Foreign workers: Apart and invisible?

Two worlds collided in Little India on the night of Dec 8.

The world we know is back in full control.

The charred remains of the violent riot have been cleared.

The police investigation and court proceedings are under way.

The Committee of Inquiry has been formed.

The leaders have spoken, as have Singaporeans online and offline.

Order has been restored.

No matter how isolated the event was, it was traumatic for both worlds when, in that brief, mad moment, the two, locked in battle, became one.

But today, they are as distant as ever, perhaps even more so.

Let's face it - Singapore needs large numbers of cheap foreign workers to do the work its citizens do not want.

But beyond this economic contribution, there isn't much interest in what they do, how they cope here and what problems they face.

Contribute to the economy but keep out of our way of life.

That is why there was an uproar among Serangoon Gardens residents when they found out that a foreign-worker dormitory was to be built in their estate.

That dorm is now completed, housing 600 workers, but there is a specially built road leading to it, cut off from the neighbourhood, so the two worlds do not meet.

You couldn't ask for a more apt symbol of the segregation between the two communities.

Perhaps that's what foreign workers want too - they know their stay here is transient, and prefer to be among themselves and do their own thing.

But even if Singaporeans do not want to mix with these communities, we ought to have a deeper understanding of who these people are, what brought them here, how they are doing and what issues they face.

I asked some volunteers who help these workers what Singaporeans should know about these people, particularly those from India who are mainly employed in the construction industry.

This is the gist of what they tell me: Contrary to popular belief, the workers do not come from the poorest segments of the sub-continent. If they did, they would not have been able to raise the money to pay labour agents there to help them secure jobs here.

Another common misperception - they are not illiterate and poorly educated.

For a typical Indian worker looking for his first job, the agents charge $3,000 to $5,000.

With a monthly salary that can be as low as $700, many have to take up to a year just to repay the loans they have had to incur.

It gets better with the second and subsequent contracts when the fees are lower - around $3,000. Their pay also goes up because of their experience, with many getting more than $1,000.

It's a tough life here - they work six to seven days a week in the hot sun, often in sites that have less-than-ideal safety conditions.

Many work extra hours beyond the legally allowed limit, to get maximum overtime pay.

What issues do these workers face here?

According to volunteer group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), their top complaints are: unpaid salaries, wages paid as "loans" that have to be paid back, unilateral deduction of previously agreed pay for various items such as levies, and unauthorised work for other companies.

One contentious issue that activists have raised is the law that binds a worker to the company that hires him. He cannot leave unless the company agrees to the request. If he quits, he will likely be sent back, which will be financially ruinous for most.

Critics argue that this makes workers vulnerable to exploitative companies.

On the flip side, all foreign workers are protected under the same Employment Act that governs Singaporean workers, and this is enforced by the Manpower Ministry.

To its credit, the ministry is now more open and willing to help resolve some of these issues, volunteers say.

Singapore should do more to acknowledge and support the work of these volunteers and their organisations. They include Migrant Workers' Centre, TWC2, Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics and Archdiocesan Commission for Pastoral Care of Migrant and Itinerant People.

They operate with limited budgets in an area with little public support. But for a foreign worker in an unfamiliar setting, up against an errant company or stricken with illness, the help they offer may make all the difference in the world.

As Singapore restructures its economy to operate at a higher level, the role played by its large foreign-worker population needs to be reviewed.

They can become highly productive and motivated workers, given the right conditions and incentives, and if we change our attitudes towards them.

But if we continue to treat them as low-skilled economic digits, with whom we want to have as little to do as possible, they will deliver accordingly.

Then we deserve to suffer the consequences.

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