The Dark Side of the Singaporean Miracle


The speed of Singapore’s economic ascent in the latter half of the 20th century is extraordinary. A poor island country when expelled from a union with Malaysia in 1965, Singapore had no natural resources and few prospects for development. However, under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s late, semi-authoritarian father figure, Singapore championed an export-oriented industrialization model and soon developed into the global financial hub it is today. In the process of economic modernization, demand for unskilled labor rose rapidly, which led to the import of temporary foreign workers to plug the gap. Today, Singapore is home to one million unskilled foreign workers, in a total labor force of 3.7 million.

While these migrant workers have been critical to Singapore’s exponential growth, the Singaporean state has done little to protect their rights. These workers, who largely hail from countries like India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and China, are allowed to live in Singapore through temporary work passes, under which their lives are governed by the frequently exploitative companies hosting them. Keen to promote commerce, the government has prioritized business interests over the health and well-being of guest workers unable to advocate for themselves.

An Exploitative Labor System

It is worth considering that migrant workers in Singapore do generally have it better than their counterparts elsewhere. While 66 workers died in Singapore last year, over 900 South Asian migrant workers perished in Qatar between 2012 and 2013. Additionally, many migrant workers in Gulf states are subject to human trafficking and forced labor, unlike the purely voluntary structure of migration to Singapore. Additionally, the financial motivation for migration is clearworkers will often earn “four to ten times as much as they would be earning in their home countries,” according to Professor Nicholas Harrigan of Singapore Management University in an interview with the HPR.

Nonetheless, the current living standards of migrant workers in Singapore are appalling given the country’s level of development. In an interview with HPR, Tamera Fillinger, a researcher at the NGO Transient Workers Count Too, explained that the work permits are issued through the ‘kafala’ sponsorship system, under which each foreign worker is tied to a single employer. The kafala system often results in exploitation, as “the employer can change the contract terms or give [migrant employees] inadequate food or housing, and there is nothing [migrant employees] can say about it.” Migrant laborers not involved in domestic work often live in converted industrial spaces, which can be overcrowded and unhygienic. Construction workers may even be housed in the structures they are building, without access to non-portable toilets. Eight of every ten foreign domestic workers complains about inadequate food, and resulting weight loss and malnutrition.

Many migrant workers also face abuse at the hands of recruitment agencies in their home countries. Such companies, which often receive kickbacks from employers, ca charge exorbitant fees for transportation and workplace training. Harrigan remarked that the “very, very low” number of officially recorded injuries among migrant workers suggests they are under-reported, as injured workers may be threatened with deportation if they seek compensation.

Nor can these workers take action themselves to improve working conditions. Migrant workers are technically allowed to unionize in Singapore, but can not be officials, trustees, or staff members of trade unions, so their engagement with the labor movement is quite limited. Labor organizations are already weak, due to Singapore’s repressive development-focused policies. According to Harrigan, the government is loathe to more directly intervene in protecting migrant workers’ rights and living standards because it wants to limit red tape and maintain cheap labor.

Potential Solutions

On the surface, the government’s recent legislative actions seem to belie such criticism. Singapore’s Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, the piece of legislation that most directly influences migrant workers’ status, was amended in 2007 to mandate that employers provide free housing, and the 2015 Foreign Employees Dormitories Bill delineates stricter safety and space standards for dormitories housing more than 1000 employees. Unfortunately, this strong regulatory framework set up by the Ministry of Manpower is shoddily enforced. Singaporean citizens’ aversion to living close to migrant workers ensures the geographic isolation of workers’ dormitories, making effective implementation difficult. According to Fillinger, Singapore’s government does not need to care extensively about migrant workers because they are not going to vote or pay taxes.

A number of potential solutions exist if the government is truly interested in improving working conditions. Allowing unskilled foreign workers to form legitimate unions, notwithstanding their temporary status, would reduce employers’ coercive abilities to suppress their complaints. As Fillinger explained, a more equitable labor market could be produced by following the footsteps of South Korea, which moved away from the sponsorship system in 2004 to allow workers to change employers during their stay. Such a system would allow migrant workers in Singapore to escape abusive or unsafe employers without automatically facing deportation. Furthermore, mandating compulsory reporting of workplace injuries by employers and their affiliated doctors would strengthen workplace injury compensation.

On the international level,  exploitative private recruitment agencies could be dealt with through the practice of ‘bonding.’ Lant Pritchett, a labor economist and professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, explained to the HPR that this requires recruitment agencies to post a bond in order to operate in Singapore, which it would have to forfeit if it violated regulations.

Whatever method it chooses, Singapore can certainly better protect the rights of the migrant workers playing such a vital role in its economy. They have been critical to Singapore’s rapid and continuing development, and are widely appreciated in the countryit is high time the government makes a concerted effort to translate that appreciation into acceptable living and working conditions.


Image credit: Flikr/Rob O’Brien

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