No basis for allegations of widespread abuse: Chuan-Jin

SINGAPORE- There is no basis for saying that there is widespread and systemic abuse of foreign workers in Singapore and that it was a reason for the riot in Little India, said Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin yesterday.

Foreign workers here are, by and large, treated well by their employers and Singaporeans, he said in a ministerial statement in Parliament, and the problems and complaints by foreign workers are restricted to a very small fraction of work permit holders here.

"I believe that the situation is generally good, but it is not perfect. There is always room for improvement," said Mr Tan.

He pointed to figures showing that his ministry helped some 7,000 foreign workers with difficulties last year, or less than 1 per cent of the 700,000 work permit holders. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) referred about 640 cases of mistreatment, or less than 0.1 per cent of work permit holders.

"I therefore find it puzzling as to how some individuals can so quickly conclude or criticise that there is widespread and systemic abuse of the foreign workforce; or that these were the reasons for the riot."

The minister was responding to questions from MPs such as Nominated MPs Teo Siong Seng and Mary Liew, who had asked about how foreign workers were treated here.

Some NGOs had claimed that the abuse of foreign workers was a cause of the violence. Mr Tan rejected these allegations, saying: "We do not think that there is a basis for these assertions but we do look forward to the COI's perspective on the matter."

He was referring to the Committee of Inquiry set up to investigate the causes of the riot.

The Indian High Commissioner to Singapore said in the aftermath of the riot that there was no discontent among the Indian community of foreign workers in Singapore as well, Mr Tan pointed out.

Nonetheless, the Government will continue to go after errant employers, he pledged, and continue its "strong enforcement stance".

Mr Tan also announced that more recreational centres will be built for foreign workers. These centres will provide amenities such as remittance services, supermarkets and sports facilities that dormitories may not be able to provide.

There are now four such centres at Jurong, Woodlands and Kaki Bukit. Mr Tan did not elaborate on how many more new centres will be built or where they will be located.

But these centres will never fully replace shared spaces such as Little India, which evolved over time to cater to the physical and emotional needs of foreign workers, Mr Tan stressed.

"Foreign workers need a place to come together... catch up on news from the village, have a taste of food from home, meet friends, relatives from across the island for the few precious hours that they have... Recreation centres can try, but I don't believe that they can always meet these psychological and emotional needs."

Mr Tan said the Government will continue to monitor closely the overall number of foreign workers and their impact on the communities they interact with.

"Importantly, we must also continue to enhance the management of their well-being."

When asked by Ms Tin Pei Ling (Marine Parade GRC) on what the Government is doing about the "unfair portrayal" of Singapore in the foreign media, Mr Tan replied: "We will continue to put up our positions. How the foreign media chooses to carry it really depends on them."

But the minister pledged that he would continue to work with NGOs, though some of their representatives have hit out at the Government. He added: "I would believe that the views of some of these individuals may not necessarily reflect (those of) the NGOs themselves.

"I fully understand where the NGOs are coming from... So we will continue to work with the NGOs."

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