Friday, 8 May 2020

All Singaporeans guilty of poor treatment of migrant workers

In Parliament, Nominated MP Anthea Ong asked whether the Government would consider issuing an apology to migrant workers for what she called "dismal conditions" in their dormitories and especially since they are in "complete lockdown for the sake and safety of Singaporeans".

To be honest, it should be Singaporeans who need to apologise for the state these workers are in now. We want everything to be cheap at the expense of these workers.

Singaporeans should not pretend that we care for them now because thousands of these workers are infected.

Where were we when the situation was all right? Were we ever concerned about their living conditions? I am definitely guilty of that.



Some Singaporeans were even bothered when certain dormitories were proposed to be built where they live. If these Singaporeans ever cared, they should have welcomed the idea and embraced these workers with open arms.

So let us all stop being hypocrites, and putting all the blame on the Government.

The real test of our concern for these workers is after this crisis is over. I hope all Singaporeans will still care for every one of these 300,000 fellow human beings.

Andy Chew Teck Huat
ST Forum, 7 May 2020










COVID-19 spread in migrant workers dormitories not just down to poor conditions: Tan Chuan-Jin
Speaker of Parliament says virus' highly contagious nature, living in close proximity key reasons
By Tan Tam Mei, The Straits Times, 8 May 2020

The massive outbreak of coronavirus cases among migrant workers in dormitories cannot be attributed to bad living conditions alone, even if there are abysmal examples, said Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin yesterday.

Rather, the highly contagious nature of the coronavirus and the fact that dorms involve groups of people living in close quarters are more likely to have contributed to the spread, said Mr Tan, who was Manpower Minister from 2014 to 2015.

Speaking on the sidelines of an event for migrant worker dorms yesterday, Mr Tan said it was important not to conflate the two issues of bad living conditions and the COVID-19 pandemic, which he called a healthcare crisis of "monumental proportions".

"For example, in our universities, if the hostels remained open and the students were there, you would expect a massive outbreak to occur as well. If people are living in close quarters, given the contagious nature of this virus, outbreaks will occur," he said.

Tackling questions regarding the outbreak in the dormitories, that as of yesterday has hit more than 18,000 cases, Mr Tan said it was not about "white-washing" cases of "abysmal" dorm conditions, but one should not generalise that all living conditions are as such.

There were 741 new COVID-19 cases reported yesterday, 7 May, bringing Singapore's total to 20,939.

The living conditions of lower-paid foreign workers have been in the spotlight recently when dorms emerged as huge clusters where the coronavirus has spread. The outbreak highlighted the cramped and poorly maintained living spaces of some of these workers and their low-quality catered meals.

On Monday, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo assured Parliament that the Government will see how housing standards for migrant workers can be further raised.

Mr Tan said: "It doesn't excuse (bad conditions), it is not acceptable and we need to take stringent action against those who violate the law - but it doesn't represent the whole space and that's the context that is important.

"It is important to speak to the migrant workers as a whole for their lived experience to have a sense of the conditions. And given the scale and nature of this outbreak, we should not conflate the causes with these less-than-accurate generalisations."



When asked about the raising of dorm standards here, Mr Tan said there are things that can be improved on and the Government will be taking stock of the lessons learnt and the adjustments that need to be made.

"It is something that we will work on, but meanwhile, let's grapple with the (present) issues, look after our people and look after all the people who are here in Singapore who are affected in different ways," he said.

During an online forum organised by the Institute of Policy Studies on Wednesday, analysts said a whole-of-society effort is needed to improve the wages and living conditions of foreign workers here.

Not only must the Government take the lead in making structural changes, but Singaporeans, too, must change their us-versus-them mindset and take up collective responsibility, said the panellists.









Bettering migrant workers' lives calls for whole-of-society effort, say experts
Structural and mindset changes needed to improve wages and living conditions of foreign workers
By Grace Ho, The Straits Times, 8 May 2020

Improving the wages and living conditions of foreign workers in Singapore requires a whole-of-society effort. Not only must the Government take the lead in making structural changes, but Singaporeans, too, must change their us-versus-them mindset, said analysts.

Dr Jeremy Lim, co-director of global health at the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said on Wednesday that the Government's framing of COVID-19 as two separate outbreaks - one in foreign worker dormitories and the other in the community - was a "defensible" one from a public health perspective.

That is because different strategies were used to tackle each outbreak, he added.

Dr Lim was speaking at an online forum organised by the Institute of Policy Studies titled "Migrant workers: Policy responses and lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic".

He noted that as infection numbers spiked in dorms and overwhelmed the ability of their operators as well as employers to contain the disease, the Government intervened swiftly. It brought in the army and police, and set up community care and recovery facilities for workers with mild symptoms.

SHIFT IN MINDSET NEEDED

But a whole-of-society mindset change is needed for the support to be sustained, said Dr Lim.

"The mental model we have traditionally taken is that foreign workers are part of the community but separate; we accept there should be different standards (for them).

"But it is clear now that the previous paradigm, of relying on the employers and dorm operators alone, cannot work in a crisis of this scale and complexity," he added.



Professor Paulin Straughan, Singapore Management University (SMU) sociologist and dean of students, said many Singaporeans object to migrant workers living among them, citing health and safety concerns.

Mr Bernard Menon, executive director of the Migrant Workers' Centre, pointed out that despite a surge in public discourse after the SMRT bus drivers' strike in 2012 and the Little India riot a year later, public memory has been short-lived.

SMU law professor Eugene Tan said Singaporeans have become used to the benefits of cheap and transient foreign labour. "There has not been enough focus on the values that make up the kind of Singapore we want our children to grow up in," he added.



STRUCTURAL CHANGES

Nominated MP Walter Theseira, an economist at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said Singapore's economy has, over time, become significantly more dependent on foreign labour.

Without cheap foreign workers, the cost of goods and services here could rise sharply, he said, adding that if the Government implements more generous minimum wages and living conditions, some types of migrant workers and industries could become economically non-viable.

Agreeing, Mr Leonard Lim, country director at political consultancy Vriens & Partners, said low business costs remain a strong reason for companies to be located here.

There are consequences to relying less on foreign workers, he added. "Public transport and housing infrastructure will take a longer time to build - HDB flats and MRT lines could take longer to come on stream."

Dr Lim said it is unrealistic to expect the private sector to do more, as its primary concern is profit and loss. The Government should lead in making the necessary structural changes, he added.



Prof Theseira argued that the process is about collective responsibility and must also reflect the popular will. "The reason change doesn't happen is that it's in Singaporeans' economic self-interest not to - there is a large group who benefits from low-cost labour."

But there is reason to be hopeful, Prof Theseira said, as new developments owing to COVID-19 - such as remote working - are rapidly eroding the benefits of having a huge pool of foreign labour.

"If one can get away with more remote working, why do expatriates need to be sent to Singapore, as this is more expensive? So the need to have so many foreign workers serving the population comes into question," he added.

"Plus, some industries may be suppressed for some time (due to the pandemic), so there is an opportunity to restructure."

Ultimately, said Mr Menon, it takes two hands to clap and society must be more accepting. "We tried to rally the migrant workers to interact and hopefully integrate with Singaporeans, but learnt quite a painful lesson over time that integration is a two-way street."




 





Foreign workers have been treated far better in Singapore than elsewhere

Bangladeshi worker Sozal Mirza posted a message on the Facebook group True Life of Singapore Migrant Workers on April 17 which expressed gratitude for the treatment he received from the Singapore Government in many aspects of his current stay during this pandemic (Minister shares migrant worker's note of heartfelt thanks, May 5).



The treatment these workers have received is in stark contrast to the fate of such workers in many other countries where they have been given short shrift.

Singapore has supplied food, shelter, wage payment, medical treatment and other comforts.

In some instances, the food was not suitable for some of the workers, and pictures of discarded food were shared. This was rectified the following day after feedback from the workers.

I feel that the government response has been measured and correct regarding the epidemiological aspects, and the humanitarian measures are truly second to none.



I was aghast on Monday when Nominated MP Anthea Ong asked the Government to apologise for the handling of the migrant workers.

I believe this pandemic requires full support from all and any attempts at grandstanding or "actionism" should be curbed at source.

Chew Shing Chai
ST Forum, 7 May 2020




















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