On TWC2’s Fight for Equitable Treatment for Migrant Workers
Conversations | By Xenia Chan, Creative Editor
Singapore has 848,200 Work Permit holders with most working in the sectors of domestic work, construction, marine shipyard, and process .
These migrant workers contribute significantly to the country’s development, especially considering the relative shortage of manpower in the aforementioned sectors due to an ageing population, low birth rate, and a preference among Singaporeans for professional, managers, executives and technicians (PMET) jobs .
Yet, our country’s treatment of migrant workers does not seem to reflect their importance in our society.
Migrant workers face numerous challenges, including a lack of minimum wage, legislative protection, and governmental economic support when fighting for injury compensation, with the issue of housing most recently in the limelight .
From the 1970s to today, events such as the 2006 Housing Development Board (HDB) rule change and the 2008 Serangoon Gardens Petition have changed the situation of migrant worker housing from rented HDB flats and private homes to large, self-contained purpose-built dormitories, typically located far from Singapore’s urban centres .
Recent news have once again called attention to the plight of Singapore’s migrant workers - from the March 2020 outbreak of COVID-19 cases in migrant worker dormitories  and the two lorry incidents that left two migrant workers dead , to the abuse of and subsequent death of a domestic worker from Myanmar .
In light of these incidents and discussions on the welfare of migrant workers in our country, you may have heard of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a local Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) dedicated to improving conditions for low-wage migrant workers here in Singapore.
The Convergence spoke with co-founder of TWC2, Mr Alex Au, to find out his thoughts on the current and future state of migrant workers in Singapore.
The fight for justice
TWC2 was founded in 2004 following the death of a domestic worker from “serious abuse” by her employer in Singapore. The co-founders had been “very moved” by the specific incident, but back then “the overall attitude [regarding such cases] was that of shrugging off”, according to Alex.
The organisation was then established as an NGO with the foremost goals of bringing to light the roots of problems faced by migrant workers, and to help them navigate Singapore’s bureaucratic systems to achieve just resolutions to their problems.
In pursuit of these goals, it also provides humanitarian services such as securing food, shelter, phone top-ups and even medical care for migrant workers, which many lack access to.
Sharing some of the plights faced by migrant workers, Alex tells us that their fundamental human rights are often not upheld, and that “injustice prevails very often in our country”.
For instance, many migrant workers frequently experience being overworked and unpaid with their employers disregarding signed contracts, a lack of access to medical care, and even confiscation of their personal possessions.
However, these are but just some of the many challenges that TWC2 has had to tackle.
Initially, funding had been “a bit of a problem” when the organisation was still “very small” and “unknown”, but this has become less of an issue as it gained a reputation over the years.
Now, the main challenge for the organisation - which Alex says has been present from the “very beginning” - is in “getting the powers to pay attention [to criticisms on migrant workers’ problems]” and “to recognise that critical commentary has value in itself.”
The problem of power
Alex points out that “power is one of the most critical factors that determine how things operate.”
He attributes the obstacles that migrant workers face, as well as those in the organisation’s fight for justice, to that of power.
Alex believes that the active, passive and performative use of power empowers the state to establish laws and policies that either result in a lack of protection for migrant workers, inadequately address their problems, or comprise loopholes that allow employers and/or recruiters to bypass/exploit them to their advantage.
To elaborate his point, Alex shares that the active use of power refers to “when the state empowers one segment, or maybe itself to exercise control or power over another segment”.
On the other hand, the passive use of power refers to the situation “where the state has a power to correct a problem but chooses either to pretend it doesn’t see the problem or chooses not to do anything about it”.
Lastly, the performative use of power is “where the state recognises … a problem or pretends to recognise that there is a problem” and “passes some regulation but doesn’t enforce it”
To exemplify this, he cites three laws and policies addressing common experiences encountered by migrant workers.
The first is the law warranting employers’ right to terminate. Though the right to terminate employment holds true even for Singaporean employees, the law also mandates that foreign workers are to be repatriated upon termination of their employment.
With this increased job insecurity owing to the double fear of losing their job and being repatriated, employers hold enormous power over the livelihoods of these low-wage migrant workers.
For example, workers are often unable to refuse requests from their bosses to perform unsafe work because to the workers, “the tiny safety risks over [their lives] … [are] a better gamble than the certainty or near certainty of getting fired.”
These circumstances are often what persuade many of them to put up with injustice and not stand up for their own rights.
The second is the lack of appropriate laws and policies protecting migrant workers from paying excessive sums of money to attain a job in Singapore.
Alex tells us that the problem of exorbitant recruitment fees amounting to $8,000 or $10,000 is a commonly-known fact, yet laws surrounding this issue often prove to require evidential bars that are too high or issues are claimed to be outside of Singapore’s jurisdiction.
Expounding on this, Alex explains that recruitment deals are often performed “under the table”, which by nature does not leave an evidential trail. This renders our criminal justice system ineffective in countering the problem, since it relies on conventional evidential proof.
The justification that transactions were made “outside [Singapore’s] jurisdiction” is also commonly used. But Alex tells us that transactions are often performed by Singaporean HR managers, and that “[t]here’s nothing that says that international law … recognises such hard and fast rules about jurisdiction.”
As such, these reasons are merely “excuses” and a conscious decision is made to not do anything about it.
International laws regarding jurisdiction are often more flexible than they are made to be, making the lack of appropriate laws a deliberate decision.
Despite recognising the existence of common problems faced by migrant workers, there remains a lack of appropriate and sufficient laws and policies to address and prevent these problems from happening.
The third is the law mandating a “one rest day per week” rule for foreign domestic workers in Singapore.
Despite the implementation of this law, employers have the option to provide extra payment in lieu of providing one rest day per week.
Foreign domestic workers often do not reject accepting this extra payment in lieu of many consecutive weeks of working - in large part due to the ‘first problem’ of the right of the employer to terminate - out of fear of losing their jobs.
Loopholes in laws and policies that allow employers and recruiters to bypass the intention of those mechanisms thus often result in the lack of protection for migrant workers.
Alex hence emphasises that the greatest challenge for migrant workers and TWC2 in helping them, is that they are “repeatedly up against situations where the roots of the problem are inexorably and ineluctably traced to the question of power”.
Countering the “bad employer” narrative
In addressing the source of problems faced by migrant workers, many commentators may also attribute it to the actions of employers.
However, Alex offers an alternative view that employers are actually at the mercy of the circumstances created by the system in place.
He tells us that he is “very careful” not to hold private actors responsible for many of the problems faced by the migrant workers, as he thinks they are simply “making logical economic choices, that turned out to be morally suspect … given a certain landscape, which is created by bigger powers.”
In other words, employers - especially small businesses and contractors - are sometimes compelled to make these morally unsound cost-saving decisions as they themselves struggle to make their businesses profitable and to stay in business.
Calling employers “small [shrimps] in the landscape”, Alex emphasises that the onus of crafting policy solutions to address the problems faced by migrant workers should fall on the government, as they are the “main actors of the world.”
As such, the government should take on the main responsibility to create a landscape that allows employers to make better decisions.
Covid-19 outbreak in migrant worker dormitories
On the explosion of Covid-19 cases in foreign worker dormitories last year, Alex expressed both agreements and disagreements with the way the situation was managed.
Alex acknowledged the difficulty of handling such an unprecedented pandemic, recognising the rationales behind the decisions made by the government in the early stages of the situation.
For instance, Alex cites the example of having to quarantine around 300,000 migrant workers living in dormitories, which he sees as a mere extension of the general practice of quarantining a household when one member gets infected.
He also recognises that the government had to make a tough decision to send workers back to their dormitories despite showing symptoms of Covid-19 as they lacked sufficient beds to isolate so many cases in such a short period of time.
Despite this, Alex has two main criticisms on the handling of the crisis.
First, addressing the causes which led to the outbreak of the virus in dormitories, he questioned the lack of policies regulating minimum standards for migrant worker dormitories.
Although a Foreign Worker Dormitory Act was passed in 2015, it was purportedly ineffectual as the law excluded small and medium sized dormitories with less than 1,000 workers, and also required a commissioner to oversee the implementation of the law - a position that was never filled.
As a result, employers had the liberty to house their workers in overcrowded conditions to reduce costs for their businesses, which later created the “perfect recipe” for the spread of the virus.
Emphasising that it once again comes down to the lack of laws and policies in ensuring the protection of migrant workers’ rights, Alex explains that one reason employers have to save costs is due to the high taxes required to hire foreign workers.
As mandated by the Foreign Worker Levy, employers are required to pay a monthly levy to the government for every foreign worker hired.
The cost of the levy is very high in comparison to the foreign workers’ wages, and it forms a big part of the employers’ cost to hire foreign workers. As this cost is then passed down to the workers, it can be seen as though they are made to pay a high income tax to the government, often even approaching 50% of their salary.
Another criticism Alex gave was the slow lifting of restrictions despite the reduction of Covid-19 infections within dormitories.
Although the cases of Covid-19 were largely reduced in October last year, the government continued to impose confinement rules on dormitory workers which allowed them to only leave their dormitories for work but not for leisure activities.
Alex expressed his disappointment with Singapore, elaborating that such decisions are telling that migrant workers are seen “purely as economic objects” without recognition of their dignity and human rights, and this reveals a lot about us as a people and as a nation.
Moving forward: Role of Singaporeans
On how Singaporeans can do our part for the migrant worker community, Alex stresses the need to go beyond the question of providing “care and welfare” for our migrant workers, and highlights how we should address and question the more fundamental problems in the system.
He challenges all of us to “question our own assumptions [and] the value system of the structures that we have imbibed unquestioningly” in addition “to open[ing] our eyes to the pernicious effects of the way power is used to benefit some and to disadvantage others.” Specifically, he pinpoints the importance of developing “a better appreciation of political and economic structures that create all these very ugly trade-offs that are emblematic of Singapore.”
Amidst headlines in mainstream media like “Singapore Is Trying to Forget Migrant Workers Are People”  and “Singapore’s Migrant Workers Deserve Better Than To Be Ferried Like Livestock” , it is thus perhaps more crucial than ever that Singapore - including the government, employers and citizens - rethinks the way migrant workers are to be treated and valued.
About the interviewee:
After a career in the corporate sector Mr Alex Au joined TWC2 in 2011, and for many years served as Treasurer. His first involvement in civil society began some twenty years prior, when he was prominent in Singapore’s LGBT movement. He is also known in Singapore as a socio-political commentator and human rights activist, and has contributed chapters to various books on politics and society. At TWC2, Alex has special responsibility for a number of portfolios: communications, internal data and case management systems, and international relations.