Supporting migrant workers in Singapore: the role of civil society and regional institutions

Photo: Pikist

COVID-19 has highlighted the gaps in protection for migrant workers, especially in host countries like Singapore. How can civil society and regional institutions hold governments to account to better protect migrant workers from the next crisis?

By Dora Heng

The 13th ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labor (AFML) was recently held on November 10-12. Hosted by Vietnam, the 2020 ASEAN Chair, the virtual forum was organized around the theme “Supporting Migrant Workers During the Pandemic for a Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN Community”. This theme was selected in response to COVID-19 and brought together government, labor organizations and civil society to address the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on migrant workers.

Singapore, along with Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand, receives many ASEAN migrants. The 1.4 million migrant workers in Singapore comprise 24.3% of Singapore’s population and 37% of its workforce. Singapore’s economy is greatly dependent on access to low-wage, low-skilled labor from neighboring countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Bangladesh.

How has COVID-19 disproportionately impacted migrant worker communities in Singapore?

Male foreign workers in Singapore are typically employed in the physically demanding construction industry and housed in dormitories relegated to the margins of the island. Out of sight, out of mind, the dormitories’ living standards are reportedly subpar and came under media scrutiny as clusters of COVID-19 emerged in cramped living conditions. As of October, 95% of Singapore’s COVID-19 cases were in migrant worker dormitories.

Beyond the inadequate living conditions, migrant workers also lost income while quarantined in their dormitories as the government completed mass testing. As civil society group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) wrote in their shadow report to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), migrant workers faced uncertainty over their salary entitlements during the COVID-19 lockdown. This problem was exacerbated by obscure government advisories, and lack of political commitment to enforce wage laws.

According to a report by HealthServe, a nonprofit that assists migrant workers with health needs, COVID-19 has also highlighted the barriers migrant workers face in accessing healthcare. Migrant workers are excluded from the national universal health coverage system. Instead, healthcare is an “employer responsibility”. Fears of termination and repatriation often make workers reluctant to seek medical care, despite their legal entitlements.

Active engagement by civil society to support migrant rights

As a disenfranchised political minority and transient members of the Singapore community, migrant workers do not have a political voice. The government actively discourages workers from engaging in collective actions to protect and enforce their rights. Migrant workers face the real risk of deportation or of not having their contracts extended.

However, there is strong evidence of widespread public support for migrant workers in Singapore. According to a 2019 International Labor Organization report, 78% of respondents surveyed in Singapore support better labor conditions for domestic workers and 77% of respondents support stronger law enforcement to reduce violence against migrant women. This may be due to Singaporeans’ high levels of public interaction with migrant workers; 48% of respondents reported knowing migrant workers personally. The survey data reflects a willingness to stand in solidarity with migrant workers as members of a shared community.

Photo: Terence Ong, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Civil society and advocacy groups have made progress in securing greater migrant workers’ rights. Groups like Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) and TWC2 played an active role in raising public awareness about the poor dormitory and food standards that workers were subjected to during the lockdown. Public backlash was instrumental in holding the government to account, as the Ministry of Manpower subsequently took measures to improve food for quarantined foreign workers.

Advocacy on labor rights has also seen some progress over the past decade. In 2012, the Ministry of Manpower amended the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA) to include domestic workers’ entitlement to a weekly rest day, in response to civil society campaigning efforts.

Regional institutions to bring accountability for migration governance

While the host country plays an important role in ensuring legal protection of migrant workers’ rights, robust international cooperation and governance is needed to push countries towards improving migrant protections.

Singapore has ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), widely recognized as the bill of rights for women. Since ratifying the convention, the government has enacted legislative measures to better promote and protect women’s rights, including the rights of female migrant workers. However, Singapore can do more by adopting comprehensive international treaties such as the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

Regionally, there is renewed emphasis towards protection and promotion of migrant worker rights. Building on the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers in 2017, the 35th ASEAN summit recognized the importance of improving labor migration governance for migrant workers. While nonbinding ASEAN frameworks may make it hard to formalize enforceable labor standards, it is a step in the right direction to see ASEAN leaders affirming their commitment to supporting migrant workers and improving international migration standards.

About the Author

Dora Heng
Dora hails from Singapore but has lived and worked across Asia, North America and Africa. She is interested in how digital economies can support growth across Southeast Asia. She is currently pursuing her masters degree at Harvard Kennedy School of Government.