolved either through mediation or in the Labour Court.

Between 2015 and 2017, though, only 158 employers had been prosecuted and convicted for not paying wages.

“Labour law in Singapore doesn’t take into account paid sick leave or annual leave for domestic workers, nor do they all have rest days on public holidays. Many don’t have a limit on their working hours or a minimum wage,” said Fordyce. “Simply put, we believe the government should adapt labour laws to international standards. I don’t think we’d become a third-world country overnight if we respected foreign worker rights.”

After years of NGOs’ reports on migrant workers’ harsh conditions, changes to Singapore’s Employment Act are set to take effect on 1 April 2019. The act extends additional provisions such as overtime pay and annual leave to more vulnerable employees. It regulates work hours, notice periods and sick leaves, allowing workers the freedom to change employers. The law also eliminates those painful recruitment fees.

For Emmy, the domestic worker, the fight is not yet over. Since that day in the airport, she now volunteers for a local organisation that supports and empowers migrant workers who suffer abuse and exploitation.

“My friends’ stories are all virtually the same,” she says. “Now I can help the girls who come for the first time. They don’t have any hope. My job now is to give it back to them.”

*Workers’ names have been changed.

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