In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, Singapore was held up as a role model for its battle against the coronavirus. In the words of WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Singapore’s public health response was “leaving no stone unturned”. By April, however, Singapore’s blind spot became startlingly clear. For all its strengths, Singapore’s government had neglected a community vital, yet peripheral, to Singaporean society - its over 300,000 migrant workers.
Singapore was soon struggling to contain an infection spread centred around foreign worker dormitories. After reporting single-digit numbers daily in February, by April Singapore had the highest number of reported COVID-19 infections in Southeast Asia. By May 17, Reuters reported that the number of confirmed cases in foreign worker dormitories had reached 25,535 - 90% of the total.
In early April, Singapore’s government formed an inter-agency task force to, in the words of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, “handle the situation in the dorms”. The task force set up medical facilities and triage clinics, provided food and WiFi for workers stuck in dormitories, isolated infected patients in specially designated facilities, and conducted large-scale testing of up to 3000 persons per day. The high testing rate is undoubtedly a factor, but case numbers in foreign worker dormitories continued to soar. As of 18 July 2020, Singapore has recorded 47,655 cases in a country of about 5.8 million, with 44,906 cases, or 94%, detected in foreign worker dormitories.
Here, Army Medical Services personnel attend to a foreign worker at a medical facility set up within the dormitories.
Singapore’s wave of COVID-19 infections has finally drawn the country’s attention to the plight of its migrant labor population, catalysing much-needed reflection from Singapore’s government and its citizens. But who are Singapore’s migrant workers? Why are they needed? How do they live? This week, we spotlight these migrant workers and the myriad challenges they face.
Who Are Singapore’s Migrant Workers?
新加坡客工一般指来自印度、孟加拉国或者中国的低收入工人，他们通过申请工作准证（work permit）来到新加坡，大多从事建筑和保洁相关的“脏、累、险”工作，又被称为“3D（dirty, dangerous or difficult）”工作。和颁发给所谓高端人才的工作签证（work visa）不同，工作准证是专门为从事对技能要求较低的“低端”劳动力设置的，而且对持证者的限制更多：他们不可以带家人一起来新加坡，只能通过企业申请工作准证，且在持证期间不能变更工作。因为不能更换工作，雇主若无理剥削，客工也无从伸冤。在这样不平等的制度之下，客工这一群体在新加坡社会的边缘化也不足为奇了。
In Singapore, the term “migrant worker” refers to low-wage laborers who hail largely from India, Bangladesh, and China. They hold Work Permits, a visa category that affords fewer privileges than the work visas given to highly skilled “expatriates”. Work Permit holders are, for example, not allowed to bring family with them to Singapore or to switch jobs, which leaves them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by their employers. Most of them work in construction or public sanitation, jobs that most Singaporeans characterize as “3D” (dirty, dangerous or difficult). Due to the structural inequalities built into this employment system, migrant workers tend to lead a marginalized existence in Singaporean society.
Why Does Singapore Rely on Migrant Workers?
Singapore’s demand for migrant workers is largely fueled by two key drivers: a shrinking domestic population and a local aversion to so-called “3D” jobs. Singapore’s fertility rate has been falling for the past 20 years, and at 1.16% registers as one of the lowest in the world. This has caused Singapore’s already-limited population to shrink, resulting in more job openings than the local population is able to fill alone. Singapore’s economy thus relies heavily on migrant labor, particularly for “3D jobs” that most Singaporeans would refuse to consider. But while jobs in the construction or public sanitation sectors are generally seen as undesirable by Singaporeans, they nevertheless constitute essential functions that support Singapore’s economy. For example, a 2004 survey by the Ministry of Trade and Industry found that between 1992 and 1994, migrant workers’ contribution to Singapore economic growth was almost 30%.
How Are Migrant Workers Treated?
Despite Singapore’s reliance on migrant workers, their relationship with the Singaporean community is tenuous, marred by racism and xenophobia. Discontent with the influx of low-wage migrant laborers was a key issue in the country’s 2011 general election, causing the government to tighten its immigration and foreign labor policies. Even today, Singaporeans are still not open to migrant labor: surveys show that just one in four Singaporeans says there is a need for migrant workers, even though seven in ten agree that there is a labor shortage.
Migrant workers do not just face social ostracization - they also live on the physical periphery of the local community. Unfounded concerns about the safety of the elderly, the young, and property devaluation fueled a “not in my backyard” mentality that kept workers on the periphery of local residential estates.
In December 2013, the government ordered the construction of additional worker dormitories after some 300 migrant workers rioted following the death of a fellow worker in a bus accident (the first instance of such unrest in 40 years). Neighborhood residents subsequently decried the behavior of migrant workers living in the area, prompting the government to build dormitories with more attached facilities so that workers would not have to venture into areas where Singaporeans live. “Dormitory-based provision shops, especially if reasonably priced, could also encourage some workers to stay at their dormitory rather than travel out to a congregation area,” said a 2014 investigative committee report. Now, seven years later, these dormitories have become epicenters of Singapore’s COVID-19 crisis, validating early - and unheeded - warnings from NGOs and healthcare experts that they can easily become hotbeds of transmission.
How Do Migrant Workers Live?
Approximately 300,000 migrant workers are split between Singapore’s 43 mega-dormitories, 1,200 factory-converted dormitories, and temporary living quarters on construction sites. Their rooms—which often house over ten people—are sometimes unsanitary and poorly ventilated. With neither kitchens nor time to cook, migrant workers pay a substantial amount of their salaries for catered food that is often spoiled and lacking in nutrients.
Nevertheless, with greater social awareness and media coverage of their plight, the situation for migrant workers has started to improve. The government has acknowledged its initial oversight, and many sympathetic Singaporeans have been galvanized to help. Of course, prejudice still exists: for example, an April 13 letter to the Editor published in Zaobao, Singapore’s most popular Chinese-language daily newspaper, blamed the COVID-19 outbreak on migrant workers’ personal hygiene and cultural habits. However, the storm of criticism this incited, including comments from Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam, suggests that mainstream opinion no longer tolerates such xenophobia. Sentiment on the ground does indeed appear to be shifting, although whether this will last beyond the current crisis remains to be seen.
A Worldwide Problem
Looking beyond Singapore, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the plight of low-wage migrants around the world, many of whom lack basic rights, healthy living conditions, and access to quality healthcare. In Germany, cramped, squalid living quarters and overcrowded buses used to ferry workers might have contributed to the infection of hundreds of Eastern Europeans working in abattoirs. Countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have deported Ethiopian workers by the thousands over COVID-19 concerns. In Thailand, thousands of migrant workers from neighboring Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia found themselves stranded without employment or aid when the government closed all of its borders to inbound and outbound travel. Because most social welfare measures are linked to permanent places of residence, migrant workers could not access aid to purchase daily necessities. With no work or food, thousands walked home - sometimes more than 1000km. Many died of heat, hunger, fatigue, or road accidents.
The migrant worker crisis also reflects globalization’s double-faced nature. The very existence of the migrant worker phenomenon is itself a result of the global redistribution of human capital, which has created communities that have made extraordinary contributions to the economic development of each country they appear in. However, many have not managed to reap the rewards of their sacrifices. The plight of migrant workers and the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic are interconnected global challenges that present new governance issues for all countries. We can only hope that the collective attention the pandemic has drawn to migrant worker communities will outlast the current crisis, and will result in a renewed commitment to ensure equitable treatment for those who build and maintain the very foundation that cities like Singapore stand upon.