Forum: Time to start recognising this labour force

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Straits Times associate editor Chua Mui Hoong’s lessons from the year of the coronavirus (Home truths in the year of coronavirus, Jan 1) hit close to home for me, especially the part on the plight of migrant workers.

Migrant workers belong to a side of Singapore that is often unseen. They are the driving force behind many of Singapore’s achievements, especially in the construction and marine indiustries.

But many protections available to other categories of work pass holders are not available to those under the category of work permits for foreign workers.

Their visas are for semi-skilled workers usually from the lower economic and educational strata, and they are often exploited by companies and middlemen. Most of these workers are semi-literate, and might not be able to understand or claim their rights, and regulations in this area are crafted as employer or agent obligations. However, this approach is sorely limited.

While other work pass holders are able to switch employers after giving notice to their company, these workers are tied to their employers and cannot switch until the employer consents.

While there are minimum qualifying salaries required for some of the other categories of work passes, there is no such requirement for this category. Although this is intended to lower barriers for these workers to enter Singapore, this is instead exploited by middlemen who aggressively negotiate wages down, especially by citing the additional cost paid by the employer to furnish the security bond required for some of the sectors.

All of this is in addition to workplace safety issues, accommodation that is at times below par and irregular wages. Due to fear of termination, deportation and contracts they scarcely understand, the workers seldom complain.

There are a few non-governmental organisations such as Transient Workers Count Too that are working on improving conditions for these workers and have shared heartbreaking stories of exploitation.

As Ms Chua rightly points out, if this year has taught us anything, it is that “there is no us and them… There is just us and we’re all in it together”. It is time to correct this aberration. Let us start “seeing” this unseen force behind our achievements and not benefit from exploitative practices.

Gowri Reghuvaran