Give foreign workers a fair deal

Give foreign workers a fair deal
The COI found that some purpose-built dormitories provide mandatory free Wi-Fi, mini-marts and canteens as well as air-conditioned TV rooms and gyms, surpassing global standards.But many other foreign workers live in much less comfort. Their accommodation ranges from converted factories and temporary quarters near construction sites to rented Housing Board flats and shipping “container blocks”.

It is no surprise that the Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the Little India riot concluded that it did not think foreign workers' dissatisfaction over employment and living conditions caused the mayhem and damage of last Dec 8.

Its 75-page report made public last week confirmed what many observers suspected: that the riot was not a premeditated expression of worker woes, but the result of a combustible confluence of several factors including spontaneous anger and misunderstandings after a fatal traffic accident, alcohol and, later, police lapses.

Even so, the committee clarified that while work or housing woes were not the cause of this riot, "this is not to say that a riot may never occur on this basis".

That's something the authorities and employers should heed, given the growing numbers of foreign workers in Singapore. As of last December, there were more than 770,000 foreign workers, excluding domestic maids. That number is 100,000 more than in 2010.

While most workers say they are happy in Singapore, the committee acknowledged that there are some who face "real difficulties in their employment or living situation", especially those employed by errant firms which withhold pay, make workers live in substandard accommodation or refuse them medical leave.

After acknowledging the work done by non-governmental organisations to help these workers, the report went on to make some sensible and practical suggestions on ways to improve the lives of foreign workers here (see box).

High foreign employment agency fees is one key issue that must be tackled to improve workers' well-being, suggests the COI. Such costs often put the workers into heavy debt for significant periods of time.

The report did not go into specifics, but migrant worker advocates say they see workers who have paid up to $9,000 in fees to middlemen and recruitment agents to secure a job here.

A 2012 survey by welfare group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) showed that a fifth of Bangladeshi workers could be returning home without even recovering recruitment costs which, at an average of $7,500, came to more than 17 months of a beginner's average basic pay.

While the Ministry of Manpower regulates the fees charged by employment agents in Singapore, it is unable to do the same with agents registered overseas, points out the COI report, adding: "However, the COI hopes that something can be done, perhaps on a bilateral basis, to improve this situation for foreign workers."

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