New laws in Singapore appear to give employers ‘almost unfettered power’ over migrant workers’ movements, say NGOs

The rules, which took effect on 2 June, require most lower-income foreign workers to obtain their employers’ consent in order to leave their dormitories.

migrant worker dorm1
Many lower-wage migrant workers in Singapore live in dormitories such as these, as well as factory-converted spaces and worksites. Image: Eco-Business

Two major migrant welfare groups in Singapore have expressed deep concern over new laws that require most lower-income foreign workers to obtain their employers’ consent in order to leave their dormitories.

The new regulations appear to give many employers “almost unfettered power over workers’ movement”, and leave workers with no immediate recourse under the law, said the two non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), in a joint statement last week.

The rules allow workers to leave a dormitory to seek help in an emergency, but employers’ view of “emergency help” may be significantly narrower than the workers’ actual needs, the NGOs said. 

Even if the workers call the police for help, the new laws lack “clear objective criteria for first responders to evaluate and override employers’ views”, they noted.

The amendments to the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations took effect on 2 June, as Singapore eased out of a partial lockdown to stem the outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus. The amendments affect two categories of lower-wage workers, Work Permit and S Pass holders, who number more than a million. The workers come from countries such as India, Bangladesh and China, and are employed in sectors such as construction, manufacturing, marine and services. The rules apply at all premises housing seven or more workers.

‘Some tasks must be done in-person’

The NGOs said they are helping some workers whose employment was terminated when they claimed unpaid wages from their employers, and are now looking for new jobs.

There are other workers who need help with ongoing cases, and confinement in their accommodation has made processes that are “already costly and onerous” even more difficult, TWC2 and HOME said. “This regulation offers no scope for workers to leave their accommodation to seek redress, case advice or new jobs.”

As Singapore eases back the past two months’ restrictions, the draconian measures to contain and control Covid-19 among migrant workers should likewise be minimised—not entrenched in even more sweeping and harsh laws.

Joint statement by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics and Transient Workers Count Too

HOME’s non-domestic casework team members Desiree Leong and Luke Tan said they have encountered about 30 individuals affected by the regulations so far, who live in factory-converted dormitories and worksites where residents have tested negative or fully recovered from the virus.

“Workers in distress often need help because of their employers’ conduct. Such employers have every reason to hinder the workers from seeking assistance or attention,” Leong and Tan told Eco-Business.

“When workers call for help, we have to thoroughly understand their situation before dispensing any advice. Documents which the workers themselves may not understand or have lost track of, may need to be reviewed. This is very difficult to do remotely,” they said. “Furthermore, after weeks or months in lockdown, many workers with no phone credit may have no means at all to call anyone for help.  Physically going out is the only way to seek assistance.”

Some tasks must be done in-person, they added. For instance, individuals whose work passes were cancelled during the partial lockdown and were not issued with special passes by the manpower ministry, need to physically go to the ministry to be issued with a special pass—without which they would be residing illegally in the country—and make various other applications.

Others need to send money to families back home, while there are some who needed medical attention but were ignored by their employers, the HOME caseworkers said.

Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower did not comment when approached for its response to the NGOs’ statement, and on whether it has received reports of workers who could not leave their accommodation.

No time limit to new rules

The NGOs noted that there is no time limit to the new regulations, and criticised the requirement for workers to keep their living spaces “clean and tidy” as part of work pass conditions.

“The main factors of the spread of Covid-19 among the workers were their overcrowded living, working and transportation conditions—not conditions of their own making,” HOME and TWC2 said.

Singapore has confirmed more than 44,000 Covid-19 cases to date, more than 94 per cent of which are migrant workers living in dormitories. Case numbers surged in dormitories in early April after a delay in implementation of safe-distancing measures, sparking a public outcry over workers’ cramped and unsanitary living conditions. A large dormitory can house up to 25,000 workers, and rooms typically contain 12 to 20 beds.

Since then, many sites including hotels, cruise ships and sports halls have been deployed to spread the workers out and stem the Covid-19 outbreak.

The Singapore government announced last month that it would improve living standards for migrant workers. Besides building new dormitories meant to last two to three years, and refitting unused state properties to reduce the density in existing dormitories, the new dormitories would have more living space per person (at least six square metres, up from 4.5 sqm), a maximum of 10 beds per room, and more toilets and bathroom facilities. In the longer term, it will build new dormitories to replace the short- to medium-term housing.

While robust measures are needed to keep everyone safe from Covid-19, the new movement regulations treat migrant workers as “a problem to be fixed, by coercion if necessary, regardless of their rights or personal agency”, HOME and TWC2 said.

A blanket confinement of the workers is inhumane and disproportionate, Tan and Leong said. “If specific workers or locations are very high-risk or with known significant exposure, then the workers should be issued individual stay-home notices or quarantine orders, and the authorities should take direct responsibility to ensure both the workers’ well-being and their compliance. If risks are suspected but unquantified in particular locations, then the workers should be tested,” they said.

For rules to be fairer, workers’ inputs should be sought and the authorities could also consult NGOs and volunteer groups for feedback on specific provisions, said Dipa Swaminathan, founder of It’s Raining Raincoats, another migrant workers’ help group. It has, so far, not encountered workers unable to get their employers’ consent to go out of their dormitories.

Said HOME and TWC2: “As Singapore eases back the past two months’ restrictions, the draconian measures to contain and control Covid-19 among migrant workers should likewise be minimised—not entrenched in even more sweeping and harsh laws.”

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