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Migrants' woes on display in Singapore

Asia Times - December 13, 2012

Megawati Wijaya, Singapore A recent strike involving Chinese workers in Singapore highlights the often unreported plight of migrant labor, including a growing number of people from mainland China, in this wealthy city state. Although foreign workers make up more than one-third of the country's workforce, activists say that more needs to be done to protect their rights against often unscrupulous employers.

On November 26, 171 mainland Chinese bus drivers at state-linked transport company SMRT refused to board their buses in protest over their perceived poor living conditions and low wages. Chinese migrant drivers are paid on average S$1,075 (US$880) a month, while Malaysians receive S$1,400 and Singaporeans S$1,600. The Chinese migrants also protested against their poor living conditions, where eight drivers from different shifts were forced to share the same bug-infested room.

Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin referred to the protest as "an illegal strike" because public transport services are listed as "essential services" under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act. Under the law, strikes are illegal for workers in these sectors unless they give the employer 14 days' notice of their intent to go on strike and comply with requirements of the notice.

Four drivers He Jun Ling, Gao Yue Qiang, Liu Xiangying, and Weng Xianjie were later charged for instigating the strike, while He faces an additional charge of "inciting" workers to strike. The four have said they will defend themselves against the charges. If found guilty, they face up to a year in prison and/or fines of up to S$2,000 for conducting an illegal strike under article 9(1) of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act.

The fifth driver, Bao Feng Shan, appearing in court without a lawyer, was sentenced immediately to six weeks in jail. Twenty-nine other drivers who took part in the strike were detained and immediately deported.

The strike by migrants, unusual for the island state's tightly controlled society, has caused diplomatic ripples between China and Singapore. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei called on the Singaporean side to take Chinese workers' specific conditions and legitimate appeals into full consideration, to discreetly and properly handle the case, and to protect the lawful rights of the arrested Chinese workers, Xinhua reported.

In Hong Kong, meanwhile, about 20 members of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions held a protest at the Singapore Consulate in a show of solidarity with the detained and deported drivers. They also called on the Singapore government to reinstate the 29 drivers who were repatriated and to drop the charges against the five who were detained.

Just as the strike made global headlines, two mainland Chinese construction workers, Zhu Guilei and Wu Xiaolin, climbed on the top of two 10-story tower cranes at a work site in Singapore's western Jurong district in protest over a wage dispute with their employer, Zhong Jiang International. Police quickly arrested the two Chinese workers for intentionally causing alarm and criminal trespassing.

More broadly, the two incidents highlighted the plight of many migrant workers in Singapore. John Gee, a migrant rights activist and immediate past president at Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a non-profit organization that champions the welfare of migrant workers, said his organization handled more than 2,000 complaint cases filed by migrant workers last year, ranging from pay disputes to physical abuse. He expects to receive at least 2,500 cases by the end of this year.

Loh Kah Seng, a historian who has written extensively on Singapore's migrant workers and trade unions, notes that strikes were common during post-World War II Singapore in the 1940s-1960s. Despite that frequency, however, he notes that it is not a light decision for workers to go on strike in Singapore.

"Going on strike is a very big thing for [the Chinese migrant worker drivers] given the consequences that they face, such as possibly losing their jobs and income," Loh said. "The fact that workers still went on strike in the past despite having so much to lose says much about their desperate socio-economic plight," he said.

Migrant dependence

Faced with a declining birthrate, Singapore is increasingly dependent on migrant workers to fuel economic growth.

In 1970, the number of foreign workers in Singapore was only 20,828, then making up 3.2% of the total labor force. That number steadily grew to 248,200, or 16.1% of the total labor force in 1990; 615,700 or 28.1% of the total workforce in 2000; to 1.09 million, or 34.7% of all workers in 2010. As of June 2012, there were 1.23 million foreign workers in Singapore, making up 36.7% of the total labor force.

Brenda Yeoh, a professor at National University of Singapore and Principal Investigator of the Asian Metacentre for Population and Sustainable Development Analysis at the Asia Research Institute, noted in a paper published in April that about 80% of new arrivals in Singapore in the 2000s were low-skilled workers, primarily in the construction, domestic labor, services, manufacturing, and marine industries.

Since 2008, some foreign workers have also been admitted as performers for work in bars, discotheques, lounges, night clubs, hotels, and restaurants. The remaining 20% are considered "skilled" and are generally better-educated, employment-pass holders, along with a small number of entrepreneurs who are often referred to as "foreign talent". This higher-paid group are allowed residence passes to help establish Singapore as a financial and biomedical hub; low-skilled migrants are generally brought in as cheap labor to suppress costs and boost competitiveness, labor sources say.

Today, Singapore is by certain measures the world's richest country, even while its average wages are among the lowest. Singapore's per capital gross domestic product in 2010 was S$70,000, according to the Wealth Report 2012, a global study on property and wealth compiled by Knight Frank and Citi Private Bank. Wages, however, are lagging behind as exemplified by the case of the aggrieved migrant Chinese bus drivers.

While migrant workers have been essential to Singapore's economic success, state authorities are lagging behind in protecting their rights, according to labor activists. In particular, they note that employers are able to repatriate workers at anytime during their contracts without prior notice.

In a July press release, the Ministry of Manpower noted that in the event of employment termination, employers are required to give their workers notice according to the period stated in the contract or, if not specified in the contract, in the Employment Act. In reality, many workers are kept in the dark until hours before their repatriation. TWC2 has documented many cases where migrant workers learn about their deportation while they are on their way to the airport.

"That's why the deportation of 29 Chinese drivers was so effective in stopping the strike. The government kills the chicken to frighten the monkey," said Sinapan Samydorai, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) director at the civil society group Think Centre, quoting a Chinese proverb. "The drivers had complained for six months, but the management was not doing anything," said Samydorai, whose organization handles cases ranging from non-payment of wages to human trafficking.

Little protection

Fear of reprisal muzzles many exploited migrants. A reporter from Hong Kong on assignment to cover the bus strike recalled to a recent forum on the issue about a note passed to her by a Chinese driver saying that none of the workers dared to raise any issues to the media for fear of retribution through deportation. Singapore's local press is heavily influenced by the People's Action Party (PAP)-dominated government.

Non-payment of wages is another frequent abuse, sources say. Employers often take advantage of the workers' helplessness by not paying them on time or in full. The Ministry of Manpower has publicly urged workers to bring such cases to its attention. In reality, however, many migrant workers are not issued pay slips or work contracts, which makes it extremely difficult for them to legally follow up their cases, sources say.

Significantly, the migrant Chinese drivers at SMRT were not card-carrying members of the country's only union, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). Singapore's labor system is notable for its tripartite arrangement in which unions, employers, and the government work closely together for mutual benefit. The NTUC is often seen to side with the government and employers rather than aggrieved employees.

Following the recent strike, the NTUC was quick to issue a statement that it supports the action taken by the government regarding the "illegal strike" of the SMRT's bus drivers. The NTUC also said it does not have a legal mandate to represent the aggrieved workers.

"It is important to send a clear signal to all workers that as a nation ruled by law, there are proper ways of dealing with issues and disagreement," NTUC said in a statement. "Any action that is illegal must and will be dealt with firmly, regardless of whether the workers are local or foreign. We have a system in place to deal with workplace issues and grievances, one that has been painstakingly built over the years and has served us well. This must continue," it said.

Although the Chinese migrant strike was short-lived, it did raise awareness about the plight of Singapore's many exploited migrant workers.

The Ministry of Manpower immediately carried out an investigation into the incident and found that housekeeping in the drivers' dormitories was indeed "below par" and that drivers working different shifts were often roomed together, making it difficult for workers to get any rest. It also singled out the SMRT, saying that it could have done better in managing labor grievances and concerns.

Labor activists expect the Ministry of Manpower to pay closer attention in future to these concerns considering their potential to generate poor international publicity and domestic instability.

Migrant worker activists acknowledge that the ministry has recently improved in providing more communication channels to respond to labor complaints. In September, the ministry introduced amendments to the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act upon calls by activists for greater enforcement of the law against employers found to be exploiting migrant workers.

The changes, approved by the parliament, include enhanced penalties for violations and the conversion of certain criminal breaches to administrative ones so that errant employers can be more quickly penalized. The changes also included the appointment of commissioners to enforce ministry regulations more stringently.

However, more meaningful progress on the issue has been slow because many politicians don't see potential political gains from championing migrant worker rights, particularly amid rising local sentiment against foreigners that bubbled up during last year's general election, said Goh Meng Seng, former secretary general of the opposition National Solidarity Party.

[Megawati Wijaya is a Singapore-based journalist. She may be contacted at megawati.wijaya@gmail.com.]

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