Who is responsible for Singapore’s migrant workers, and why does it matter?

Academic Views, Coronavirus / Tuesday, May 5th, 2020

Shona Loong, DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford, describes how the state has made employers responsible for migrant workers, to dire effect, and examines the implications for state-society relations and the role of NGOs.

The COVID-19 cases among Singapore’s migrant worker population skyrocketed in mere weeks. On 1 April, they accounted for just ten of 1,000 cases; on 29 April, they formed 89% of 15,600 cases, making coronavirus prevalence among this group over 56 times higher than that of other Singapore residents. Even so, differences in conditions exist among migrant workers; some are more vulnerable than others. Furthermore, the crisis raises questions about who should be held accountable for these workers across the board—something the state normally assigns to employers. The role of NGOs is also at stake: these groups are now extensively mitigating the pandemic’s effects on migrant wellbeing, even though the state has long shunted away their demands for policy change.

According to Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong, Singapore is dealing with “two separate infections”: one among the general population, and another in migrant dormitories. In the latter, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) focuses on mitigating the transmission risk posed by dense living conditions. Ministries have therefore ramped up testing in dormitories, rehoused workers in “essential services”, and put more than half of Singapore’s purpose-built dormitories under quarantine.

Migrant dormitories deserve attention, but this must not obscure different realities faced by migrant workers depending on where they live. Singapore’s pandemic strategy distinguishes between: (1) dormitories designated as “isolation areas”; (2) all other dormitories, which are under “effective lockdown”; (3) relocation sites for workers in essential services; and (4) migrant workers housed elsewhere. Regulations vary between these sites. While the government caters meals for migrant workers in “isolation areas”, employers are asked to “ensure” meals for those in dormitories under “effective lockdown”. Construction workers staying outside dormitories altogether are under a stay-home notice (SHN).

Attention has focused on dormitories as the number of COVID-19 cases among their residents has skyrocketed. (Screenshot of gov.sg website, taken on 30 April 2020)

Singaporeans’ “circuit breaker” experiences vary too, with low-income families struggling to make ends meet. But the government has sought to mitigate the impact on these vulnerable groups, however insufficiently. By contrast, COVID-19 advisories often pass responsibility onto employers for the wellbeing of migrant workers, including those particularly vulnerable because they are recovering from workplace injuries, or in disputes with employers over unpaid salaries. This structure of responsibility increases the likelihood that migrant workers’ basic needs go unmet and that they will be subject to abuse.

Life outside the dormitories

Of Singapore’s 725,200 non-domestic migrant workers, 200,000 reside in purpose-built dormitories and 120,000 in factory-converted dormitories. The remaining workers live in temporary housing on construction sites and shipyards, and in residential premises rented on the open market

Zakir (a pseudonym) lives in a room with five other men in the Little India area. Over the phone, he tells me that his main worries are “money and food”.[1] As the sole breadwinner in a family of five, Zakir normally remits $500 a month, but he has not been paid for several weeks. His landlord is threatening to cut off his electricity and water if he does not pay rent, which costs $250 per month. Zakir is worried about the future: will his job resume after the circuit breaker? His boss says that Singaporeans are anxious about having Bangladeshi men work near their homes, since the dormitories are associated with COVID-19. Zakir is also worried about his family. Given a choice, he would go home, but he cannot find a job there. “If I have the money, I can go back,” Zakir says, “but everybody depends to me.”

$alary Day, a short film by Ramasamy Madhavan, depicts the daily struggles and difficult choices that face cash-strapped migrant workers in Singapore. (Screenshot of social media link, taken on 5 May 2020)

As Zakir is a construction worker, he has not been allowed to leave his residence since 20 April, when he was put on a SHN. A day before that began, MOM advised employers to arrange for “catered food” and “other daily essentials”. However, Zakir and his roommates are not getting food from their employer, so they take turns to buy meals. This makes Zakir anxious: MOM has threatened to revoke work permits for workers flouting the SHN. Migrant workers typically adhere closely to the law, given the threat of repatriation and their significant debt burdens. Zakir is no different. But food delivery is too expensive, so he sees no alternative.

Zakir’s roommate Shahid (also a pseudonym) was injured at work. Two days ago, a police officer stopped Shahid on his way to the hospital. Although a phone call to his doctor confirmed that Shahid had an appointment, the police redirected him to MOM to obtain permission to visit the hospital. By then, it was too late for him to go. Shahid must wait for a new appointment and his injury may take longer to heal. SHN guidelines state that foreign employees should consult with employers if they need medical attention, although Singaporeans and tourists can call the SHN hotline. This roundabout route to medical care hits injured workers hard. The number of workers in such situations is not publicly available, but 2,600 workers consult Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) for injuries, unpaid salaries, and other problems each year.

Singapore’s laws specifically reference employers’ responsibilities for workers’ food, accommodation, and healthcare even under normal circumstances. Specifically, the law states that employers are “responsible” for “the provision of adequate food and medical treatment” and “bearing the costs of such upkeep and maintenance”. Zakir and Shahid’s experiences reveal what happens when employers do not adhere to these rules.

How the state shifts responsibility onto employers

Screenshot of MOM website (taken on 30 April 2020).

This structure of responsibility—through which the state outsources its obligations towards the migrant labour force onto employers—is realised through certain incentives and costs. By housing workers and feeding them, employers can manage workers in a cost-efficient manner. Penalties confront employers that do not abide by the rules. Employers take out a S$5,000 “security bond” for every Work Permit holder they employ; this can be forfeited when they shirk responsibility for workers’ “upkeep and maintenance”, or when workers run away.

What does this mean for workers? Firstly, employers afraid of forfeiting the security bond may confiscate passports and control the movement of workers. This intensifies inequality in the relationship between a migrant worker and their employer, reinforced by labour policies that make it difficult for migrant workers to change employer and that allow employers to cancel Work Permits at any time. Migrant worker shouldering thousands of dollars of debt are even more likely to acquiesce to this state of affairs.

The adequacy of food provided to migrant workers during the pandemic has become the subject of much public discussion. (Photos: Kokila Annamalai)

Secondly, state policies imply that migrant workers’ needs for food and housing should be resolved within the employer-employee relationship. Employers may make deductions from salaries for this purpose. However, it is very difficult for workers to bring up concerns over food and accommodation with employers, precisely because of the inequality in the relationship.

Zakir and Shahid demonstrate one possible outcome of this system during the pandemic: they are simply not getting food. In the case of workers staying in “isolation area” dormitories, the government is catering meals, but it is unclear whether this cost will be passed on first to employers, and potentially then to workers in the form of salary deductions.

In other dormitories, where restrictions on workers’ movements are more lax, pandemic containment falls even more onto the shoulders of employers. MOM advises employers to “ensure your work pass holders are observing… safe distancing measures” and states that the MOM will penalise “irresponsible practices and behavior”. Employers, in other words, bear the costs of flouting public health regulations, just as they have been responsible for workers’ food and accommodation all along.

Workers locked into a room at the Joylicious Dormitory on 20 April (Photo: TWC2)

This can be especially difficult during the pandemic, as employers struggle financially. In response, the MOM proposed some “cost-saving measures” for employers. However, TWC2 criticised MOM’s advisory for condoning to salary deductions for lowly-paid workers, citing MOM’s advice that employers “must notify MOM if the cost-saving measures result in more than 25% reduction” in salaries. TWC2 also pointed out that payroll support schemes for firms with local employees have not been extended to firms that hire migrant workers, although this would increase spending on this scheme by only 8%.

The sentences that TWC2 quotes from MOM have since been amended so that the advisory no longer discusses migrant workers’ wages. However, salary cuts are still possible, and payroll support schemes still exclude firms that hire migrant workers. TWC2’s core recommendation, that help for employers should “come from the state” rather than “from those the bosses can oppress” still stands. Bailouts need not entail depressing the wages of workers who are already earning meagre salaries in the first place.

Leaving pandemic containment to employers can also result in extreme measures to avoid penalties. Between 20 and 21 April, twenty migrant workers were confined their room at Joylicious dormitory after one of their roommates contracted COVID-19. As the door was locked, workers had to ask security guards to use the bathroom, until they were eventually moved into a room with an attached toilet. That room was locked from the outside too. “We have no choice but to play it safe,” the dormitory manager said to explain their actions. “I have 800 workers to take care of.” The Joylicious case demonstrates the egregious consequences of outsourcing the state’s public health responsibilities to dormitories and employers, who already wield significant power over their workers.

The role of NGOs

TWC2 broke the Joylicious story on Facebook after receiving a call from one of the entrapped workers. It is extremely difficult for workers to bring up their dissatisfactions with employers and authorities, due to the threat of arbitrarily cancelled Work Permits. Today’s report on the Joylicious saga indicates that the workers also feared retaliation for speaking to the media.

The Covid Migrant Support Coalition is one of several groups working to meet migrant workers’ needs. (Photo: CMSC Facebook Page)

The pandemic has heightened the visibility of organisations working on migrant workers’ rights and welfare. Several address living conditions and the emotional toll of the pandemic. For instance, the COVID-19 Migrant Support Coalition, which has raised more than S$400,000 to date, provides migrant workers with meals, sanitation products, and support for recreational activities. Other organisations too are receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations.

The government recognised the critical role of NGOs in a recent statement. Its coronavirus taskforce, it says, is “coordinating NGOs’ efforts” in several domains: disseminating information, providing essentials, attending to emotional wellbeing, and relaying feedback. The statement asks that citizens work through the government-led taskforce, so that resources are distributed prudently. Migrant workers will certainly benefit from better resource allocation. However, the government has not acknowledged other, important functions of NGOs. The Joylicious saga, for instance, shows how NGOs function as a channel for workers’ grievances, one which can circumvent their inability to voice concerns with employers and the state. By writing about Joylicious on Facebook, TWC2 effectively introduced public checks and balances for other “workers at risk of similarly being locked up”. Containing NGOs’ efforts within government channels—as the MOM has asked TWC2 to do—dampens their ability to fulfill functions outside of direct welfare assistance.

Workers gather at TWC2’s meal service (Photo: author)

NGOs can also work in the interests of vulnerable workers who experience serious injuries and unpaid salaries. These issues are not outliers, but a result of employers’ failure to be “responsible” for their workers’ wellbeing. When I volunteered at TWC2’s meal service, I noticed that coming face-to-face with vulnerable workers revealed the state’s oversights and how things could be improved. However, the taskforce separates the “welfare” function of NGOs from their ability to shed light on systemic problems. This is a disservice to the insights that many NGO staff and volunteers glean on the ground, which can be used to avert the multiple vulnerabilities that migrant workers face during this time.

Towards responsible state-society relations

Part of the problem is that employers’ responsibilities towards migrant workers have rarely been enforced. However, enhanced monitoring and enforcement alone is unlikely to substantially improve wellbeing. For one, this requires additional staffing resources that the state may not be able to afford. Moreover, it is inefficient. Employers may have workers housed at several different sites, and lack the contacts necessary to deliver meals on this scale. They will struggle to provide. By contrast, ministries can work directly with dormitory operators to provide meals across the board. Finally, allocating responsibility to employers will deepen their power over workers. Employees that fear retaliation will be further incentivised to suppress concerns over salary and wellbeing, including when they too are struggling to meet migrant workers’ needs.

What are some alternative approaches? The state should consider extending payroll support for employers that hire migrant workers, while ensuring that migrant workers are paid. Even so, the state must take on more direct responsibility for workers’ basic needs, as it is naïve to think that benefits to employers will automatically “trickle down” to workers, even when employers are encouraged to do so.

TWC2 warned of the COVID-19 dangers posed by employment practices even before the enormous growth of cases in the dorms. (Screenshot from TWC2 website, 30 April 2020)

Moreover, the government should recognise NGOs’ roles beyond the provision of masks and meals. The Joylicious saga demonstrates that NGOs’ sensitivity to ground concerns is an asset, not a threat. NGOs are critical to ensuring that workers’ concerns are heard, since existing employer-employee relations leave little leeway for conversations of this kind. A state that recognises criticism is not weak or disunited, but rather strengthened by its capacity to listen.

The outbreak in dormitories provokes reflections on the relationship between state, employers, and civil society. After all, NGOs called for improved housing for migrant workers even before the first clusters in dormitories broke out. We need an openness to questioning the model of growth that packed them into dormitories in the first place.


[1] I spoke to Zakir over the phone on 24 April 2020. We first met in 2014, when I was a volunteer with TWC2.

This article is a SOAP Awards ‘Commentary of the month’ winner (May 2020)

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