Monday 10 December 2012

From the margin to the front page

Foreign workers in the news calls for some soul searching about our double standards
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Straits Times, 9 Dec 2012

The SMRT bus strike by 171 drivers from China on Nov 26 may have lasted only two days, with 88 drivers stopping work on the second day.

But it has sparked much soul- searching.

Has Singapore's much-vaunted tripartism model of harmonious industrial relations failed? Is there something rotten in the management of the SMRT, given its spate of breakdowns in the last two years, and this breakdown in worker-management relations culminating in Singapore's first strike in 26 years?

Is Singapore over-reliant on foreign workers for its essential services? Should locals be lured back to these jobs with higher wages so Singapore won't be held hostage by strident foreign workers?

These and other questions have been much debated in conference and living rooms, kopitiams and gourmet cafes, on Facebook and social media.

They are all important questions.

But my own biggest takeaway from the incident is the way the Foreign Worker has catapulted himself from the margin of my consciousness where I have long relegated him, into the mainstream. Indeed, he has come to the fore of my mind, onto the very front pages of the newspaper.

It has led me to confront the reality that this island, My Singapore, has truly become not just mine, but also theirs. This may be the nation of Singaporeans; but the foreigners in our midst have as much claim to its laws, its public spaces, its conscience, as locals do.

It is, in this sense, Their Singapore too. So Singapore is not just My Singapore, but should properly be known as Our Singapore.

That mindset change isn't an easy one for me.

I think it began when I moved to the western part of Singapore. My Housing Board block was very near two large foreign worker dormitories. On weekends, Bangladeshi and Chinese workers strolled in their shorts or sarongs, to my neighbourhood for its amenities. They sat at park benches or squatted at the void deck area. They bought foodstuff from the grocery shops. Unlike middle-class Bishan or upper middle-class Bukit Timah where I had lived before in cocooned comfort, the Foreign Worker was very much visible in the west.

I was a bit nervous at first when I returned home late at night. On weekends I avoided the exercise area where they congregated.

But then I started observing them more closely. They would sit on the kerb of the carpark or the void deck corridor twiddling with their handphones. Some had ear-pieces plugged in and were chatting away. They were lost in their own worlds, catching up with loved ones, or latching onto free Wi-Fi signals from the surrounding blocks to go online.

They were just a bunch of men who missed home.

I moved from the west back to the Bishan area recently. But this time, I looked - actually looked - at the Bangladeshi supervisor in my estate, and the Chinese security guard. But they remain on the fringes of my consciousness, beyond the overlapping circles of family, friends, work contacts, community.

I don't think I am alone in this. In fact, I often think Singapore as a society is in denial about the large pool of foreigners in our midst.

One group is highly visible: the very rich foreigners. They thrust themselves into the public eye with their glamorous lifestyles, Marina Bay penthouses or sea-fronting bungalows. The government bends over backwards to welcome them, even rewriting laws to allow them to own landed property at Sentosa Cove. Ordinary Singaporeans may be a little envious of them, but are left in no doubt as to their existence. This group of Rich Foreigners makes its presence felt.

But the bulk of the foreign workers in our midst are poor. They come to do jobs Singaporeans don't want, at wages we scorn.

We have tended to make them invisible, shutting them away in distant dormitories in Woodlands or Jurong, complaining if we see too many of them together in the heartlands or in the malls.

But the SMRT bus strike shows that such a head-in-the-sand approach to managing the large population of foreign workers won't work. Not when their numbers are so vast. At last count, there were 1.19 million foreign workers: 680,000 Work Permit Holders; 210,000 maids; 170,000 professionals on employment passes, and another 130,000 "associate professionals". That makes up 22 per cent of the total population of 5.31 million. There are a further 220,000 foreigners who are dependants of Singapore residents, and 84,000 foreign students.

And yet Singapore often appears ill-equipped to handle the large numbers of foreign workers.

Major policies are planned for locals and residents, and for well-to-do foreign workers, but not for the million foreign workers with low wages.

Take housing. Workers live in make-shift dormitories in far-flung areas. In public transport, trains and buses groan from the added load of ferrying another million passengers, a clear failure in infrastructure planning. In health care, it was only in 2008 that employers had to buy medical insurance for their foreign workers.

Consider too the way employers ferry foreign workers like cattle on the backs of lorries. Or the way employers insist that their domestic maids clean windows in high-rise apartments, and justify not giving the maid a day off because "she may mix with bad company". It is as though we look the other way, and accept for foreign workers a much lower standard of care and safety than we would for Singaporeans.

We have all been complicit in this conspiracy of double-standards. Yes, it is true the market rules, and Singapore's First World economy attracts these foreign workers from the Third World willing to work for Second World wages. It is willing buyer, willing seller.

But as social justice activists will argue, common humanity and the ideal of equality should prompt us to treat our guest workers with dignity, and accord to them rights we would demand from others for ourselves.

If that's not enough to prick our conscience, maybe self-interest will force us to treat foreign workers with respect. Either we adapt our mindset and our policy-planning to be much more responsive to the million foreign workers in our midst, or risk more discontent.

Already last week, two Chinese workers mounted themselves on the top of a crane to protest against their employer for allegedly not paying them.

This is the action of men pushed into a corner, saying: We are among you, we have rights and we want better treatment.

This is not to say illegal strikes should be condoned. While their grievances may be legitimate, there are proper ways to address them.

But we can no longer shut our eyes and turn away. We may not care to acknowledge it, but for as long as they work here, Singapore is theirs too. Singapore's laws are meant to protect them too. Our hospitals are for their use, as are our parks, our beaches, our void deck spaces.

Foreign workers don't just need a job in Singapore. They need respect and dignity, they need spaces for recreation, they need to feel safe in this foreign land to relax, to laugh, to hope.

And we must broaden our minds to see them as part of Singapore, to accept their claim on our laws, our spaces, and our conscience.

On Nov 26, 171 SMRT bus drivers from China went on an illegal strike to protest against poor pay and living conditions.

The next day, 88 stayed away from work.

Since then, 29 "active participants" in the strike have been sent back to China.

Four alleged ringleaders were arrested, charged and are awaiting trial. A fifth man has already been sentenced to six weeks in jail.

The strike was the first action of its kind in in Singapore in 26 years.

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