Friday 20 December 2019

Attitudes towards Migrant Workers in Singapore: Just 1 in 4 sees need for migrant workers despite labour shortage

But Singaporeans have a more positive view of migrant workers than other nations surveyed
By Joanna Seow, Assistant Business Editor, The Straits Times, 19 Dec 2019

Just one in four Singaporeans says there is a need for migrant workers, even though seven in 10 agree there is a labour shortage here.

Underscoring some resistance to migrant labour, more than half also believe crime has increased and the country's culture and heritage have been threatened because of migrant workers, according to a new survey of four Asian countries by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and United Nations Women.

The findings were in line with those in Japan, Malaysia and Thailand. Positive attitudes towards migrant workers have declined over the last decade even as migration has increased overall, said the report, released yesterday to mark International Migrants Day.

Nonetheless, Singaporeans have a more positive view of migrant workers compared with their Asian counterparts.

About 58 per cent of respondents here see migrant workers as having an overall positive net effect on the national economy, a greater proportion than respondents in Japan (34 per cent), Thailand (32 per cent) and Malaysia (30 per cent).

About 30 per cent here view migrant workers as a "drain on the national economy", lower than the 47 per cent in Malaysia, 40 per cent in Thailand and 32 per cent in Japan who agree with the statement.

The report, Public Attitudes Towards Migrant Workers In Japan, Malaysia, Singapore And Thailand, was based on a survey of 4,099 nationals of the four countries, including 1,005 Singaporeans. It also included interviews with governments, employers' bodies and non-government organisations, among others.

It was conducted between last December and January this year.

There were 1.4 million foreigners working here as of June, according to Ministry of Manpower data.

These include 255,800 domestic helpers, 284,300 construction workers on work permits and 189,000 employment pass holders.

The ILO report also said 32 per cent of respondents here felt migrant workers have poor work ethic and cannot be trusted, the lowest percentage among the four countries surveyed.

But 60 per cent felt that migrant workers should not receive the same pay benefits as local workers, the highest share among the four countries.

The report noted that popular beliefs in the region include migrant workers receiving more workplace benefits than they actually do and such workers taking away jobs from citizens.

But it also said the Singapore public seems better informed about socio-economic migration trends and realities than people in the other countries.

They are also more likely to have closer relationships with foreigners, such as having friends, colleagues, subordinates or employees who are migrant workers.

But overall support for migrant workers here has declined. A score to measure knowledge, attitudes and practices towards migrant workers compared against that of a similar survey done in 2010 showed Singapore's score had dropped seven points to 29.

However, this was still higher than the scores of Malaysia (down three points to 13) and Thailand (down seven points to 12). Japan was not surveyed in 2010.

The score is based on 15 questions, such as whether migrants commit a high number of crimes in the country and whether the respondent has helped a migrant integrate into the community or get ahead in his work.

More frequent and better quality interactions with migrant workers, such as having friends or staff who are foreigners, helped drive support for them, said the report.

In the three countries, the decline in support was far greater among respondents with no interactions with migrant workers.

"It is critical, therefore, to encourage more interaction of communities with migrant workers," said the report. "Decreasing the distance between nationals in countries of destination and migrant workers requires a multi-pronged approach, including changes to laws and policy to ensure there are no exclusions or 'special rules' that apply to migrant workers; that they receive fair and equal treatment; and that city planning, workplace inclusion and community platforms work to encourage social interaction."

The report: Some recommendations
The Straits Times, 19 Dec 2019

• Promote social inclusion through city planning by avoiding ghettoisation of migrant workers' accommodation.

• Encourage inclusion in the workplace by working with employers and trade unions to promote the rights of migrant workers.

• Promote evidence of the beneficial impacts of migrant workers to strengthen positive attitudes while at the same time debunking common myths, such as the characterisation of migrant workers as criminals or as taking jobs from citizens.

• Implement interventions to encourage more balanced and inclusive reporting, and to encourage the news media to use non-discriminatory terminology when reporting stories about migrant workers.

• Work with governments, trade unions, and NGOs to ensure the availability of shelters and comprehensive services designed to meet the needs of survivors of violence among women migrant workers.

• Conduct further research to understand the knowledge, attitudes, and work entitlements provided by employers of foreign domestic workers.

Most support having better working conditions for maids
By Joanna Seow, Assistant Business Editor, The Straits Times, 19 Dec 2019

Although attitudes of Singaporeans towards migrant workers in general may have cooled, support for better working conditions for foreign domestic helpers is high.

Nearly three quarters - 74 per cent - of Singaporeans surveyed who employ foreign domestic workers said they support improved labour conditions for domestic helpers.

Also, 64 per cent of the employers supported providing the same labour rights to foreign domestic workers as other workers.

These rates of support were better than those in Malaysia and Japan, but lower than those in Thailand, according to a study of these four countries published yesterday by the International Labour Organisation and United Nations Women.

"Women migrant workers are concentrated in low-paid and informal sectors, with limited social protections, including limited access to services for violence against women. Without protections, women migrant workers can face higher incidences of economic exploitation and gender-based violence," the report noted.

The average salary paid by Singaporean employers to full-time maids was also the highest among the four countries, at $650. The lowest was in Thailand, at 9,800 baht (S$440).

But Thai employers provided their maids with the most work entitlements - out of a list of eight that includes annual leave, one rest day per week, overtime pay, and the ability to keep their own passports.

Only 59 per cent of Singaporean employers said they provide one day off per week, while 47 per cent said they allow the use of a mobile phone outside of work hours.

Under the law, helpers here are entitled to one rest day per week, or payment in lieu.

Responding to the study, Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics case manager Jaya Anil Kumar said employers here may subscribe to the idea of better labour standards but fall short in practice.

"Entrenching these protections in the law would provide clear protection standards for domestic workers and minimise the chance of well-being standards being left to the determination of individual employers. At the same time, it would enhance the perception of employers towards domestic work," she said.

When it comes to better law enforcement to reduce violence against domestic workers, practices such as denial of rest days, confiscation of mobile phones and intrusive surveillance isolate domestic workers and create barriers against their ability to develop support systems and seek timely help, she added.

The study also looked at attitudes towards migrant women in general, among the 1,005 Singaporean respondents.

About 79 per cent supported migrant women having access to shelters if they experience violence, and 77 per cent supported stronger law enforcement to reduce violence against them.

But they were less open on social issues. Only 49 per cent felt that migrant women should be free to marry local citizens and 54 per cent felt they should be offered maternity leave. These were the lowest figures out of the four countries.

The survey also looked at attitudes towards the decriminalisation of sex work. Support was highest in Thailand (40 per cent), followed by Singapore (36 per cent), Japan (30 per cent) and Malaysia (17 per cent).

Empowering domestic workers from South Asia
Women of Shakti provides free English classes and workshops
By Toh Wen Li, The Straits Times, 20 Dec 2019

Asking for directions, ordering food and visiting the doctor may seem like simple tasks, but they can be daunting for foreign domestic workers in Singapore who speak little English.

A group of volunteers is now aiming to change this - by running free, fortnightly classes that help these women from Tamil Nadu and Kerala, in India, and Sri Lanka navigate everyday scenarios here.

Through a mix of role-playing sessions and practical lessons, they build up their confidence in spoken English and familiarise themselves with vocabulary such as "stomach-ache", "teh c" - and "port of embarkation", a term often encountered at immigration checkpoints.

"They don't need to have perfect grammar," said volunteer Sindhura Kalidas, 30, who heads the English classes. "They just want to fit in."

The youth-led initiative, known as Women of Shakti, started in February last year and now runs under the auspices of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics and Singapore Indian Development Association (Sinda). It is helmed by three volunteers - recent graduate A. Aarthi, 25, marketing associate Vaishnavi Naidu, 29, and Ms Kalidas, who teaches at a private enrichment centre - and some domestic workers.

The group's 25 regular students, who speak Tamil or Malayalam as their first language, go to Sinda in Beatty Road for classes.The group has also roped in volunteers to run workshops on topics such as financial literacy and health and wellness.

Co-founder Ms Aarthi said the group caters to the needs of domestic workers from South Asia because - unlike their counterparts from the Philippines and Indonesia - they tend to have more tenuous support networks, speak little English and do not know where to go for help.

Ms Aarthi, who graduated from the National University of Singapore with a master's in sociology, said: "(They) have told me they see themselves as the lowest in the domestic worker hierarchy."

The group, she said, aims to give them the space to pick up new skills, pursue their interests and form friendships with one another.

Ms Malar Tharmalingam, 40, arrived here from Tamil Nadu eight years ago and sends money home to her widowed sister and nephew every month. The economics graduate, who fell on hard times after her parents died, said: "I want to be able to speak English to my employer... I want to teach my nephew English."

Ms Aarthi hopes Women of Shakti will one day be run by the domestic workers themselves.

Aside from lessons, the group organises trips to parts of the island, such as the Indian Heritage Centre, and members have taken part in events like the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition and a storytelling workshop at Sing Lit Station.

Lending a hand to workers with injuries
SG Accident Help Centre offers free rehabilitative healthcare, counselling for those in distress
By Cara Wong and Renee Poh, The Straits Times, 18 Dec 2019

In the decade he spent helping migrant workers to access affordable healthcare, Mr Eric Lee was often struck by how they lacked proper rehabilitation for work-related injuries.

Not only were employers unsupportive of physiotherapy and other rehabilitative means, but workers themselves also viewed them as unimportant.

Furthermore, the workers said they could not afford such services even if these could help to prevent future injuries, said Mr Lee, 51.

"We needed to educate them and be with them on the rehabilitation journey, so that they could recover properly and be less prone to accidents," said Mr Lee, who was head of operations at HealthServe, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) providing subsidised medical services for migrant workers.

With that in mind, the former IT consultant set up his own NGO two years ago to provide free rehabilitative healthcare for migrant workers.

SG Accident Help Centre now has about 20 volunteer physiotherapists and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) physicians, who provide their services at foreign worker dormitories or the NGO's premises in Flanders Square.

Over three sessions every week, SG Accident Help Centre provides free physiotherapy and TCM therapy such as cupping and acupuncture to around 20 migrant workers.

"Workers hear about us by word of mouth, we don't need to advertise at all," said Mr Lee.

Construction worker Hasan Anamul, 27, said it was a friend who recommended him to the centre.

The Bangladeshi hurt his shoulder and back last December while working at a construction site and could not work while recuperating.

"If the volunteers didn't take care of me, I would be in a lot of pain," said Mr Anamul, adding that the volunteers also helped to pay for his meals during therapy and covered his travel costs to and from his dormitory in Sungei Tengah.

Apart from physical rehabilitation, the organisation also collaborates with a private school - Executive Counselling and Training Academy - to offer free counselling sessions for distressed workers.

Mr Lee said: "(The school) helps us engage the workers, so we know from its findings what the workers' mental health status is like."

He said the counsellors then help the workers work through their problems.

He hopes to expand the services to more dormitories but said he would need more volunteers.

"They are part of the community, so they must be treated the same as Singaporeans," said Mr Lee of the workers. "They have been contributing a lot to our nation, and some of them come from the same countries as our great-grandfathers, so we should take care of them."

Migrant Workers' Centre expands volunteer network
With 5,000 ambassadors now, MWC will also recruit workers from factory-converted dorms
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 16 Dec 2019

In October, safety professional Ahmed Amad, 30, found out that a friend was owed two months' worth of salary - $1,800 in total - by his employer.

"He had no money to buy food, and had to come to me to borrow money. His parents also depended on his salary," said Mr Ahmed, a Bangladeshi work permit holder who has been working in Singapore for 10 years.

His friend, whom he knows as Manik, was in great distress and did not know where to go for help.

Mr Ahmed, with five years of experience as a volunteer ambassador with the Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC), referred him to the centre which managed to help his friend get the sum of money back from his employer after a month.

"With the money, Manik could go back to Bangladesh with peace of mind," said Mr Ahmed, who added that his friend has since found a new job.

Mr Ahmed was one of 10 MWC ambassadors given certificates of recognition by Minister of State for Manpower and National Development Zaqy Mohamad at a ceremony in Little India yesterday evening.

It was held in conjunction with a celebration featuring performances and games to mark International Migrants Day, which falls on Wednesday.

MWC chairman Yeo Guat Kwang said the volunteer network can help bring problems faced by their peers to the attention of the MWC. There are now 5,000 ambassadors, up from 1,500 in 2017.

Yesterday, the MWC, which is backed by the Ministry of Manpower, the National Trades Union Congress and employers, said it will be expanding its volunteer outreach efforts.

While the current pool of MWC ambassadors are mainly from the 45 purpose-built dormitories here, the MWC will also be recruiting workers from factory-converted dormitories.

"As these non-purpose-built dormitories may lack the necessary amenities and are often smaller in size, community and peer support might be lacking - especially for newer migrant workers or migrant workers facing disputes," said the MWC in a statement.

Typically, purpose-built dormitories house thousands of workers, while factory-converted ones may house fewer than a thousand workers in each facility.

Purpose-built dormitories also have to adhere to stricter rules under the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act, introduced in 2016.

Mr Ahmed said he refers about two cases to the MWC a month. Common issues faced by workers include salary disputes and work-related injuries.

"Many workers are scared of going to the authorities, but we tell them that MWC can help," he added.

Besides flagging disputes, the MWC ambassadors help educate their fellow workers on their employment rights and convey relevant information such as legislative amendments and celebratory events in the migrant community.

About 5,000 workers attended the MWC celebrations yesterday.

Separately, the Centre for Domestic Employees also organised a river cruise for more than 30 families and their foreign domestic workers yesterday afternoon as part of its International Migrants Day celebrations.

Despite productive contribution, public attitudes towards migrant workers remain unfavourable in ASEAN destination countries

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