Thursday, February 10, 2011

Singapore and Foreign Workers

Chinese migrants, among others, face difficult problems, a new report says

Foreign workers in Singapore – some 200,000 of them Chinese migrants, work long hours for low pay in frequently hazardous conditions and are often abused by employers and labor contractors, according to a new research report published by the China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based NGO.

"Many have to endure abuse, discrimination and violations of their rights but few can obtain legal redress," the report says. "Their movements, behavior and even their ‘moral conduct,' are tightly controlled by their boss, who can terminate their employment and send them back to China at anytime and without any justification."

As Singapore has climbed steadily up the per capita income ladder in Asia, its 3.77 million residents, as measured by the 2010 census, have increasingly turned to foreign nationals from other countries to do the work they don't want to do. Depending on who is doing the counting, Singapore ranks either first in Asia, with annual per capita income of US$42,653 (the International Monetary Fund) or second after Japan at US$36,537 (the World Bank).

In addition, all of the island's statistics, as recorded by the CIA World Factbook, run to Singapore's detriment. Its birth rate, at 8.65 per 1,000 of population, ranks it 217th of 221 countries in the world. Its net migration rate, at 4.79 per 1,000, ranks it 15th in the world. Its population growth rate, at .0862 percent, ranks it 131st in the world. Thus foreign workers are integral to the conduct of the economy. With 76 percent of its residents ethnic Chinese, workers from the mainland are desirable.

With a total population of 5.07 million, roughly 1.3 million people in Singapore are in the foreign work force, raising concerns that the country is starting to resemble the oil-rich Gulf sheikhdoms in which low-paid overseas workers allow citizens to enjoy lives of ease. The numbers of foreign workers in Singapore have led to rising irritation on the part of Singaporeans themselves, who complain that foreign workers are taking opportunity away from them. In the low-paid construction and other manual labor jobs, however, employers complain that they can't find Singaporeans who want to do manual labor, especially at the pay rates they offer.

Although the émigrés include highly-paid foreign bankers, professionals and business executives, they are far outweighed by the maids and other low income workers. Non-citizens now comprise 36 percent of the population compared with 14 percent in 1990.

The traditional source of workers is Malaysia. But workers are drawn from Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Burma, Philippines, Sri Lanka or Pakistan), north-east Asia (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and South Korea) and the People's Republic of China, according to the report, titled Hired on Sufferance: China's Migrant Workers in Singapore, and written by researcher Aris Chan.

"Given historical ties, Malaysian workers are subject to fewer restrictions than workers of other nationalities," the report notes. "Malaysians can find work while they are already in Singapore, and are generally treated better than other migrant workers in terms of wages, working hours and conditions."

Singapore, the report notes, is one of the most popular destinations for Chinese workers seeking a higher income or career advancement through employment abroad. "But for the more than 200,000 Chinese workers currently employed in Singapore, realizing their dreams depends to a very large extent on sheer luck and whether or not the job and salary they signed up for is the one they actually get."

The report details the substantial fees equivalent to one to two years of salary at home that Chinese workers have to pay just to get into the country. Many are forced to sign employment contracts that contain onerous conditions and even illegal clauses which essentially placed them at the mercy of their employer. Once they arrive in Singapore, their passports are routinely confiscated. They are often forced to live in what is called appalling conditions. Access to medical care is often curtailed. Although injured workers are entitled to work-related compensation, often they are coerced by their employers to not apply.

The report in fact opens with the case of a construction worker named Cui Zhaowei, who had paid 28,000 yuan (US$4,200) to a labor contractor to get the job. Two months after he arrived in Singapore, he was disabled after being hit in the head in a work accident. Eight months later, he had received no compensation and no refund to the agent. He had no option but to return to his home in Shandong, suffering from headaches and cognitive impairment.

Although Singapore's main labor laws offer reasonable protection and on paper apply to both migrant and local workers, "discrimination against migrant workers is both widespread and open," the report notes. "Rights violations are frequently reported in the Singaporean newspapers, and a mere scan of recruitment advertisements shows that long working hours without overtime payment are the norm for migrant workers."

The 60-page report outlines a series of recommendations that the Chinese and Singaporean governments should take to improve the working conditions and safeguard Chinese workers' legal rights. Specifically, it calls on Singapore to abolish its employer-sponsored work visa policy, which gives employers excessive power and control over foreign workers, and calls on China to tighten its monitoring and supervision of the country's rapidly expanding and increasingly chaotic labor export business. Asia Sentinel

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