Migrants’ rights under spotlight in Singapore after Little India riot

Migrant workers' rights and poor living conditions are under the spotlight in Singapore following riot in Little India that shocked the city state

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 December, 2013, 11:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 June, 2014, 3:03pm

Mohamed Juwel was excited when he left home in Dhaka, Bangladesh in July 2011.

His destination was Singapore - a place his friends referred to as a "dream country".

It was a place where one could earn and save a good deal of money and return to Bangladesh flush with cash.

His plan was to work in the wealthy city-state as an electrician at construction sites for about five years and return home to expand his small clothing business, currently being run by his cousin.

I used to be very healthy and active. The pain is too much … my whole life is gone

But that dream quickly turned into a nightmare.

After falling off a ladder at a construction site and suffering a herniated spinal disc, he says he is unable to lift anything heavier than 5kg and experiences intense back pain at times.

He has yet to receive workers' compensation more than a year since the accident.

"I used to be very healthy and active. The pain is too much … my whole life is gone," says the 21-year-old, who requires more surgery after an unsuccessful operation at a government hospital.

The Bangladeshi has become weary of dealing with his employer and the authorities. He is frustrated with red tape and legal jargon. Unable to work, he earns only half his basic salary - S$234 (HK$1,440) a month - hardly enough to survive in Singapore.

It's not all bad news, though. Juwel gets free food provided by NGOs and a friend is providing temporary accommodation. But he has given up trying to get compensation and plans to return to Bangladesh soon, though his troubles are far from over.

"My family paid S$6,500 to an agent to bring me [here]. I have to pay them back," Juwel says.

The young man's story is nothing new to migrant rights activists in Singapore who say they have heard far worse tales.

Workers' rights have been in the spotlight since the December 8 riot in Singapore's Little India that shocked the city state that prides itself on rule of law.

More than 300 South Asian migrant workers confronted police and anti-riot officers after a traffic accident which caused the death of an Indian national who was allegedly drunk. The rioters destroyed police vehicles and set an ambulance ablaze while pelting medics with projectiles.

The government admits there are errant employers and disputes, but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says there is no evidence the riot was due to pent-up tensions from unhappy workers.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Asean-Japan Commemorative Summit, Lee said: "The riot happened spontaneously and it was localised. There was some sign that alcohol was involved and was a factor. The people who were involved in the riots were not from one company or one dorm - several dorms, many different companies. It is unlikely that the all the companies would have the same problem."

Lee has set up a committee to uncover what caused the clashes.

Singapore's acting manpower minister, Tan Chuan Jin, said via his Facebook page that there were 3,700 employment-related disputes last year. A large majority of the cases, he added, are settled within a month.

Tan said the number was small when set against the number of foreign workers with permits in Singapore - almost one million.

Critics say the number of claims is low because migrant workers are afraid to complain in case they get into trouble.

As the initial shock of the violence fades, critics have blasted the government for implementing temporary strict measures on the sale and consumption of alcohol during weekends in Little India. Some are upset that workers are being encouraged to stay away from Little India - the only place where many homesick South Asians turn to for some solace, with the enclave's familiar Indian culture and cuisine.

However, the swift response from the Singapore government to increase the police presence and cameras on the streets has generally been well received by the majority of citizens.

Donald Low, economist and associate dean at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, says that workers' frustrations can't be ruled out as a contributing factor to the riot.

"We should be open to the possibility that there were underlying grievances and social tensions which contributed to this riot, whether these have to do with the working and living conditions of migrant workers, the discrimination they face, or the sense of powerless and helplessness that I suspect many of them feel," he wrote on Facebook. Those who want to focus on whether there is a link between the riot and labour grievances point to the already somewhat testy relationship between foreign labourers and authorities which was evident last year when 170 bus drivers from China went on strike. The workers were demanding higher pay and some of them also complained of poor living arrangements,

Andrew Loh, a prominent political blogger and activist who has been investigating the plight of low-wage migrant workers, says that while there have been improvements over the last few years, there is still a long way to go. He remembers vividly his first encounter with a substandard workers' dormitory in 2009.

"We found more than 170 workers being housed in a rundown factory," says Loh. "The food they were given was bad - rice, watery curry and a piece of vegetable - every day. Someone died from chicken pox and he also infected others because he wasn't quarantined. Their employer abandoned them because there was no work for them."

Another Singaporean activist, Vincent Wijeysingha, who took part in the 2011 general elections under the opposition Singapore Democratic Party ticket, says more needs to be done to end the exploitative practices of unscrupulous employers.

"Sometimes, you have 15 to 20 people living in a room [and] toilets overflowing with faeces," he says. "There are places where there's no proper roofing, so there's constant dampness. And places with just planks for beds."

Many South Asian workers refused to discuss living conditions at their well-guarded dormitories, citing fears that speaking out may get them into trouble. But some who did speak, on the condition of anonymity, said that while conditions "were not great", they were satisfactory enough for them.

The government, meanwhile, is looking at building a substantial number of dormitories over the next few years to house migrant workers.

Lawmakers have a tough job ahead trying to convince the electorate that more foreigners are needed for the country to sustain its economic miracle, as birth rates in Singapore continue to decline. The current 1.3 million foreign workers in the city state make up 20 per cent of Singapore's population of 5.3 million.

Earlier this year, some 5,000 people staged a peaceful protest against the government's proposal to increase the population figure to 6.9 million by 2030 by relying on an influx of foreigners. Critics say there isn't enough space and infrastructure to handle so many people on the island. Others say more should be spent on increasing the birth rate.

While Singapore is peaceful and enjoys racial harmony, a minority of its people are showing signs of xenophobia.

A Singaporean taxi driver, who declined to be named, said he and fellow cab drivers avoid picking up visiting mainland Chinese and Indian nationals: "Sometimes they cause trouble or they talk big. I can't stand it. They think this is their country."

Like a growing minority, he supports an idea floated by the government in April to possibly house foreign migrant workers on offshore islands in the future.

There are those who say that would be a good thing for the workers because they can be in a safe environment and that it would be easier for them to be disciplined with their money, but the idea has drawn criticism from liberals and activists.

"It's preposterous. It is so anti-humane, that the minister who suggested it should hang his head in shame," says Wijeysingha.

All eyes are now on the authorities' legal handling of the suspected rioters who have been arrested.

Some 200 workers were given a formal police advisory and will be allowed to continue to work in Singapore. More than 20 people were charged and their cases will be heard in court, while 53 migrant workers - 52 Indian nationals and one Bangladeshi - were given deportation orders this week for their role in the riots.

Workfair Singapore, a civil society group, said it was dismayed that 53 workers will be deported without trial.

It urged the government "to stop the deportation and either submit these accused to trial or issue them with warnings as has been done with 200 others".

"The Singapore authorities are moving too quickly. These men should not be arbitrarily deported, as they have a right to due process," says Isabelle Arradon, Amnesty International's Asia Pacific deputy director.

"These riots should be a wake-up call to the authorities that conditions for migrant workers need to improve, rather than a catalyst for arbitrary deportations."