A conversation with Debbie Fordyce, TWC2 President

Academic Views, Coronavirus / Thursday, May 14th, 2020

Philip Holden, formerly Professor at the National University of Singapore, interviewed Debbie Fordyce—President of NGO Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2)—to discuss the work of TWC2 and structural issues facing migrant workers.

Philip: It’s a pleasure to interview Debbie Fordyce, president of TWC2. Some academics work directly on issues of migrant labour; many do not, and yet are concerned about the ongoing wave of infections in migrant workers’ dormitories in Singapore, and responses to it.

I myself have three interests. In the late 1990s, an evolving independent civil society seemed about to transform Singapore’s sociopolitical landscape. The Working Committee (TWC1) was formed to bring independent NGOs (such as AWARE, Singapore Heritage Society and Nature Society) together with other actors, and to strategise. With Kenneth Paul Tan, I began to teach a course on Civil Society at NUS, asking students to combine study with attachments to NGOs. In this changing environment—marked by apathy but also cautious hope—The Working Committee 2 (later TWC2) was founded.

Second, having spent much of my life as a scholar of literary and social narratives, I’m now studying Counselling Psychology in Canada. I’m curious about how attitudes change. In a recent Academia.SG webinar, Kenneth pointed to a need for moral education that enables people to confront their privilege. Yet, as Teo You Yenn noted, social policies also need to change, to foster different kinds of behaviour. How can this crisis promote genuine change in policies and attitudes; how can we ensure that it isn’t forgotten in six months?

“The invisible builders of Singapore”, a painting by Sourav S Bhowmick. (Photo: Sourav S Bhowmick)

Third, my sense of complicity in what has happened. My career success in Singapore, and the financial independence I have to pursue a new career, were partly enabled by surplus value created by migrant workers. I do not know many personally; mostly domestic workers employed by family and colleagues, relationships shot through with power imbalances. Yet migrant workers built my HDB flat, trim the grass, and clean the estate. The infections in the dormitories have been a reminder, for me and others, to do more. That often starts with listening.

Debbie, when did you first become involved with migrant workers?

Debbie: To dispel any notion that there’s anything special or saintly about me, it has much to do with my stable economic position, being widowed (my husband would not have liked me spending so much time and effort on this), and my children leaving Singapore for universities elsewhere. In 2008, I had time and didn’t need a salaried job.

When people mention your name, they often mention the Cuff Road Project (TCRP). Could you tell us a little more about it?

I became involved with TWC2 around 2005, staffing the helpline on Sundays, and helping with an annual Migrant Workers Day event. In 2008, due to the economic crisis, many male workers were abandoned by employers and wound up sleeping by the streets in Little India. Led by a friend on a midnight walk there, I saw huge numbers with no work or shelter. It seemed reasonable to offer free meals, to feed these men and better understand their backgrounds. I funded this myself for a month to see whether it was useful to the men and TWC2. TWC2 saw value in the project: its efforts had been concentrated mainly on domestic workers, and this would provide insight into the situation of male workers.

Migrant workers receiving meals from TCRP. (Photo: TWC2)

As of April 2020, TCRP has provided about 1.2 million meals to some 15,000 individuals. They have also informed our understanding of recruitment, hiring, work permit regulations, salaries, deductions, injuries, employers, terminations, regulations and government bodies.

How did TWC2 get founded in 2004 and what is its place in the landscape of NGOs?

Debbie: In 2001, an Indonesian domestic worker was brutally assaulted by her employer, dying as a result. This sort of news still appears. The problem is not only a few abusive employers; it results from a system that confines domestic workers to their employers’ homes, often without privacy, contact with friends and family, or unsupervised time.

A group of researchers, academics and civil society individuals were outraged over the lack of cohesive response to such mistreatment. They set up a charitable society to address these concerns. This was TWC2.

We now deal more often with male than female workers. In addition to casework by social workers, we have numerous volunteers involved with casework, legal matters, research, direct services and various other projects. The strategy tends to depend on our volunteers: their available time, skills, ability to work individually or in teams, and of course our budget.

How has the situation of migrant workers changed over the years?

Debbie: In 1976, I recall one university student in Singapore who took a job in construction to understand more about the life of ordinary blue-collar Singapore workers. It seemed a normal thing to do. As a student in the US, my brother had done the same thing for much the same reason.

When I started working here in 1980, some of my expat friends did construction work for extra income. Vietnamese refugees transiting through Singapore also often made a bit of money while waiting for resettlement elsewhere.

Foreign workers in the construction sector can only come from specified source nations. (Screenshot of MOM website, taken on 11 May 2020)

Today, the recruitment process for construction and shipyard workers is tightly controlled. Only certain nationalities for each sector, workers tied to one employer, no choice of housing options, not permitted to bring family, almost no pathway to residence, and with fewer civil rights than foreigners in higher-paid jobs. Most notably, agents or middlemen take the lion’s share of salaries, while employers are able to exploit the indebtedness of workers.

It’s largely thanks to this system that Singapore could rise from a developing country into one of the wealthiest in the world.

Could you say a little more about the state management of migrant labour?

Debbie: I’ll limit my response to the foreign worker levy. In 1970, there were only 72,600 non-citizen and non-resident workers. This rose to 119,500 in 1983; it’s close to one million now. In 1987, the official view was that foreign workers should be no more that 25% of the workforce, for social, political and economic reasons. The main concern was that highly-paid foreigners would take local jobs; less attention was given to the impact of large numbers of low-wage foreigners.

In 1982, workers from non-traditional sources were allowed for construction, but capped at 50% of the workforce. The levy was introduced to reduce dependence on foreign workers, and to encourage more skill-intensive and less labour-intensive ways of working. In April 1987, a flat levy of $140 per month was placed on all sectors. As labour shortages grew, this increased: $170 in April 1988, $220 in April 1989, and $250 in July 1989. Presently the levy for construction workers is $300 to $950 per month per worker, depending on skills, experience and whether the worker is within or beyond the dependency ratio.

Instead of reducing reliance on foreign workers, the levy now increases production costs while contributing to government revenues. Small contractors find low-wage workers to be easily obtainable, disposable and replaceable, and so require less investment and maintenance than heavy machinery or other labour-saving methods. The indebtedness of many workers, due to recruitment costs, prevents them from refusing bosses’ demands, and they face disadvantageous conditions, such as reduced salaries, fines and deductions, excessive overtime, and poor living conditions. The employer mitigates the high cost of levies by having one man do the work of 1.5 or two men, which also reduces the cost of housing and insurance for the employer, while the real cost is borne by the overburdened worker.

What influence do you think NGOs such as TWC2 have been able to have on state policies, employment practices, and the lives of migrant workers?

Debbie: Over the years we have carried out research and made suggestions: for days off, privacy and more protections for domestic workers; better access to medical treatment; regular and correct salary payments; monitoring of illegal deductions; easier job mobility; better job security and reduction or elimination of recruitment fees.

Some policies have unintended consequences. Our articles present many of these, such as the problems with the IPA (In-Principle Approval) or the use of technology to lodge and manage salary claims. I’m sure that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) reads our suggestions even if they don’t acknowledge or act on our findings.

TWC2’s 2008 Day Off campaign, in partnership with other NGOs, was instrumental in pushing for weekly rest days for domestic workers.

Giving domestic workers a weekly day off was something of a success, even though the day off is still negotiable and domestic workers have little bargaining power. Putting basic salary, deductions and allowances in the In-Principle Approval for male workers and improved job mobility were positive moves, but we’re not sure if TWC2 can be credited. There’s still a long way to go, especially with recruitment fees and lengthy indebtedness.

What frustrations or difficulties have you faced?

Debbie: MOM sometimes denies NGOs’ claims of mistreatment, or refutes stories and studies by saying these things apply only to a small number of workers and therefore shouldn’t be given undue attention, when the majority of workers don’t raise those issues.

We would like more open dialogue with the government. It seems that MOM views us as being overly critical of government actions and regulations. Migrant labour is necessary, but we would like Singapore to adopt measures to make it more profitable, predictable and dignified for workers. When a huge gap exists between what is expected of migrant workers and what Singaporeans would tolerate, we have to question the ethics of the system.

The government knows that the public have enough trust in policies; they don’t need to make changes that some might find overly solicitous towards foreign workers. And yet I believe that we have brought about some change in thinking about this group as deserving better. Perhaps the government feels threatened by our ability to influence public opinion.

What ongoing challenges do migrant workers face?

Debbie: The best solution would be for workers to enjoy a sustainable living without leaving their homes and country. Many who come to Singapore have borrowed money and sold land; they are usually the sole income earner for the family. Yet the money sent home can only contribute to income-generating businesses if the worker has worked for one employer for several years continuously. Enabling children to gain employment in home country even after paying for their education isn’t always possible, unless the family has the connections and money to secure a good job.

Debt is a major factor shaping the lives of migrant workers in Singapore. (Photo: UN Women)

Migrant workers in Singapore consider themselves successful if they can continue working for an extended period, merely to provide for their families during that time. That’s hardly something to aspire to, if it means being apart from their families their entire working lives. I’m afraid that those who return after a series of unsuccessful jobs have no way of extricating themselves from debt to banks, money lenders, micro-loan providers and relatives.The challenge is to make the changes necessary so that no one goes back worse off than he started off.

What concrete policy changes could improve their situation?

Debbie: Let me just mention one. With this one change, all other problems would be drastically reduced in severity: eliminate recruitment fees.

When I started working with male workers, I heard of men paying $5,000 to acquire their first job, when an average monthly salary was around $500. About 10 years later, we heard of men paying $15,000 for their first job, while the average salary was still around $500. This has become a lucrative part of the business of jobs overseas: everyone wants a piece of it.

In recent years, we’ve seen far fewer men working at their first job. Most who approach TWC2 have worked several jobs previously, so the connections allow them to circumvent the major players among the agents and fixers. Second and subsequent jobs, however, still cost $2,000 to $8,000, even when the worker is permitted to change employers while in Singapore. The money exchanges hands in Singapore—it should be possible to prevent this.

MOM is well aware of this practice. Because only meager steps have been taken to curtail it, I often wonder whether the political will exists to deprive the employers of this chunk of money. Is a compliant, indebted worker seen as more desirable than one who negotiates from a position of financial security?

There is now a growing body of research on the lives of migrant workers in Singapore, by political scientists, sociologists, geographers, lawyers, and other scholars. TWC2 also makes action-oriented research a priority. What are challenges or potential gains in working with academic researchers from outside TWC2?

A panel discussion in 2017 on “Bridging the academic-NGO divide”. (Photo: TWC2)

Debbie: It’s always a pleasure to contact academics and researchers, including some of our volunteers. We have much to learn from research: it validates our observations and gives us a wider perspective. I hope that researchers learn from us as well, but it does seem that we work independently of one another. More contact with academics would certainly be useful, especially if they can follow up on areas of research that we don’t have the resources or the expertise to conduct. But researchers are well aware that they could put their positions in jeopardy if their research conclusions challenge government policy.

Much official rhetoric in Singapore is about personal attitudes. Citizens and residents are asked to be kinder and more generous to migrant workers, but structures that make people unkind and discriminatory remained unchanged. Nonetheless, what can individuals do to contribute to a better future for migrant workers?

Debbie: Among the most common responses, or excuses, from the public are:

  1. They should be grateful for the job here, it’s better than what they could find in their home country.
  2. If they have problems, they should take it up with MOM.
  3. It’s their own fault for paying money to illegal agents and trusting scoundrels.

With attitudes like this, it’s not easy to change the perception that the migrant worker is being done a favour by being allowed to work in Singapore, is ignorant of the ways to access of justice, or is responsible for his own misfortune.

The next level of understanding is usually that these foreigners are just like the rest of us; they want to work hard and provide for their families. This ignores the very real differences in responsibilities, financial standing and opportunities. Because aspirations are relatively achievable for Singaporeans, there tends to be a naive assumption that racial harmony and integration is the solution that can be applied everywhere to improve conditions, even for migrant workers. Embracing different ethnicities and nationalities is seen as the cure; integration and understanding will cause social and financial inequalities to melt away.

The Migrant Worker Poetry Competition is an example of the cultural and artistic events that focus on building ties between residents and migrants. (Photo: Migrant Worker Poetry Competition Singapore)

On this assumption, many people want to befriend migrant workers. Events with this objective can create friendships and understanding, but may also be like human petting zoos: workers are given a platform to receive patronising attention and generosity from Singapore residents.

Many movements now showcase workers’ literary, musical and theatrical talents. These provide opportunities for locals and foreign workers to spend enjoyable time together, performing or showing appreciation for each other’s talents and traditions. Many workers involved in these activities are understandably proud of their achievements and of the prominence they’re earned.

When workers display their talents, they usually receive wide acceptance within the local community. Politically, these are safe activities. This appeases public sentiment that wants to embrace migrant workers socially, and provides workers a tool to claim status within Bangladeshi society. Yet many migrant workers who participate in these events and receive accolades are unwilling to speak up for migrant workers. Their focus is usually integration and acceptance, rather than systemic issues of salary withholding, high agent fees, job loss and work injuries. Perhaps those who suffer financially at the hands of cheating agents and errant employers are reluctant to advertise their situation. Not willing to challenge the system, they tend to explain their misfortune as due to bad luck, rather than systemic and legitimised forms of exploitation.

Do you think the current responses to the situation in workers’ dormitories, with the high levels of coronavirus infection there, are adequate?

Debbie: I think it’s misdirected to judge dormitories only by this event. The dormitories were not designed to prevent the spread of a highly contagious virus, any more than schools, movie theatres, and cruise ships were. But most of these other crowded situations are places where we choose to go, not places where we are forced to live. That’s why the quarantining and Stay at Home Notices have impacted migrant workers and local residents so differently. Many residents have comfortable homes and can avoid other people, whereas migrant workers are forced into close contact with others.

When measures were taken to reduce the spread among the resident population, migrant workers were at first allowed to continue to work, to keep the economy chugging along for as long as possible. Only when large numbers of infections began to surface in dormitories were they confined in those spaces together. The rehousing and thinning out should have been done earlier. More information should have been given to help the workers understand the medical rationale for being moved out or not, how long the situation would last, and who to speak to about problems and needs. Much anxiety has resulted from inadequate information and lack of coordination in providing necessities.

An AFP report on the situation in the dormitories during the ongoing pandemic.

The response from the public and various civil society groups has been overwhelming and generous. Many groups have mobilised quickly and efficiently to meet various needs, and migrant workers have soared into the public awareness. Charity and generosity have reassured workers: alone, however, they cannot bring about long-lasting change.

If dorm standards are improved, that will certainly be a benefit to the workers, and presumably a cost to employers. Many dorm operators have been making handsome profits. This should be scrutinised so that minimum standards are raised, conditions are improved and costs to employers don’t result in clawing back from the workers in other areas.

We advise smaller groups of men, with dedicated toilets, showers and cooking facilities attached. Smaller groups are more likely to work cooperatively about maintaining common areas. A hundred men sharing 15 toilets is far worse than 20 workers sharing three toilets, even though the ratio is the same. A better ratio would be 12 workers sharing three toilets, given that most men need to be ready for work at the same time, and return from work at roughly the same time.

Will the current coronavirus pandemic lead to lasting changes in the working conditions and lives of migrant workers in Singapore?

Debbie: Frankly, I think that the Singapore economy is likely continue to take priority over the welfare of (expendable and replaceable) migrant workers. There may be some changes in the technology used in construction, to reduce reliance on migrant workers. Government can continue to use the levy system, the dependency ratio and MYE (“man year entitlement”, allocated by size and cost of project) to control and allocate numbers. But as long as sending countries such as Bangladesh fail to provide adequate opportunities for people to lead a decent life at home, Singapore can entice workers to come on a temporary basis, with limited ability to control or improve their work and living environment.

I wanted to talk a little more about attitudes the general public. You mention that young people are often drawn to befriend migrant workers. Have you seen social attitudes change through experiences of working with TWC2?

Debbie: Certainly attitudes change when people volunteer with us. While these are already a self-selected group, they still affect attitudes of those around them.

When I talk to students at JCs or secondary schools, the issue of migrant workers seems totally foreign to them, as if I were speaking about people in the Amazon or Syria: divorced from their daily lives and of no interest. Maybe this is because they’ve grown up in a safe, well-governed, predictable, and comfortable world, where consumer products and entertainment are available, and individuals have choices in their careers and personal lives.

By contrast, international students ask: how can Singapore allow such situations to continue? Aren’t they worried about their international reputation? Don’t people care about basic human rights? Singaporean students are more likely to respond: What do you expect me to do? Wouldn’t things cost more for us if foreign workers were paid more? The government has thought this through, so I’ll trust that they’re doing the right thing for Singapore and the economy.

Teo You Yenn has turned attention to the plight of the Singapore poor, but I’m not sure ordinary people have a clear notion of how to alleviate inequality and upset a system that in their mind validates their secure position in society. It’s far more difficult to empathise with the stories of people whose societies and constraints are so different.

You Yenn also mentioned an important point in the Webinar: you can’t just expect people to behave morally as individuals. Social policies often have larger symbolic and cultural meaning and can drive individual behaviour, as much as individual behaviour can contribute to social change. What larger changes in Singapore society might, do you think, promote greater concern for the well-being of migrant workers?

Debbie: Singapore encourages people to believe that individual credentials and skills, rather than connections and social capital, earn rewards. As Singapore gets richer, people are less dependent on and connected to one another. Poor societies rely more on families and extended relationships within the community, both to help out in times of trouble and to share in times of celebration and prosperity.

Many in Singapore are willing to offer assistance to strangers when specifically asked, but are reluctant to take the initiative when they’re not sure what’s needed, or to get involved someone else’s business. So it goes with migrant workers. What do they want? How much time and money will it cost me? Why should I do this? What will people think of me?

Deciding on moral action gets complicated when it involves strangers. It comes down to what we learn from our home, family, friends and education. Are we expected to greet strangers? Our willingness to extend ourselves and take a stand on bigger issues depends on what we learn about how wide a circle, and which circles, we consider our own.

In closing: you mention that “there’s nothing special or saintly about you”, but I’m nonetheless struck that many people in your situation would have simply put their feet up, kicked back, and had a fairly sedentary lifestyle. I’m curious what it was that moved you to work with TWC2, and what values and strengths have sustained you?

Debbie: I’m not sure. My family was well off, and advised me not to hang around with certain people, usually because of their ethnicity, religion or (lack of) social standing and wealth. As a kid, for some reason I thought that was wrong, and rebelled against the family conventions. That may also have motivated me to move away from home, marry someone “not our class, dearie”, and continue to hang out with people my family would have advised against. 

When I decided to take injured men in my house, it made for an interesting and often chaotic time. There were usually eight to ten of them staying with me, for about six years. Some stayed for longer than a year, and were tearful when they had to leave to return home. Over the years, I’ve kept up with and visited many of them in their homes in Bangladesh.

Do you have any final thoughts?

Debbie: I feel strongly about migrant workers, because I’ve been working with this group for so long and I’ve become aware of what happens while they’re in Singapore and after they return home. Now, because of the pandemic, they’ve become a sexy topic, with lots more people wanting to get involved. It’s great to have donations and offers to volunteer, but the desire to “make the world a better place” doesn’t require you to seek out a trendy cause.

Photo: Debbie Fordyce

As a kid in school, I remember other kids being bullied; nobody (not even teachers) stood up to protect them. I was at times the object of torment, and other times a tormenter myself. None of us were brave enough to protect the weaker. It’s difficult to stand against social norms, and natural to seek acceptance by the powerful group.

So while TWC2 offers good volunteering opportunities, I advise people to look hard for the right questions before assuming you know the answer. Some people, without knowing much, assume the main problem is food, or riding in the back of crowded lorries, or now, with COVID-19, the dormitories. It’s comforting to assume the problem is simple and devise an easy solution.

Whether with migrant workers, or anyone else in a position of disempowerment, be aware of what inequality, poverty and desperation does to people, both those with privilege and access, and those without. Be prepared to stand up for what you believe.

I hope that people will continue to help TWC2 if possible, but TWC2 is a small effort within this larger concern. There are also small, closer-to-home ways that people can give dignity to those around them. Simple unannounced acts of kindness also provide a platform for action. If you have to follow a script, you have yet to learn the lesson.

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