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The Asian Trends Monitoring Bulletin is a project


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York and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy,

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National University of Singapore. The Lee Kuan Yew


School of Public Policy gratefully acknowledges the financial assistance of the Rockefeller Foundation.

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The Asian Trends Monitoring Bulletin focuses on

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the analysis of pro-poor projects and innovative


approaches that will contribute to alleviate poverty.

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The emphasis is put on identifying major trends


for the poor in rural and urban areas, highlighting sustainable and scalable concepts, and analysing

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how these could impact the future of Asia’s well-


being and future development.

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The Asian Trends Monitoring Bulletin are designed

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to encourage dialogue and debate about critical


issues that affect Asia’s ability to reduce poverty and increase awareness of the implications for pro-poor policy and policy development. Disclaimer The opinions expressed in the Asian Trends Monitoring Bulletin are those of the analysts and do not necessarily reflect those of the sponsor organisations. Frequency The Asian Trends Monitoring Bulletin will be produced eight times a year and can be downloaded for free at http://www.asiantrendsmonitoring.com/downloads Principal Investigators Phua Kai Hong T S Gopi Rethinaraj Research Associates Johannes Loh Sue Helen Nieto Guest Writer Krish Raghav Production Johannes Loh, Production & Research Dissemination Michael Agung Pradhana, Layout & Design Image credits, with thanks -Image on p.19 by Latiff, H. (2014, January 5). Retrieved from:

Permission is granted to use portions of this work copyrighted by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Please follow the suggested citation: When citing individual articles Raghav, K. (2014). Striking a fair Balance: Foreign Construction Workers in Singapore. In Asian Trends Monitoring (2014), Bulletin 24: The foreign worker dilemma (p.15). Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore. When citing the entire Bulletin: Asian Trends Monitoring (2014), Bulletin 24: The foreign worker dilemma – a matter of competing perspectives. Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore. When citing our survey data Asian Trends Monitoring (2014). A dataset on urban poverty and service provision. Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Please acknowledge the source and email a copy of the book, periodical or electronic document in which the material appears to chris.k@nus.edu.sg or send to Chris Koh Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy 469C Bukit Timah Toad Singapore 259772

Contents 4 s The Foreign Worker Dilemma by Johannes Loh

6 s A Process to Manage, not a Problem to Solve 8 s Migration to Thailand: A journey fraught with peril 14 s Precarious living conditions 15 s Striking a Fair Balance: Foreign construction workers in Singapore by Krish Raghav

16 s Boiling Over 19 s Charting the Worker Ecosystem 21 s The bigger picture


The Foreign Worker Dilemma In the last decade, much of Southeast Asia has witnessed tremendous eco-

employment by relying on often scrupulous brokers who have established

nomic growth, often concentrated in the major cities. This economic suc-

a multi-million dollar industry. In the absence of effective implementation

cess can be seen in flashy new business districts, towering skyscrapers and

of Thailand’s labour protection and immigration policies, the facilitation

gleaming condominiums. To realize these massive developments and to

of labour migration has become a professionally managed business dis-

maximise profits, businesses turned to cheap migrant labour.

proportionately benefiting employers, corrupt officials and savvy brokers.

Jobs in so called 3-D’s industries (Dirty, Dangerous, Degrading) in the

In Singapore, labour migration for low-skill workers has long been

more prosperous counties in Southeast Asia have seen labour shortages

a necessity for developers to keep pace with the city state’s blistering

due to dwindling numbers of native workers willing to take on these chal-

growth. While immigration and labour regulation are clearly defined and

lenging assignments. This business model is not new; however, in the last

enforceable in court, foreign workers are facing more subtle challenges of

decade the number of foreign workers has shot up in an attempt to fill

lack of integration into society and a de facto imbalance of power tilted

such labour shortages and keep up impressive GDP growth. A major pull

towards their employers.

factor for migrant workers is the wage discrepancy between low-skill jobs in their home countries vis-a-vis the booming economies in the region

We invite you to share the ATM Bulletin with colleagues interested in pro-poor issues in Southeast Asia. The Bulletin is also available for down-

These unprecedented inflows of foreign labour have brought the ques-

load at www.asiantrendsmonitoring.com/download, where you can sub-

tion of social and economic policies regulating working conditions and

scribe to future issues. We encourage you to visit our website where you

safeguarding migrant workers’ rights on the political agenda in Southeast

will find the collection of all past ATM Bulletins. Thank you again for sup-

Asia’s booming economies.

porting the ATM Bulletin, and as always, we gladly welcome your feedback.

This Asian Trends Monitoring Bulletin takes a closer look at the situation of migrant workers in Thailand and Singapore, with a specific emphasis on one of the most common professions among migrants: construction. Our

Johannes Loh Krish Raghav

researchers interviewed Burmese factory and construction workers in the outskirts of Bangkok about their migration experience and the living conditions they encountered. Part one of the Bulletin describes the migrants’ challenges of finding

Suggested citation When citing individual articles • Raghav, K. (2014). Striking a fair Balance: Foreign Construction Workers in Singapore. In Asian Trends Monitoring (2014), Bulletin 24: The foreign worker dilemma (pp.15). Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore. When citing the entire bulletin • Asian Trends Monitoring (2014), Bulletin 24: The foreign worker dilemma – a matter of competing perspectives. Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore. When citing our survey data • Asian Trends Monitoring (2014). A dataset on urban poverty and service provision. Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.


Three Burmese construction workers put together a scaffolding in the centre of Bangkok

The Foreign Worker Dilemma by Johannes Loh

Singapore and Bangkok have both undergone

different stages.

discussed from page 15 onwards in the article:

significant transformations with tremendous

Thanks to its ability to effectively monitor

help from hundreds of thousands of migrant

its borders, the influx of illegal migrant workers

workers building new city centres, mass rapid

into Singapore is a negligible issue. The chal-

Thailand, however, has struggled to keep

transport systems and new modern homes.

lenge is to design and effectively implement

track of migrant workers within its own bor-

While both countries are destinations for

policies to ensure fair treatment, decent work-

ders and has experimented with a variety of

migrant workers or “receiving countries”, their

ing conditions and appropriate dispute mecha-

registration efforts to gain better control of its

current challenges of regulating the influx and

nisms for migrant workers in the city. The key

low-skill sectors. The lack of effective regula-

the conditions for foreign workers are at very

policy challenges Singapore is facing today are

tion often comes with lack of protection for

“Striking a fair balance: Foreign construction workers in Singapore”.


migrants. Issues of abuse, withheld payment or unsafe, ramshackle worker accommodations are frequent concerns for Burmese migrants in Thailand. Moreover, the provision of services to migrant workers and their families is a hotly contested policy question, often putting pressure on policy makers to solve the dilemma of pleasing voters and ensuring fair treatment of migrants. Given their lack of representation in the policy process, in most states in Asia, it is the migrant workers who end up with the short end of the stick. Migrant workers typically work in jobs that fall under the three D’s categories: Dirty, Dangerous, Degrading. These are the jobs that are not attractive to the native population anymore, either due to lack of appeal or low earning potential. Therefore, receiving countries such as Thailand have provided millions of low paying jobs for migrants from neighbouring countries. Estimates of the number of migrant workers currently working in the country range from 1.8 to 3 million1. The majority of these foreign workers are Burmese, originating from Thailand’s neighbour Myanmar. While a large percentage of migrants find work along the ThailandMyanmar border, the thriving capital Bangkok is another massive pull factor for foreign labourers seeking to earn up to ten times more than they could achieve in their home countries. In Singapore, the number of foreign workers who have been granted work permits has been a hot topic in recent years. Low skill workers account for nearly one million out of the city’s 5.4 million current residents. Singapore’s male foreign workers mainly come from India, Bangladesh, and Mainland China to work in labour intensive industries on construction sites or in shipyards. Compared to Thailand the wage differentials these workers can earn are even higher in Singapore and one of most prominent pull factors attracting cheap labour to the city2. ATM

The Odyssey of a Migrant Labourer Min Thu, is only 29, but he has been through a lot in life, since deciding to leave his home country Myanmar at the age of 21. He has been working and living in Thailand for the past eight years. He started out as a worker on a fishing vessel, ran away after suffering physical abuse

What followed were stints at two gar-

and being cheated on his salary, worked in

ment factories for barely acceptable

several factories producing garments and

wages. “At the first factory I was paid US$

bicycles and finally made his way to the

4 a day but I only stayed a few months

Bangkok region to work in construction

before moving to another factory where

(See Infographics on pp.10 for an illustra-

they paid US$ 5.50.“ Min Thu says he “felt

tion of his odyssey).

unhappy at those factories” because the

“I left my farm because I felt bored.

conditions were very tough. He finally

The income was very low and a friend

managed to find a job as a welder for a

told me about working opportunities in

construction company with the help of

Thailand“ says Min Thu. The first broker he

another broker whom he paid a US$ 50

met demanded US$ 300 (the equivalent

placement fee and another US$ 300 for a

of a year’s saving for Min Thu) to organ-

new temporary passport.

ise a passport. Min Thu’s broker told him

“Compared to my earlier years in

it would take a few days. After a week of

Thailand my life is much better now. My

waiting it was clear that the broker and the

company pays US$ 10 a day and the group

money were gone. Min Thu did not want

leader is Burmese, so he also understands

to give up, so he worked as a day labourer

me.” Min Thu lives in a housing block at

to get enough money for another attempt.

the outskirts of Bangkok in a community

The second broker “sold” him to a

of Burmese migrants. He has not seen

Thai employer to work as a fisherman.

his wife back in Myanmar for two years.

The arrangement was effectively bonded

Every few months he uses a broker service

labour; Min Thu was “indebted” to his

to send cash, between US$ 60-80, back

employer. He was treated badly, and was


never allowed to leave the boat. “Our boat

When asked about his wishes for

was out at sea for two weeks or longer, we

the future and the current treatment of

never stayed in the harbour for long. The

migrant workers in Thailand, Min Thu has

captain made us work up to 20 hours a day

a very clear idea about improvement. “I

and beat us up if we worked too slowly.

wish we did not have to pay the brokers

The pay was only US$ 3.50 per day and we

each time we need something from the

still had to pay for our food.“ recounts Min

Thai authorities. Without a broker, I cannot

Thu. After almost two years on the fishing

get my passport, find a new job, or send

vessel he decided to run away.

money home – it’s a lot of money for me.“


Worker huts located inside the premises of a construction site in Bangkok's industrial belt

A process to manage, not a problem to solve by Johannes Loh The relationship between host country and

away from addressing the social dimension.

foreign workers is mutually beneficial. Apart

With increasing numbers of foreign workers the

from working in jobs that citizens of the host

emphasis of the discourse shifts towards solv-

country no longer consider worthwhile, migrant

ing the “problem” of too many foreign labour-

workers add significant economic value.

ers. In response to such a narrow perspective

Economists estimate migrant workers’ produc-

on a complex situation, the scholar Philip Martin

tivity to range somewhere between half as pro-

has pointed out that “migration is a process to

ductive to perfectly equivalent. Depending on

be managed, not a problem to be solved“4. He

the assumed productivity of 50-100% compared

argues that there will always be migration, and

to the country’s own citizens, migrant workers

often it is an economic necessity. Hence, stra-

in Thailand contributed between 3-6% of GDP

tegically managing the process of migration

in 2005 .

rather than tackling a “problem” is suggested


However, the resident citizens often look at foreign workers with a mixture of prejudice and

as a more constructive basis for policy development. ATM

reluctance. In their eyes, the large population of foreign workers represent a problem that needs to be solved. The less visible and less integrated

„Migration is a process

the foreigners are within their society the bet-

to manage, not a prob-

ter, is a common undertone in online discussion forums. More often than not, governments follow the same line of thought, framing migrant labour as an economic necessity, but shunning

lem to solve.“ Philip Martin, 2013


Workers putting up massive pillars for a new flyover to ease Bangkok's traffic issues


Busy water traffic on the Chao Phraya river

Migration to Thailand: A journey fraught with peril by Johannes Loh The Thai economy depends on migrant workers to fill labour shortages in several

employment policy, one of ILO’s 12 priority

„I wish we did not have


to pay the brokers each

major sectors. The sectors which employ most

The International Labour Organisation (ILO)

migrants are fisheries, construction and agri-

and the International Organisation for Migration

culture5. Under the Thai Labour Protection Act

(IOM) have made recommendations to the Thai

from the Thai authori-

migrant workers in the manufacturing and con-

government of how to improve the situation

ties. Without a broker, I

struction industry should be, in theory, fully

of the millions of migrant workers in the coun-

cannot get my passport,

protected. In practice, however, migrant work-

try, however, migration policies and protec-

ers have little opportunity to defend their rights

tion still fall short of international standards7.

find a new job, or send

collectively since it is against the law for migrant

For example, Thailand has not yet signed the

workers to form their own trade unions.

ILO Migration for Employment Convention

Migrant workers are prohibited from form-

No.97, the ILO Migrant Workers (Supplementary

ing their own associations or precluded in prac-

Provisions) Convention No.143 and the UN

tice from joining existing workers‘ associations

Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All

in contravention of ILO Convention No.122 on

Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

time we need something

money home – it’s a lot of money for me.“ Min Thu, construction worker in Bangkok’s Outskirts


During the interviews with sixteen migrant workers from different occupations for this ATM Bulletin, it became clear that every one of them had experienced some form of fraud, corruption by authorities or mistreatment by their employer. A stronger regulatory framework for the protection of migrant workers in Thailand cannot be the only answer to improving their livelihood, but would go several steps in the right direction. Even the registered migrants working in the rice cooker factory (Refer to Box 2 on pp.12) spoke about how cautious they are not to “upset” their landlord or neighbours as well as avoiding to go out at night. In a society where migrants are scapegoated for a number of social problems from drug trafficking to illegal logging this might not come as a surprise. Migrants are regularly mentioned in Thailand’s mainstream to be responsible for increases in disease and crime cases despite a lack of evidence to substantiate such claims8. ATM

A volunteer teaches curious migrants how to set up an email address at TACDB school




Fair treatment a big plus for migrant factory workers

friend Nay, who works for the same company, is not that optimistic.

Soe Min and his wife have been in Bangkok for two years. They are

end of the month, I have no money left.“ He hopes that the company

here to earn enough money to go back to Myanmar and buy their

will assign more overtime work in the next year to pay off his debt.

Nay says that he “cannot save anything. I had to borrow money from a friend to pay the broker and I still have other debt to pay off. At the

own land. “When we first entered Thailand, the broker lied to us. We

Nay used to work in a car workshop where he earned up to US$ 15

were promised a good job in a factory, but we ended up as agricul-

a day until the employer decided not to accept migrant workers any-

tural labourers for US$ 2.50 a day.” Without passports and nobody to

more. „It’s good that we can earn money in Thailand, but the authori-

turn to for help they had no choice but to accept the working condi-

ties don’t like migrant workers and brokers often lie to us about the

tions until they settled the debt with the broker. Soe Min recalls that

working conditions. I hope that one day we will be able to earn a

a friend of theirs connected them to a broker promising factory jobs

good salary in our home country, then we don’t have to be away

in Bangkok. “For a broker fee of US$ 450 we would get a passport

from our homes to make money.“

and work permit for a manufacturing company in Bangkok. Now, we assemble rice cookers for US$ 9 per day.”

Nay hopes for a better treatment of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand in the future. He says that “it’s good to be able to be a

The company owner pays on time and even compensates for

registered worker, but I also want to be treated respectfully by the

overtime pay. The workers are glad to have found a company with

authorities and the Thai people.” Nay and Soe Min keep a low profile

above-average treatment for migrant workers. “If we can get all the

to avoid being questioned by police. Despite having a valid pass-

required documents, the boss helps us to open a Thai bank account.

port, migrant workers often get stopped by police and have to pay

Then our salary is no longer paid out in cash, but directly to our

bribes to avoid being taken to the station for questioning. “It was

account.“ Depending on their amount of debt, some workers even

much worse when we were working on the fields. The police would

manage to pay for their health insurance card.

come and chase us almost every week. Many of my friends have

“Here in Bangkok our situation is more predictable. We try to stay out of trouble with the Thai police and just do our work. Once we have saved up about US$ 3,000, we want to go back home.“ His

been arrested and deported because they had no passport. But all of them have come back after a few weeks.“


Illegal construction workers – no papers, no services

Their status does not allow them to seek assistance from any official

Sai Jom and Win Naing are two out of 90 Burmese who earn a liv-

even basic services: no health care, no education for the children

ing as illegal construction workers on a residential building project.

(those with no grandparents or relatives in Myanmar have brought

They live in self-constructed huts next to the construction site with-

their children along) and no access to financial services. Sai Jom says

out running water and improvised electricity supply. The project

that “in our small community we take care of each other. When one

developer has contacts with the local police and assured the migrant

of us falls sick, we borrow from each other to pay for medicine.”

institutions. The small community of construction workers has no access to

workers they would be protected from checks by the authorities. No

It is a precarious arrangement, in particular for the handful of

one has troubled them so far, but they all know that once they step

young children that live in this improvised settlement. However,

out on the street they are at risk of being stopped by the police, and

informal arrangements keep everyone going. The pay after all is

worse, potentially deported.

not bad when compared to their earnings from subsistence farming

Asian Trends Monitoring asked Sai Jom why he left Myanmar to become a labourer in Thailand. “I lost my investments when a flood destroyed all my crops. This left me no other choice, but to seek work across the border.” A broker arranged for him to be smuggled to the outskirts of Bangkok, and the employer agreed to pay the broker fee in exchange for retaining the first 6 months of pay. Win Naing joins the discussion by adding that “the pay is US$ 10 per day, a good deal for us migrants without any papers.” When asked what they do with their earnings, Win Naing explains that “we pay for the basic necessities and send the rest to our families back home. The broker takes care of that and after a few days we get confirmation from our family that they received the money.” It becomes clear that illegal migrants have no choice, but to rely heavily on the information provided by brokers and those in their community.

back in Myanmar.


Precarious living conditions by Johannes Loh Migrant workers in Thailand often live in precarious situations. A recent study13 among 800 migrants living and working in Mae Sot province found that the 3 D’s (Dangerous, Dirty & Degrading) not only apply to the jobs they do, but often extend to their general livelihoods. The situation in Bangkok seems to be a bit more stable, but precarious living arrangements and discrimination by authorities and Thais are not uncommon based on what interviewees shared with the ATM team. Moreover, workers often find themselves short-changed in their dealings with employers. According to Dr. Chantavanich, a scholar of ASEAN labour migration, there is a profound power imbalance between foreign migrants and Thai employers. Written contracts are rare and there are no trade unions or significant voices in the Thai society that migrants can turn to for support. It is not uncommon for bro-

Informal agencies and independent brokers

hands from migrants to brokers and border offi-

kers and employers to deliberately withhold

are using these information asymmetries to their

cials, although nobody knows exactly how large

information from migrant workers in order

advantage. Over the last decade “the business

this shadow industry really is. ATM

to ensure dependence and obedience. Mr.

of recruiting migrants, assisting them to cross

Myint Wai, Director of Non-Profit organization

the border into Thailand and find work there

the Thai Action Committee for Democracy in

has become a significant industry in itself.”14 The

Burma (TACDB), argues that the power of bro-

fees charged by intermediary brokers or trans-

kers together with the lack of awareness about

porters have been reported to range from US$

a big stakeholder in the

rights makes his work very difficult. TACDB holds

43-72 per migrant workers . In line with these

Thai economy, but they

a lot of seminars to educate Burmese migrants

numbers, the migrant workers interviewed for

have no voice”

on Thai labour law and their workers’ rights.

this bulletin reported paying about US$ 50 for a

“Burmese migrants are a big stakeholder in the

new job placement and up to US$ 350 for tem-

Thai economy, but they have no voice” says Mr.

porary passports and work permits. Each year


several hundred billions of US dollars change


“Burmese migrants are

Myint Wai, Director of TACDB, September 2013


Striking a fair Balance: Foreign Construction Workers in Singapore by Krish Raghav 30-year Ashok Arunachalam remembers the

category) don’t allow workers to change jobs

and wage exploitation then kicks in, leaving

industrial accident that mangled his leg right

or marry Singaporeans. Permission to work in

workers stranded17.

down to the exact minute it happened. He

the country is stacked heavily in favour of the

It’s a trying period for someone like

repeats it like a mantra: “20th December, 2012.

employers, and the threat of deportation for

Arunachalam, who’s incurred deep debts in

10:15 am.”

‘troublemaking’ looms large over every worker.

order to obtain this job (he was paid 900$ per

“This has been the most difficult year of my

Construction workers who suffer a work-

month) and finds himself alone, confused, in

life,” he says. “I couldn’t even walk to the toilet

place injury, like Arunachalam, are put on

pain in a society and system he doesn’t quite

on my own after the injury. I found myself alone

what’s called a “Special Pass” by the Ministry


in the dormitory most of the time, with no one

of Manpower. Workers can’t seek any further

Stuck in limbo for a bureaucratic process

around to help.”

employment or leave the country while their

to run its course, Arunachalam’s case is a win-

Arunachalam’s story is indicative of the expe-

case is being reviewed and compensation dis-

dow into a complex policy dilemma that faces

rience of a number of foreign migrant workers in

bursed, a process that takes anywhere between

the rich city-state – treating its one million for-

Singapore16. As of June 2012, there were close

a few months to years.

eign migrant workers with dignity, fairness and

to 722,800 non-domestic foreign migrant work-

It’s not simple. Red tape and legal jargon per-

a guarantee of rights; -alleviating the frustration,

ers on specialized Work Permits, out of which

meate every stage of the process. In many cases,

melancholy and alienation they face while living

306,500 are construction workers. These con-

an “intricate web” of deals with middlemen,

here. ATM

tractual agreements (codified in a separate visa

kickbacks at multiple levels, spurious contracts


Boiling over by Krish Raghav Some of that underlying tension and grievance

setting an ambulance alight. 39 policemen and

in the riots. Charges against another ten were

simmered to the surface on December 8, 2013

civil defense staff were injured and 25 vehicles

withdrawn after further review.

in an incident described as the first “riots” in

damaged. The number of injured workers and

Singapore for over four decades.

rioters is unknown .

Controversially, 53 workers whose participation in the riot was labeled “less egregious” were


Close to 400 South Asian migrant workers

The Government responded with a range of

repatriated from Singapore. A few days later,

squared off with riot police and security person-

immediate measures. A ban on the sale of alco-

four of the ten workers acquitted in the investi-

nel in the Little India neighbourhood after an

hol was swiftly imposed in the Little India neigh-

gation were also deported. Civil society activists

Indian national was fatally run over by a private

bourhood, and police presence was ramped

have expressed deep concerns over this devel-

bus. Little India is a centrally-located precinct

up. New measures under the Public Order

opment, with groups like Workfair Singapore

with many South Asian restaurants, businesses

(Additional Temporary Measures) Bill give police

pointing out that it “undermined” the system’s

and bars where workers congregate on days off.

greater powers to search and detain anyone

dedication to due process.

According to the Singapore Police, a ‘mob’

they deem a ‘threat to public order’ . 200 work-

Singapore’s Ministry for Law defended the

allegedly fuelled by alcohol went on a rampage

ers received advisory notices from the police

action, with Minister K. Shanmugam stating that

after the accident, pelting police with impro-

after initial investigations, and 45 were arrested.

repatriation decisions were also administrative

vised projectiles (such as a garbage can) and

Of these, 25 were deemed “active participants”

decisions of “time and expense” over judicial


process20. In response, Workfair Singapore said, “Justice should never be subordinated to cost or the possibility of abuse: the remedy is fine tuning procedures to make them more efficient.” 21 A

back-and-forth ensued between the

Ministry and activists, culminating in a letter published in the TODAY newspaper where the ministry stated that a foreign national subject to repatriation had “no right under [Singaporean] law to challenge the executive repatriation order in court.” The threat of arbitrary repatriation has always been an issue for foreign migrant workers. “Singapore has not ratified the crucial Convention 143 of the International Labour Organization, which protects the rights of


migrant workers from arbitrary deportation

this: a suggestion in April 2013 by the National

and guarantees due process,” says Braema

Development Minister to house workers on off-

Mathi, the President of local human rights group

shore islands was actually considered briefly.


cause of the riot. Ultimately, this inertia on both sides has led to a policy gridlock on the issue, with the

Actions, therefore, have been both heavy

government content to maintain and enforce

handed and piecemeal. “The MOM’s approach

an uneasy status quo. It shows a reluctance

[to many aspects of the issue] is discretionary,”

to commit to any specific policy path – be it

says Russell, president of local NGO Transient

minimum wage, an independent claims pro-

“Workers seem to have

Workers Count Too (TWC2). “Sometimes prac-

cess, or a rethinking of the fundamental eco-

a clear route to deporta-

tices are disallowed, and sometimes tolerated.”

nomics of cheap migrant labour. At the same

These also tend to be kneejerk reactions to ‘inci-

time, activists and civil society groups have

dents’ or concerns raised by activists in main-

to draw partial conclusions based on partial

stream and alternate media.

data, and are unable to make comprehensive

MARUAH. “Workers seem to have a clear route to deportation, but no clear route to justice.”

tion, but no clear route to justice.” Braema Mathi, President of local human rights group MARUAH

Activists point out that the language in the ministry’s response was also telling, projecting the impression that being in Singapore was a “privilege” accorded to the workers. Both the government’s post-riot rhetoric and policy response allow a glimpse into the long-term challenges and pitfalls of this issue. Framing the presence of foreign workers as the granting of a “privilege” ignores the fact that Singapore needs them desperately. The Housing and Development Board (HDB), among the largest employers of foreign construction workers, is ramping up building of new flats in order to meet a housing shortage – releasing 13,600 flats in 2013. In November, it made 8,952 flats available in a single launch, the largest in its history. This number is projected to more than double to 28,471 Built-to-Order flats in 2014. But there has been no equivalent rise in dormitory accommodation for workers, the supply of which still suffers from a severe shortfall and lack of quality control.22 Policy rhetoric in Singapore has always made a fundamental conceptualization of foreign workers as purely economic entities – a factor in a model. The language of ‘human rights’ or ‘moral imperatives’ that activists evoke has had no place in this discourse. Indicative of

In late January 2014, acting Manpower


Minister Tan Chuan-Jin cited a survey his min-

“The riots should have sparked a debate, a

istry had conducted in 2011, saying that “90

soul searching about what kind of society we

per cent of about 3,000 work permit holders

want to create for migrant workers,” says Jolovan

and 500 S-pass holders” were “satisfied” with

Wham of local NGO Humanitarian Organization

their stints in Singapore. There was no basis, he

for Migration Economics (HOME). “But it instead

added, to allege that widespread abuse of for-

may enhance social control mechanisms against

eign workers in Singapore was an underlying

migrants.” ATM


Migrant Workers and the Arts

in Singapore. So far, the project has produced short films, online vid-

Sai In 2008, a proposal to convert an unused school, the Serangoon

what they termed a ‘one-dimensional’ representation of Bangladeshi

Gardens Technical School, into a dormitory for foreign workers led

workers in Singapore.

eos and a photo exhibition at the Art House - hoping to add depth to

to an angry, intense opposition campaign by residents of the nearby

In March 2013, they also held an outdoor theatre production

Serangoon Gardens condominium. Over 1,600 households in the

in Little India called ‘Hard Times, Easy Money’ starring workers

vicinity signed a petition opposing the plan, arguing that housing

involved with a new cultural space called Dibashram. Located on the

foreign workers nearby would “create security and social problems

upper floor of a conserved shophouse in the middle of Little India,

and spoil the ambiance of the estate”.

Dibashram aims to run free programmes, recreational activities and

The Serangoon Gardens incident highlights an issue often

cultural events for and involving the migrant worker.

glossed over in policy debates: the social integration of workers

It’s also become a much-needed resting spot for workers on days

into Singaporean life, and their interactions with Singaporeans. The

off. A stream of workers go in and out of the airy studio space, taking

depiction of South Asian workers in popular culture is often reduced

naps during the day or picking up a local Bangla newspaper that’s

to stereotypes and racist caricatures, and they’re often marked as

edited and drafted there.

undesirable elements.

In September 2013, entrepreneur Adrianna Tan organized a

But a number of local artists and activists are working to change

“Biryani/Beriani” event where Singaporeans, expats and South

that – presenting both an alternative view of Singapore from the

Asian migrant workers shared Biriyani (a spicy rice-based dish),

worker’s point of view, and introducing Singapore to culture and

and swapped knowledge of the Indian subcontinent’s diversity of

traditions from countries like Bangladesh.

Biriyani traditions.

Little India has been a source of inspiration for many local pho-

Another photography project, InsideOut, provided migrant

tographers. Aikbeng Chia’s collection of street photos titled “Tonight

workers with basic photography skills and asked them to photo-

the Streets are Ours” looks at the eclectic, joyous, fiercely multicul-

graph their views of Singapore. The volunteer-run initiative was

tural street life of the neighbourhood.

inaugurated in 2005 and featured in exhibitions in 2009 and 2010.

In 2012, Joses Kuan, 26, Ng Yiqin, 24, and Bernice Wong, 24, started

In 2011, 25 migrant workers, including some residents of shelters run

a project called “Beyond the Borders, Behind the Men (BTBBTM)”, an

by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics (HOME),

online social initiative documenting the lives of Bangladeshi workers

participated in 10 intensive workshop sessions.


Charting the worker ecosystem by Krish Raghav It’s important to note here that the experience

and salary. This averages at S$ 600-800. “Since

As the workers begin their jobs, this asym-

of many migrant workers in Singapore is also

Singapore doesn’t have a minimum wage, I’ve

metry continues. Employers are allowed to repa-

extremely positive. In fact, the vast majority of

seen IPAs with salaries as low as S$ 400,” says

triate at will, and terminate workers for the flim-

workers finish 4-6 year stints in Singapore with-

TWC2’s Russell.

siest of reasons. Co-workers are often unwilling

out incident, send money home and return to

But once workers reach Singapore, they’re

to provide testimony in support of the accused

start businesses or take local jobs. Even some

sometimes given completely new contracts

worker for fear of suffering disadvantages in

injured workers, like 29-year old Prabhu who

(often with lower salaries) to sign. By this point,

their daily work routine. This creates a climate

suffered an accident after five years of construc-

they’ve already incurred a debt in getting placed

of fear and submission, accentuated by the

tion work in Singapore, successfully fought a

at the job and have no choice but to accept this

practice of hiring so-called ‘repatriation com-

compensation claim and won. “I’m going home

bait-and-switch, a practice called ‘Contract

panies’ that have been reported to harass and

in four months,” he says, content.

Substitution. “Contract Substitution is consid-

threaten ‘troublemakers’ or workers with ‘atti-

But this picture attributes economic ‘success’

ered illegal in many parts of the world,”, says

tude’ problems.24

as the sole signifier of a system that also causes

TWC2’s Russell Heng “But no Singaporean law is

In this climate, it’s no surprise that a web of

some fundamental psychological anxieties and

broken here. And the worker has no recourse. “

unsavory elements rears its head. Companies

deep alienation in workers. And at the heart

An additional obfuscation occurs with

sometimes hold on to workers’ wages as col-

of the problem, in both positive and negative

deductions to a worker’s base salary – costs

lateral for ‘good behaviour’, middlemen seduce

experiences, is a gigantic asymmetry in power

incurred for room and board or meals are some-

workers with illegal work that pays higher

in the worker ecosystem.

times not made transparent in initial contracts.

hourly rates, and documents like pay slips and

Before coming to Singapore, migrant work-

Once in Singapore, the lack of viable alternatives

contracts are often missing (their issuance is not

ers have to obtain what’s called an ‘in-princi-

means accepting the deductions, and a lowered

mandatory) or conveniently ‘lost’, making offi-

ple approval’ that mentions their employer

salary than expected.

cial complaints next to impossible. 25,26,27 ATM

Foreign workers enjoying a meal together on their day off (c) Latiff, H. (2014, January 5) more at: http://bit.ly/Latiff_set


A busy lane in the busy district of Little India, Singapore (c) Latiff, H. (2014, January 5) more at: http://bit.ly/Latiff_set

The data crunch

some basic numbers, such as the number of Indians, or Chinese workers among con-

The remarkable output of research and

struction workers overall. “ says HOME’s

analysis from Singapore’s NGOs that work

Jolovan Wham.

with migrant workers is despite access to

This puts commentators at a distinct

data, and not because of it. There is still a

disadvantage, and prevents answers to

huge data crunch, gaps in statistics and

questions that would really move the pol-

information that is not available to the

icy debate forward, such as the impact of


wages on HDB costs. “We often to find

“Information asymmetry is alive, and

clever work-arounds,” says Kum Hong.

very deliberately kept alive”, says Siew

“We may not have raw data, but we can

Kum Hong, the vice president of MARUAH.

always question the methodology, infer-

“The government therefore will always

ence and assumptions.”

have a strategic advantage in policy debates since they have all the data.”

MARUAH President Braema Mathi hopes to connect it to a larger issue of

Part of the problem is selective dis-

information and media freedom. “Until we

semination. The government picks what

have a Freedom of Information Act,” she

it releases, and even data is released

says, “data on issues like this will always

appears in aggregated form with no qual-

be held hostage to government interests.”

ifiers or context. “We don’t even have


The Bigger Picture by Krish Raghav There’s therefore a cluster of issues that migrants

many new projects unsustainable.28 A common

advocated an increase in Singapore’s popula-

face in Singapore today. First, a loose regulatory

rhetorical question asked at forums and work-

tion to 6.9 million.

framework that creates issues around work-

shops on the issue is ‘Are Singaporeans pre-

In 2010, Member of Parliament Yeo Guat

place safety, medical care and access to ser-

pared to pay more for their properties if wages

Kwang said the government was not looking at

vices. Second, a economic model that, without

go up?’ The answer, of course, is no – but in the

the migrant workers’ issue “from the perspec-

a minimum wage or frameworks for due pro-

absence of clear analytical data (See Box 4 on

tive of human rights”. “At the end of the day,” he

cess, stacks power structures heavily in favour

pp.20), it’s hard to gauge if this is the right ques-

said, “whatever factors would be able to help us

of employers. Third, a deepening lack of social

tion to ask.

to sustain the growth of the economy for the


The long term solutions of better integration

benefit of our countrymen…we will definitely

and greater labour mobility are also problematic

go for it.”30 The conflict at the heart of this issue

But the solutions are not that simple. The

– their effects are too nebulous to be of immedi-

isn’t one of competing policy options, but of

economic tweaks that would guarantee a mod-

ate political advantage, and their tone too sen-

competing perspectives. ATM

icum of security are opposed by construction

sitive in the wake of heavy protests against the

companies, who argue that rising wages make

recent government Population White Paper that

integration that creates issues around space, security and alienation.

Road construction workers during a night shift in Singapore (c) Latiff, H. (2014, January 5) more at: http://bit.ly/Latiff_set


References 1. Sciortina, R. & Punpuing, S. (2009). International Migration in Thailand 2009. International Organization for Migration, Bangkok: IOM 2009. 2. Paitoonpong, S. & Chalamwong, Y. (2012). Managing International Labour Migration in ASEAN: A Case of Thailand. Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). p.2 3. See endnote 2. 4. Martin, P. (2007). The economic contribution of migrant workers to Thailand: Towards policy development. International Labour Organization. 5. Chantavanich, S. (2007). Thailand Policies towards Migrant Workers from Myanmar. Paper presented at the APMRN Conference at Fujian Normal University, Fuzhou, PRC 26-28 May, 2007. 6. International Labour Organisation (2006). The Mekong Challenge – underpaid, overworked and overlooked. The realities of young migrant workers in Thailand (Volume 1). The Mekong Sub-regional Project to Combat Trafficking in Children andWomen. pp.6-7. 7. Huguet, J., et al. (2012). Thailand at a crossroads: Challenges and Opportunities in leveraging Migration for Development. Issue in Brief No.6. International Organisation for Migration and Migration Policy Institute. 8. See endnote 4. 9. Rattanarut, Nara (2006), 'Immigration Management and Administration in Thailand', (Department of Employment, Ministry of Labor Thailand). 10. See endnote 7. 11. Zimmermann, C. et al. (2011). Human trafficking and health: A conceptual model to inform policy, intervention and research. Social Science & Medicine, 73, pp.327-335. 12. International Labour Organization (2013). Employment practices and working conditions in Thailand’s fishing sector. GMS TRIANGLE PROJECT & Asian Research Center for Migration, Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University. pp.61-63. 13. International Rescue Committee (January 2012). Surviving or Thriving On the Thai-Burma Border: Vulnerability and Resilience in Mae Sot, Thailand. Executive Summary. p.3.

14. Huguet, J. (2007) Thailand's Policy Approach to Irregular Migration. Paper presented at Joint Conference on Managing Labour Migration in East Asia: Policies and Outcomes. Singapore Management University, May, Singapore, [online] available at: http://pstalker.com/ilo/resources/ Thailand%20-irregular%20Migration%20 Policies%20-%20Huguet.pdf 15. United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) (22 April 2009). Exploitation of Cambodian Men at Sea. Facts about the trafficking of Cambodian men onto Thai fishing boats. SIREN Case Analysis CB-03. p.4. 16. For cases similar to Arunachalam’s, read Satish Cheney, “Migrant Rights Under Spotlight in Singapore”, South China Morning Post, 19 December 2013 (http://www. scmp.com/news/asia/article/1386186/ migrants-rights-under-spotlight-singapore-after-little-india-riot) and the work of local NGO Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2): http://twc2.org.sg/category/ articles/stories/ 17. Kirsten Han. “Singapore’s Exploited Immigrant Workers”, The Daily Beast: 8 November 2013 (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/11/08/singapore-s-exploitedimmigrant-workers.html) 18. Eric Ellis, “In Singapore’s Shadows”, The Global Mail, 12 December 2013: http:// w w w. t h e g l o b a l m a i l . o r g / f e a t u r e / in-singapores-shadows/771/ 19. Jeanette Tan, “Singapore police seek more power to enforce public order in Little India”, Yahoo! News Singapore, 20 January 2014: http://sg.news.yahoo. com /singap ore - p o lice -se ek- more power-to-enforce-public-order-in-littleindia-074342356.html 20. Amir Hussain, “28 charged as police complete riot probe”, TODAY, 18 December 2013: http://www.todayonline.com/ singapore/28 - charged-police - complete-riot-probe?singlepage=true 21. Workfair Singapore, “Government’s Treatment of Deportees Undermines Security“, 24 December 2013: http://workfairsingapore.wordpress.com/2013/12/24/governments-treatment-of-deportees-undermines-security/ 22. According to reports in December 2012, there

are “There are about 20 companies in Singapore running 39 purpose-built dorms”, and an accreditation process for these dorms is still process. Cheryl Tay, “Dorm operators converge to raise standards”, Yahoo! News Singapore, 18 December 2012: http://sg.news.yahoo. com/dorm-operators-converge-raisestandards-052729190--sector.html 23. S Ramesh, “S'pore open to idea of housing foreign workers at offshore islands: Khaw”, Channel News Asia, 8 April 2013: ht tp://w w w.channelnewsasia.com/ news/singapore/s-pore-open-to-housing/631856.html 24. Jolovan Wham, “Repatriation Companies: Manpower Minister’s Responses Belittle the Efforts of Migrant Workers”, The Online Citizen, 30 November 2011: http:// www.theonlinecitizen.com/2011/11/ repartriation-companies-manpowerministers-response-belittles-the-effortsof-migrant-workers/ 25. Jolovan Wham, “Open Letter to Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin”, 8 January 2013: http://twc2.org.sg/2013/01/08/jolovanwham-writes-open-letter-to-manpowerminister/ 26. Kirsten Han. “Singapore’s Exploited Immigrant Workers”, The Daily Beast: 8 November 2013 (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/11/08/singapore-s-exploitedimmigrant-workers.html) 27. See TWC2’s list of collected casework here: http://twc2.org.sg/category/articles/ stories 28. Sumita Sreedharan, “More than just meeting numbers, HDB is delivering quality flats”, TODAY, 7 September 2013: http://www. todayonline.com/singapore/more-justmeeting-numbers-hdb-delivering-quality-flats 29. Praveen Randhawa, “Singapore’s legal system is firm, just and fair”, TODAY, 21 December 2013: http://www.todayonline.com/ voices/singapores-legal-system-firm-justand-fair?singlepage=true 30. Kirsten Han. “Singapore’s Exploited Immigrant Workers”, The Daily Beast: 8 November 2013 (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/11/08/singapore-s-exploitedimmigrant-workers.html)




Principal Investigators

Research Associates

Phua Kai Hong is a tenured professor at the LKY School

Johannes Loh is working as a Research Associate at

of Public Policy and formerly held a joint appointment as

the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He holds

Associate Professor and Head, Health Services Research

a Master’s degree in Public Policy from the Hertie

Unit in the Faculty of Medicine. He is frequently con-

School of Public Policy in Berlin, and a Bachelor of Arts

sulted by governments within the region and interna-

in Integrated Social Science from Jacobs University

tional organisations, including the Red Cross, UNESCAP,

Bremen. His previous research experience includes aid

WHO and World Bank. He has lectured and published

governance, visual political communication and pub-

widely on policy issues of population aging, health-

lic sector reform in developing countries. Prior to join-

care management and comparative health systems in

ing the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy he has also

the emerging economies of Asia. He is the current Chair of the Asia-Pacific Health

worked for the United Nations Environment Programme in Geneva, Transparency

Economics Network (APHEN), founder member of the Asian Health Systems Reform

International Nepal, and the Centre on Asia and Globalisation in Singapore. His email

Network (DRAGONET), Editorial Advisory Board Member of Research in Healthcare

is johannes.loh@nus.edu.sg and you can follow his updates on trends in pro-poor

Financial Management and an Associate Editor of the Singapore Economic Review.

policies in the region on Twitter @AsianTrendsMon.

His email address is spppkh@nus.edu.sg T S Gopi Rethinaraj joined the Lee Kuan Yew School

Sue Helen Nieto is a Research Associate at the Lee

of Public Policy as Assistant Professor in July 2005.

Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. She holds a Master’s

He received his PhD in nuclear engineering from the

in Public Policy with a specialization in Social and

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Before

Environmental Policy from the Lee Kuan Yew School of

coming to Singapore, he was involved in research and

Public Policy, and a Bachelor in Political Science from the

teaching activities at the Programme in Arms Control,

Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico. Previously,

Disarmament and International Security, a multi-disciplin-

she worked for the Mexican Ministry of the Environment

ary teaching and research programme at Illinois devoted

where she focused on environmental crime and climate

to military and non-military security policy issues. His

change. She has also served as a consultant for Oxfam

doctoral dissertation, “Modeling Global and Regional Energy Futures,” explored the

Indonesia and WWF India. Her research interests include climate change mitigation

intersection between energy econometrics, climate policy and nuclear energy futures.

and adaptation, disaster governance, and program evaluation.

He also worked as a science reporter for the Mumbai edition of The Indian Express from 1995 to 1999, and has written on science, technology, and security issues for various Indian and British publications. In 1999, he received a visiting fellowship from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Chicago, for the investigative reporting on South Asian nuclear security. His current teaching and research interests include energy security, climate policy, energy technology assessment, nuclear fuel cycle policies and international security. He is completing a major research monograph "Historical Energy Statistics: Global, Regional, and National Trends since Industrialisation" to be published in Summer 2012. His email address is spptsgr@nus.edu.sg


The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy is an autonomous, professional graduate school of the National University of Singapore. Its mission is to help educate and train the next generation of Asian policymakers and leaders, with the objective of raising the standards of governance throughout the region, improving the lives of its people and, in so doing, contribute to the transformation of Asia. For more details on the LKY School, please visit www.spp.nus.edu.sg

ATM #24 The Foreign Worker Dilemma  

In the last decade the number of foreign workers has shot up in an attempt to fill such labour shortages and keep up impressive GDP growth....

ATM #24 The Foreign Worker Dilemma  

In the last decade the number of foreign workers has shot up in an attempt to fill such labour shortages and keep up impressive GDP growth....