Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

No agency: laying the foundation for exploitation of migrant workers

There are many tragic stories that highlight the abuse and exploitation of Singapore's migrant workers. But underlying them all is a basic, structural problem: the workers' inability to speak for themselves and be respected as individuals.

Kirsten Han
28 October 2014

Workers repair roads in Singapore in 2011. Joyfull/ All Rights Reserved.

Singapore has seen a growth spurt in the past two decades. The skyline of 1990 was already impressive for a city-state built on granite rock at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, but looks doddery and old-fashioned when contrasted with today’s shiny, lit-up spectacle. The Marina Bay Sands with its infinity pool – in which Katy Perry famously held a press conference – now takes pride of place, and even has the largest light and water show in Asia every day to get your attention.

None of this would have been possible without the massive numbers of migrant workers in Singapore who clean streets and homes, serve food and drink, and work on construction sites and shipyards. As of June 2014, there are 980,800 migrants on work permits in Singapore, a city-state with a total population of 5.4 million. Of these, 321,200 work in construction, while 218,300 are women working as foreign domestic workers (FDW). Migrant workers thus constitute a significant portion of the island’s population, yet they are Singapore’s most exploited group of residents.

There are many factors that contribute to the exploitation, domination and abuse of these workers, but it is their structural lack of agency that lays the foundation. This exists in part because migrants must often pay exorbitant sums to access the job market, which places them in debt to their friends, families and other creditors. It also exists because statute: a) links work permits to job contracts, thereby exposing migrants to the arbitrary whims of their employers; and b) places employers in a position of paternal responsibility over their migrant employees, privileging the voices of the former while silencing those of the latter.

Men and women from countries like Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, China and the Philippines often pay hefty sums to agents or training centres in order to obtain jobs in Singapore. I have met some Bangladeshi workers who paid more than S$10,000 (£4,900) for their jobs. Raising that money often requires loans from family or friends back home, as well as the lease or sale of family land. It is an immediate sunk cost that heaps pressure on the worker’s shoulders to do whatever it takes to succeed.

Upon arrival in Singapore these workers enter into a system very similar to the kafala or sponsorship system employed in some Middle Eastern nations. Their work permits, which allow them to stay in Singapore, are bound to specific employers. The employer is able to cancel this work permit at any time. When that happens, workers have little recourse to challenge the decision. Such a situation gives employers huge power over their employees; a situation exacerbated by many employers’ habit of confiscating passports.

For women working as FDWs, the situation is also complicated by the fact that they are required to live in their employers’ homes.

“Some of the problems of FDWs having to live in the homes of their employers include the high risk of sexual and physical assaults, long working hours, confinement and the lack of privacy and space,” writes Shelley Thio, an NGO volunteer who has worked extensively with migrant workers. “I have a case where an employer would lock her FDW in the kitchen every time she goes out because the kitchen has a CCTV camera to monitor her movements. I have seen an employer go through an FDW's personal belongings and bags because she claimed that the FDW stole her jewellery.”

This lack of agency permeates into every part of a worker’s life in Singapore, but is particularly apparent when things go wrong. For example, when a worker becomes ill or injured it is more often than not the employer who makes the decisions for them. I once accompanied the volunteer of a migrant rights’ NGO to see a Cambodian domestic worker in hospital. She had allegedly been ill-treated after she had left her employer and moved back into the recruitment agency’s dormitory, where she had fallen sick. She wanted to be discharged from the hospital. But the hospital was unwilling to discharge her to anyone but her agent or her previous employer, who was still listed in her work permit as being responsible for her. She, understandably, was unwilling to go back with either.

If she had been anyone other than a migrant worker she would have been able to discharge herself from hospital. She was 38 years old and of sound mind. But because of her status as a worker in Singapore, someone had to be responsible for her. In the end, her previous employer had to sign a letter authorising the hospital to discharge her to the NGO worker and be taken to a shelter for domestic workers.

The hierarchy of authority and lack of agency also become visible when a migrant is injured on the job. Khan Momen is a Bangladeshi worker who claimed to have fallen while working with a friend on a scissor lift. His employer countered by suggesting that he had been injured in a fight, and was therefore not eligible for work injury compensation. Khan Momen was subsequently charged with two counts of making false statements to an officer of the Ministry of Manpower. At his trial, his employer produced witnesses who said that he had been involved in a fight. Khan Momen was convicted and jailed for four weeks, then repatriated to Bangladesh without a cent for his injury.

It’s difficult to determine whether Khan Momen was telling the truth. The court certainly didn’t think so, especially with witnesses testifying otherwise. But NGO volunteers who have experience with such cases point to several underlying issues that greatly disadvantage any migrant worker caught in such a situation.

Migrant rights organisation Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) reported in 2013 that about a third of workers surveyed say that they were accompanied to the hospital by their boss or a supervisor, who then did all the talking for them. Another third said that both they and their boss/supervisor spoke with the doctor, with “varying degrees of input”.

The results of the survey have prompted TWC2 to question the reliability of early hospital case notes. If employers speak on behalf of their workers, it is easy for them to insert their own version of events even when they do not witness the accident personally. When Ministry of Manpower investigators look into case notes to determine the veracity of a worker’s injury claim, whose words will they see?

“When the employer has the right to terminate the employee at any time (online cancellation of the work permit without the worker even knowing about it) and the worker fears repatriation as he has a huge debt back home - it is a situation where there is a huge power imbalance,” wrote TWC2 volunteer Christine Pelly. In such a context, workers might also be afraid to testify against their employers in court.

It’s never easy to tell when things come down to a “he said, she said” situation. But when workers lack agency on such a large scale they do not and cannot compete on a level playing field. 

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