SINGAPORE - While dormitories built especially for foreign workers await occupants, some employers choose to house them in cheap and makeshift shelters that look unfit for human habitation.
It is this image of heartlessness that was captured by a Straits Times report last week, accompanied by a photograph of workers living in conditions common in a squalid Third World slum, not First World, high-rise Singapore. Ministry of Manpower officers conducted a check on the site after the report was published, and hundreds of workers were told to move out.
However, it is unlikely that every such story gets this attention or will have a similar ending. Housing workers in this way cuts costs to boost profits, a logic that will continue to entice some employers in even as lucrative an industry as construction. They are emboldened by the workers' inability to negotiate better housing terms because of the fear that they will be sent home. To be fair, they also face market pressures, since many buyers of homes are price-conscious and not all are willing to bear higher costs to ensure that their homes are built by workers who have been treated decently.
A decisive solution would be provided by legislation obliging employers to house foreign workers in purpose-built dorms, to provide a level playing field. An intermediary approach would limit the numbers allowed to live in makeshift dorms. There also are severe penalties by way of fines and even jail terms for employers who fail to provide acceptable accommodation for their foreign workers.
All these options should be kept open in a calibrated effort to tackle recalcitrant bosses whose workers live in substandard conditions.
However, culture can be as strong a force for change as the law. Employers are more likely to behave humanely if they operate in a society that treats foreign workers as people first and employees second, and which believes that those who literally build Singapore have some claim to decent living conditions here.
This article was first published on August 26, 2014.
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