Singapore was once a tiny fishing village. Now, 50 years into independence, it’s a modern metropolis, home to 5.47 million citizens. The Singapore skyline’s rapid transformation, from kampongs to skyscrapers, has been praised internationally and envied regionally. Singapore’s great minds – acclaimed leaders, innovative politicians – are often given full credit for its rapid transformation. The iconic buildings of the CBD give rise to praises for Lee Kuan Yew and Singaporean ingenuity. Few realise, however, that building a city takes more than bright ideas and political policy. Architects rarely lay the bricks for the utopia they envision.
Tall buildings and gleaming lights often obscure darker realities of Singapore’s economic growth.
An issue often ignored by the general public is that of low-paid foreign workers. In this clean city, it seems that rarely is it locals that have to do the dirty work. According to Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a whopping 400,000 of Singapore’s total population is made up of these migrants, who largely work in construction or hard labour. Singapore is a developed country where education and training is accessible for citizens; it’s no wonder that these these labour intensive fields are looked upon with distaste. These “undesirable” and “unsafe” jobs are “best left to others”. As a result, whenever a new building or construction site pops up, many turn a blind eye to those physically building it.
Hiring foreigners for “unskilled” labour is a cost-effective approach for employers in Singapore and for the economy. Typically, labourers hail from less developed countries like Bangladesh, India, China, Indonesia and the Philippines. Workers from these countries would willingly work longer hours on tougher jobs, for just a fraction of the pay.
This system of employment is effective and efficient, but it is far from humane. Essentially, it thrives off exploiting the vulnerability and clouded idealism of those seeking better lives.
There is an injustice inherent in the system that stems from a tremendous imbalance of power, which allows employers near complete control over the lives of their employees. Laws in Singapore make it very difficult for these workers to negotiate their terms. Employers sometimes have the right to terminate workers at any time. Termination could then cost these foreigners their working permits, sending them back home. The system allows for a lot of abuse.
Employers have – often without consequence – withheld pay, elongated working hours, ignored dangerous working conditions, subjected workers to bad lodging and refused to bear the costs of medical treatments. To pay off huge agency fees, and subsequently to make money, many workers are stuck in this situation for years.
The unending stigma associated with foreign workers adds to the inequality they face. It isolates them from the larger Singapore community; many Singaporeans even try to avoid them. Often, they’re looked upon with undeserved scorn, and this greatly exacerbates the difficulty of their situation. Their voices are rarely heard or even acknowledged by the public, which would make the biggest difference to their situation.
Workers are lured in by promises of profit and prosperity. Granted, there have been numerous success stories. Some lucky ones have returned to their villages and built big, beautiful homes. However, many don’t realise that the likelihood of the average worker achieving this wealth is deceptively low. In fact, some even go home worse off than they came. Lack of awareness and lack of education hinders people from learning the truth about the industry.
It’s hard to look past idealism, and turn back on a promise of a better life. This is why it’s unrealistic to expect these workers realise the corrupted nature of what they’re signing up for before they arrive. It is a given that we do need the labour of these foreign workers to support our economy, but we must not forget that our low-wage workers need our kindness and fair treatment.
Singapore owes a bit of its success to this broken system – the least we can do now is try to fix it.