A Home(or Hell) away from Home? Foreign workers in Singapore
By Xiao Hongyu
They are the invisible members of our society: cleaning our homes; repairing our roads; building our shopping malls. Their work is often undervalued and ignored, while their concerns and problems are dismissed and belittled. More social energy and time is spent on decrying their supposed vices and discussing how to “manage” or “use” them more effectively instead of recognizing their legitimate needs and wants as individual human beings. Migrant workers, already in a tough situation, are often the victims of abuse or unscrupulous practices and face further cultural and institutional obstacles in their attempts to work, and live, in Singapore.
The mixed reaction from Singaporeans to the announcement of the mandatory one-day off policy by the Ministry of Manpower; the reaction of Serangoon Gardens residents to the proposed building of the foreign workers’ dormitory, and the scapegoating of foreign workers in domestic politics, demonstrate the underlying ethos regarding foreign workers in Singapore that privileges the perspectives of Singaporeans, especially employers, above those of foreign workers.
This explains why, even though the Employment Act lays out a pretty comprehensive protection scheme for foreign workers and domestic helpers, abuse is still not uncommon and has been documented fairly extensively by NGOs such as HOME and TWC2. Even where instances of abuse are reported in the media, they tend to be reported as isolated instances, even when the workers have suffered to the extent that they would be willing to go on strike to demand basic things like pay.  The fact that the strike was a striking signal of the failure of institutions like the Ministry of Manpower to adequately enable foreign workers to enforce their legal rights was a neglected aspect of reporting on the issue, particularly in the Straits Times which preferred to focus its reporting on the efforts MOM was undertaking to resolve the situation, without addressing the underlying problems that created the situation in the first place. 
Laws are poorly enforced and foreign workers are often deprived of their legal rights because the existing mechanisms are insufficient – foreign workers, unaware of their legal rights, dependent on their employer for work, pay and shelter, and heavily in debt to agents, are expected to be proactive in reporting abuse. Even where abuse is reported, investigations are often not adequate and treat complaints as more akin to a civil dispute rather than a criminal matter.  The policy of requiring employees who have made medical or compensatory claims against employers to stay here while prevented from seeking other work is a particularly egregious aspect of the system that prevents them from earning money while being wholly dependent on the Ministry to resolve claims, a process that can often take months. There is also an absence of a comprehensive, easy-to-access and sympathetic platform for foreign workers to seek redress, to air their grievances and to ensure that they are not being abused or cheated by their employers. Instead, a lot of the legwork is done by NGOs who are often overstretched and lack the institutional capacity and resources that only the Ministry possesses. More perniciously, in several cases even workers who have been the victim of unscrupulous practices are penalized by the Ministry of Manpower for “crimes” they were coerced into committing.
Institutional bias extends even to the criminal justice system – in Lee Chiang Theng v PP, an employer who was prosecuted for providing such poor accommodation that one of the employees died was only given a four weeks sentence of jail and a relatively small fine. The prosecution’s failure to appeal the sentence and to press for a heavier sentence in initial sentencing was noted by Justice VK Rajah who indicated that a far heavier sentence would have been more appropriate in light of the employer’s abject failure in his responsibilities. While the judgment was commendable for its tone, the fact that it took a Court of Appeal judge to urge the prosecution to bring heavier charges and for lower courts to impose heavier sentences on employers who mistreat their employees shows that employees are still getting the short end of the stick even where they are able to successfully lodge complaints and get the police to investigate. In fact, in this case several of the workers testified that they had called the police to report the inadequacy of accommodations but no action was taken until one of them died due to the abysmal conditions. That such abuses and conditions can exist in a developed country like Singapore is an indictment of the entire system.
Recognizing vulnerability, fighting abuse.
Any solution to the problem would have to proceed by recognizing that foreign workers are in an extremely vulnerable situation due to their unfamiliarity with local laws and language, their indebtedness to agents and even employers, their reliance on the employers for food, shelter and pay, and the lack of social supports in Singapore. A second starting point would be the important, but often missing, understanding that these are individual human beings who while not perfect deserve to be treated like any other human being and need a space for leisure, for entertainment, and mostly come to Singapore in search of work so they can support themselves and their families.
Enforcement of existing laws needs to be made far more robust. NGOs like TWC2 have formulated a number of specific policy proposals, such as a centralised payment system, that would go a long way to addressing the skewed incentives and temptations for abuse that exist in the status quo. Progress in this field, however, remains slow and frustratingly inadequate. More importantly, the laws on the books need to be effectively enforced by MOM and the police. Complaints should be thoroughly investigated and the complainants given the benefit of the doubt. Due allowance should be made for the fact that the complainants are often not well-educated and may have been coerced into signing certain documents, and the law should not penalize employees who are victims of unscrupulous practices. Employers who are caught flouting the law should be severely punished, with no allowance given for those engaging in fundamentally unfair and abusive practices.
Unionization is also a possible solution because it allows the workers a larger voice collectively and gives them the institutional leverage to bargain for better living and working conditions as well as the enforcement of their rights. Unions would also better enable workers to seek redress when abuse occurs. Currently, the NTUC’s focus is more on protecting the interests of Singaporean workers. Either a separate trade union or a branch within the NTUC could be created to represent the specific interests of foreign workers, even domestic workers, or the NTUC could simply widen its ambit to include foreign workers. When employers possess so much power over employees, unions are often a necessary response to balance the playing field and allow them a voice that they would otherwise lack.
Laws that exist on paper are meaningless without a sufficient public ethos that encourages the enforcement of those laws and the ability of the people most affected to force their legal rights. Our current legal regime is manifestly inadequate in dealing with the problems and abuses faced by foreign workers, and its perspective needs to change in order for its effectiveness to be enhanced. Law enforcement needs to take such abuses far more seriously as affronts to t human dignity and the character of Singapore. Foreign workers, are, after all, people like the rest of us and deserve legal protection and support.
 Lee Chiang Theng v Public Prosecutor.