Tuesday, 9 December 2014

90% of foreign workers satisfied with working in Singapore: Survey

Most foreign workers 'satisfied with Singapore'
But survey also finds areas in need of improvement
By Kash Cheong, The Straits Times, 8 Dec 2014

NINE in 10 foreign workers are satisfied with working and living in Singapore, but there are still areas that can be improved, according to a new survey commissioned by the Migrant Workers' Centre and the Ministry of Manpower.

The survey also found that nine in 10 foreign workers would recommend Singapore as a place to work, citing good pay, good working and living conditions, and a sense of security.

The findings showed a generally positive picture about foreign workers in Singapore, said Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin at an event yesterday to celebrate International Migrants Day, which falls on Dec 18.

"We definitely hear of negative incidents (involving foreign workers) and some of these individual stories can be quite emotive," said Mr Tan. "A survey like that allows us to take a step back and look at the big picture."

The face-to-face survey was conducted by an independent survey firm between March and July this year with some 3,500 work permit holders and 500 S-Pass holders. A similar survey was first conducted in 2011.

There were areas that needed improvement, the survey found. For example, more respondents, compared with 2011, now cited high employment agency fees and poor working and living conditions as reasons why they would not recommend Singapore as a place to work.

Said Mr Tan: "We take the issue of worker housing seriously and one of our key efforts is to provide an adequate supply of housing for our workers."

Over the next few years, there will be more large purpose-built dormitories to address housing needs, he said.

Other areas that needed improvement included the workers' awareness of their rights and certain employment laws.

The survey found that migrant workers were less likely to be aware that they could claim compensation if they suffered permanent disabilities due to work accidents.

Migrant workers were also less likely to receive a physical record of salary payments, the survey found. This would make pay disputes more difficult to resolve, said Mr John Gee, head of research at migrant workers aid group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).

From 2016, it will be mandatory for employers to provide itemised payslips with information on items such as basic salary and deductions made, said Mr Tan.

Few workers had also received their in-principle letters of approval (IPA) in their native language. These letters, which state the workers' occupation and basic monthly salary, help the workers to decide whether or not to accept employment in Singapore before they leave their country.

The Ministry of Manpower will send letters to employers to remind them to issue IPAs, including a native language copy, to workers while they are still in their home countries, or risk a fine of $10,000.

Migrant worker groups such as TWC2 and the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) welcomed the survey but said more data was needed.

"Data about actual living and working conditions would be more insightful, rather than asking about satisfaction levels, which is a vague and highly subjective concept," said Home executive director Jolovan Wham.









Room for improvement in conditions for migrant workers in Singapore: Analysts
By Loke Kok Fai, Channel NewsAsia, 8 Dec 2014

The latest Foreign Worker Survey findings paint a rosy picture of work in Singapore, but some analysts said it can be improved.

A large majority - about nine out of 10 - are satisfied with working here and would recommend it to others. However, key reasons - such as providing a sense of security and good job prospects - have slipped for Work Pass (WP) and S Pass holders since 2011.

The percentage of WP holders citing good working prospects as a reason dipped sharply, down from 52.8 per cent in 2011 to 19 per cent in 2014. The percentage of S Pass holders doing so almost halved - from 33.3 per cent in 2011 to 16.6 per cent in 2014.

Respondents were also less likely to cite a sense of security as a key reason, down from 39.1 per cent in 2011 to 35.4 per cent in 2014 for WP holders, and 55.8 per cent in 2011 to 39.1 per cent in 2014 for S Pass holders.

Among those who would not recommend Singapore as a place to work, a higher percentage gave reasons such as expensive employment agency fees and poor working conditions. The percentage of WP holders feeling that employment agency fees were expensive went up from 24.3 per cent in 2011 to 40 per cent in 2014. S Pass holders felt otherwise, dropping from 23.6 per cent to 14.8 per cent.

But a higher percentage of WP and S Pass holders cited poorer working conditions, rising from 6.9 per cent in 2011 to 12.8 per cent in 2014 for WP holders, and 1.4 per cent in 2011 to 6.6 per cent in 2014 for S Pass holders.

MANPOWER MINISTRY "CONCERNED" ABOUT HIGH AGENCY FEES

Responding to Channel NewsAsia's queries, the Manpower Ministry said it is concerned about the high agency fees paid by foreign workers and will take necessary action against errant agencies. However, it is beyond the ministry's jurisdiction to regulate the recruitment practices in the workers' home countries.

The Employment Agencies (EA) Act caps the amount of agency fees that local EAs can charge workers - one month for each year of service, capped at two months' salary. EAs have to issue itemised receipts on services rendered and amount collected. They also have to refund at least half of agency fees collected from workers who are prematurely terminated within the first six months of employment.

The ministry added that where it finds instances where workers are cheated by agents in their home countries, it will bring these cases to the attention of the respective embassies or high commissions to ask that enforcement action be taken.

Referring to the survey results, analysts said improvement in conditions in the home countries of the foreign workers and competition from other economies in the region could also shape perspectives.

Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), said: "Each individual person also has a different idea about what good prospects mean, and each individual person also has a different idea of what it means to have good pay... If you talk about things like if they feel they have good prospects in Singapore, for instance, if you're only earning less than S$50 a month in your country of origin, and you come to Singapore and you earn S$300 a month - for some people, that could be good prospects."

Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser, head of the social lab at the Institute of Policy Studies, said that competition was also a factor: "This is a very competitive environment, and we cannot always be presumptuous that everybody wants to come here even if we allow them to come here."

Assoc Prof Tan added that with the economies of foreign-worker source countries such as India on the rise, workers may be offered improved working conditions and decide to stay home.





Lessons in English and making friends
Non-profit group Goducate helps bring cheer to foreign workers
By Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 8 Dec 2014

IMPROVING education for the needy in other Asian countries had been Dr Paul Choo's focus since he started non-profit organisation Goducate four years ago.

But after the Little India riot exactly a year ago on Dec 8, he realised more needed to be done right here in Singapore.

The 67-year-old, who founded the Shenton Medical Group, launched the Happy Happy English programme in foreign worker dormitories with a dual purpose: to foster greater contact between Singaporeans and the workers, and to brighten their lives in the aftermath of the riot.

"Improving their English is a by-product," Dr Choo told The Straits Times. "The 'Happy Happy' comes first."

To date, more than 150 volunteers and nearly 140 workers have taken part in the 12-week programme, held at three dorms in Tuas, Toh Guan and Mandai that are run by Westlite Dormitory.

"We want to make an impact at the dorms, to help them see, 'Hey, there are Singaporeans coming to smile at us and do things for us'," Dr Choo said.

The weekly lessons take place on Saturday nights. There is a structured lesson plan, but after the teacher introduces a phrase, the students break up into small groups - around four workers to one volunteer - to practise. There are also games and, after 11/2 hours, coffee and snacks are provided by the dormitory.

Financial services consultant Jena Peh, 45, coordinates around 25 volunteers weekly at the Tuas dorm. Some of the people she has invited have joined the team, but others are wary.

"Generally, the first thing they say is, 'Huh dormitory? So dangerous!' I tell them I've been there for six months, and my 11-year-old daughter is there too," she said.

The relationships she has forged with the workers have led them to call her "sister", "mother" and even "best friend".

Said Mandai volunteer Germaine Tay, 26, who works in the IT industry: "Instead of us teaching them English, they have taught us about life."

She was deeply moved by the sacrifices that the workers had made in order to provide for their families back home.

At the Westlite Mandai dorm, the latest round of the programme came to a close last Saturday, and about 20 workers will receive certificates of participation.

Among them is Mr Machakkallai Balamurugan, 24, a construction worker who came to Singapore from India last year. He joined the class to improve his English, "because English is very important and all countries use English". But he also enjoyed befriending the teachers.

Bangladeshi construction worker Siddik Abu Bakar, 25, who has lived in Singapore for three years, also enjoyed the camaraderie. "All men (are the) same, even if (they have) different skin colour or different languages, but all can be friends," he said.





Engaging migrant workers through art and adventure
By Hong Xinyi, Channel NewsAsia, 8 Dec 2014

It’s Sunday evening in Little India – one year to the day since the Little India riot - and a group of migrant workers are having their usual weekly meet-up session at the Dibashram centre at Rowell Road, talking about their passion - writing.

The centre was started in 2011 by migrant worker advocate, Ms Debbie Fordyce, and Mr AKM Mohsin, editor-in-chief of Bengali newspaper Banglar Kantha. Besides helping to hone workers’ writing skills, the centre also hosts other cultural events, including movie screenings and plays. The shelves lining one wall are filled with Bengali books, a rare resource for reading materials for the 30-odd Bangladeshi workers who visit the centre every week.

These men write whenever they can, stashing paper and pens on them when they go to work, snatching pockets of free time to scribble down ideas that flit across their minds. One says he often writes when he is waiting for the lorry to take him back to the dormitory. Many post their work on Facebook, to get feedback from friends and family – a form of connection that was not available to workers in the past.

Ask them what they write about, and the answers come in faltering, but eager English. “Our working lives in Singapore,” one said. Bangladesh politics and religion, others offered. “The seasons,” another worker said. “There is only one season here, but in Bangladesh, there are more.”

One answer that kept cropping up is ‘love’. Some gave this answer a little bashfully, others with wide-eyed solemnity. “Only love can change the world,” one worker said earnestly. Construction supervisor Zakir Hussain Khokhon, 36, won the inaugural Migrant Workers Poetry Competition last month writing about love. His poem, titled Pocket 2, was inspired by his saying goodbye to his wife when he left for Singapore. “My wife hugged me, and she was crying,” he says. “Her tears touched my pocket, which was right above my heart.”

It felt good to hear his translated poem read in English to a Singaporean audience during the competition recital, he said. “After the riot, many Singaporeans think differently about us. We want to show that workers are not just go to work and go back and sleep. We also have creativity. We not only sweat, but we also make plays, short stories, poems.”

MORE EFFORTS TO ENGAGE MIGRANT WORKERS

Mr Mohsin, one of the organisers of the poetry competition, says the event attracted “exceptional” attention this year, and hopes to make it an annual affair. “Some people don’t believe workers can write, that they are all illiterate, uneducated people. But many come here because there is no political stability in their countries, and no jobs,” says the Bangladesh-born editor. “Their writing shows that maybe the cultures are different, but humans everywhere are the same.”

Since the Little India riot, he believes there has been an improvement in the engagement of migrant workers by the general public. The Dibashram centre has been working with drama group TheatreWorks on writing workshops for the workers, and students from the Nanyang Technological University have also come to interview workers about their experiences in Singapore, for a project on tackling xenophobia.

Singapore-based management consultant Shivaji Das, one of the organisers of the poetry competition, said the event received strong support from many Singaporeans: “I was surprised by the enthusiasm of Singaporeans to support this event, from judges like Alvin Pang and Kirpal Singh, to volunteers like Safiah Sulaiman and Daniela Monasterios Tan - both well recognised in their own fields and yet so humble to manage often mundane tasks for the event. I was most surprised when we received requests from all sections of Singaporean society offering donations towards prize money and to help as volunteers for the event.” 

Mr Das is also a volunteer with migrant workers advocacy group TWC2, and he has noticed more young volunteers coming onboard, as well as more cultural initiatives centred on migrant workers.

One of these is Gone Home, a documentary by Bernice Wong and Ng Yiqin that will be screened in Singapore next week. It traces the lives of two Bangladeshi migrant workers as they return home. Wong and Ng are two of the co-founders of the group Beyond The Border, Behind The Men, which aims to expand the narratives about the migrant workers in Singapore. Another campaign started by Singaporeans, AnOther Angle, strives to get Singaporeans to appreciate and understand migrant workers through platforms like YouTube videos.

CHALLENGES REMAIN

Despite growing receptivity from Singaporeans, not all of these efforts are smooth-sailing. Ms Irene Ong is one of the founders of Discover Singapore, which has been organising excursions for migrant workers since 2013. Several of the participants are often workers who have been injured in workplace accidents and are waiting here for their cases to be resolved.

The group seeks out events and locations that do not require admission fees, as they often have trouble finding sponsors. “It became even more difficult to find funding after the riot, as the workers became typecast,” said Ms Ong. In her attempts to look for sponsors and partners, she has encountered rejections that are often phrased very harshly. For example: "Why should these workers enjoy such outings? They should just be sent home if they are injured."

Strange looks from passersby are also not uncommon when they go on their outings, said Ms Ong, but the group just takes this in their stride. “We take them to places where they would not venture to on their own. Some of them have been here for years, and it's the first time they have been to places other than Little India,” she says. “It’s a chance for them to bond with their friends, forget about their troubles. They can also take photos and share the experiences with their families. Many of them are mad about photography.”

Receptive partners have included the Esplanade, which invited workers to attend performances at its Kalaa Utsavam, the Indian Festival of Arts. "It all depends on the individual in charge," said Ms Ong.

It is still too early to say whether these various initiatives have changed the situation on the ground substantially, said Mr Das. "I suppose the Government's role is more to do with having policy and enforcement on issues related to housing, compensation etc. But eventually, the ground condition will change only when the general public is willing to engage with migrant workers."

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