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To give migrant workers a fairer deal, hold developers and the supply chain to account

How can industry standards ensure that companies that have built their wealth on migrant labour, are also held accountable for workers’ welfare?

Efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19 among migrant workers in Singapore are ramping up by the day as the number of infected workers continues to spike in the city-state.  When the dust settles around the massive endeavour, there is an all-important question we must ask: Have their living conditions improved, and are their work conditions fairer?

Migrant workers infected with Covid-19 surfaced early in the outbreak, but the number of cases exploded in early April due to a delay in rolling out safe distancing measures at dormitories, which can house up to 25,000 workers at one site, with as many as 12 to 20 people typically sleeping in each room.

As of 21 April, dormitory-linked cases made up more than three-quarters, or 7,125 of the 9,125 confirmed coronavirus cases in Singapore.

When this pandemic is finally over—uncertain though when that may be—would the stage be set for the workers’ lot to improve?

To ensure that Singapore’s migrant workers do not return to living in cramped and unhygienic conditions, eating subpar food, earning too little for their labour, and being treated as invisible beings in our society, we need to take a close look at the supply chain in which many low-wage migrant workers are employed, beginning with the construction and property development sector.

To ensure that Singapore’s migrant workers do not return to living in cramped and unhygienic conditions, eating subpar food, earning too little for their labour, and being treated as invisible beings in our society, we need to take a close look at the supply chain in which many low-wage migrant workers are employed, beginning with the construction and property development sector.

Crunching the numbers

As the country’s manpower minister Josephine Teo and others have pointed out, higher standards for living conditions would mean higher costs.  

As people grapple with job insecurity and economic uncertainty, this would most certainly be unpopular. But to make informed decisions, we need to crunch the numbers first. 

In 2016, in a similar push to increase the standards of nursing homes to provide more dignity and privacy to elderly residents, the philanthropic Lien Foundation and Khoo Chwee Neo Foundation commissioned a study by consultancy Oliver Wyman.

They analysed the increase in real estate, staffing and other costs under a new model that moved away from what they deemed a “medicalised, dormitory-style” approach. They found that it would cost an extra S$8 to S$13 per resident per day, or less than S$20 million in total, to transition Singapore’s 5,000 nursing home beds in the pipeline to a more person-centred model.

One of the motivations for the study, wrote Dr Jeremy Lim, a partner at Oliver Wyman at the time, was “to move us away from discussing in generalities, and unhelpful, ‘throw away’ phrases like ‘too expensive’”.

In an opinion piece for The Straits Times, he wrote: “The hope is that by modelling out the costs of the different models, we could support society engaging in a far richer dialogue, grounded in facts and biased towards action.”

So exactly how much it would cost to provide the migrant workers who build our homes, roads and offices with better living and work conditions, is a question that should be answered sooner rather than later. There are no estimates at the moment, and employers currently pay about S$300 a month for a worker to live in a dormitory.

Migrant workers advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) has said the current requirement to provide at least 4.5 square metres of living space for each worker should be at least doubled, and there should not be more than four persons per room.

The cost that would entail needs to be studied by academics and the authorities, because what gets measured can then get acted upon. We may find that the cost of improving some living conditions may not be as hefty as feared, as innovative design could make a significant difference.

We may also need to question if any increase in costs must necessarily be paid by the end-consumer, who are ultimately buying the homes and enjoying the infrastructure that these workers build.

Dr Stephanie Chok, who has done research on migrant workers’ rights, said that when discussing an increase in costs, there is a need to consider government revenue from foreign worker levies, which should be redirected to expenditure that ensures acceptable living and working conditions for migrant workers.

Singapore dorm

A clean and tidy dormitory in Singapore. Prompt response to any disease outbreak is crucial. Image: Eco-Business

Singapore has amassed a sizeable kitty from foreign worker levies—a mechanism meant to regulate the number of migrant workers—over the years. Employers pay the government S$300 to S$950 in levies per worker per month, depending on their sector, as well as other factors such as workers’ qualifications.

Excluding foreign domestic workers who live in their employers’ homes, there were about 725,000 work permit holders (the category in which most migrant workers living in dormitories belong) in the country as of last year.

“The current ‘cost-benefit’ paradigm imposed on assessing migrant workers’ needs is dehumanising. The reason they are transported on lorries, for example, is that it is more ‘cost-effective’ than hiring buses,” said Chok.

A rights-based framework is needed when making decisions about how migrant workers should be treated, and in ensuring their wellbeing while they are working and living in Singapore, she said. “This extends from how they are transported to where and how they are housed, the meals they are provided, their need to timely and adequate healthcare, leisure and social participation.”

Scrutinise the supply chain

What about the role of private sector players and public-listed companies whose business and profits are built on migrant labour, but that have largely managed to stay out of the spotlight?

Developers have, to date, largely focused most of their sustainability efforts on green buildings and finance. But it is also high time we scrutinise the labour and human rights performance of their supply chains.

Some dormitory operators have come under fire for failing to maintain hygiene standards in the dorms as abrupt quarantine orders led to a surge in workers being restricted to their rooms. Construction companies and sub-contractors that hire the migrant workers have their hands full with cash flow problems as construction projects halt amid partial lockdown measures, and the disruption in supply of materials from other countries in lockdown.

But even as many members of the public have come forward with donations, food and other supplies, many property developers and major companies in marine, manufacturing and other sectors have remained largely silent.

They may not be the direct employers of the migrant workers. But they are unmistakably part of the supply chain and, in today’s globalised and inter-connected world, have a duty to ensure things are done right.

Developers have, to date, largely focused most of their sustainability efforts on green buildings and finance. This is essential to fight global warming, the biggest challenge of our time. But it is also high time we scrutinise the labour and human rights performance of their supply chains.

I looked at the sustainability reports of two of Singapore’s most prominent developers, CapitaLand—one of the first companies in Singapore to voluntarily publish its sustainability reports according to the Global Reporting Initiatives Guidelines in 2009—and City Developments Limited (CDL), which has been awarded a host of sustainability accolades. Neither provides information on the living conditions of migrant workers and whether they were paid in full and on time.

According to its 2018 report, the latest available on its website, CapitaLand’s main contractors must ensure there is no child or forced labour at its project sites. Main contractors appointed for its development projects must be OHSAS 18001 certified (Occupational Health and Safety Assessment Series) or engage an independent accredited assessor to conduct occupational health and safety legal compliance audits on-site. In 2018, there were no injuries at its Singapore construction sites. 

In CDL’s Integrated Sustainability Report 2020, the company⁠—which has a similar certification requirement for its project sites—reported that over 1,900 construction workers worked at its developments in 2019. There was one fatal incident involving a male worker from its sub-contractor.

“For close to two decades, as part of the tender shortlisting process, we require all our builders to have an accredited health and safety management system. We also actively engage our business partners on health and safety matters through risk reviews, starting from pre-construction all the way to completion and handing over stage,” the company stated.

“Our builders also take proactive steps to inculcate safety culture among the workers by briefing them on fatigue, heat stress, hearing conservation and respiratory protection. Where necessary, transportation is provided to take workers to their medical appointments with private and public medical practitioners.”

Companies without comprehensive sustainability reports offer less disclosure, if any. Far East Organization, for example, is a major property developer that is privately-held. It does not publish a sustainability report on its website, but its listed companies including Far East Orchard, which has a portfolio of hotels and serviced residences in Singapore, do. 

How can industry standards and rules ensure that developers, and other companies that have built their wealth on migrant labour, are also held accountable for workers’ welfare? Can homebuyers and building occupants be informed at a glance, perhaps through an online dashboard, of the labour practices and human cost of the concrete structures they occupy?

Avoiding ‘layers of deniability’

Agribusiness and the fashion industry may offer ideas on how to avoid “layers and layers of deniability”, said TWC2 president Debbie Fordyce.

Labelling schemes have helped inform consumers who want to buy more sustainable products, for instance. Industry standards such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and the Better Cotton Initiative help inform consumers of brands such as Starbucks, adidas and H&M that they adhere to certain production standards.

Even in sectors as complex as palm oil, major companies have made NDPE (No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation) pledges that extend to third-party suppliers and put in place procedures to trace and improve their supply chains. Public scrutiny hasn’t hurt.

Can homebuyers and building occupants be informed at a glance, perhaps through an online dashboard, of the labour practices and human cost of the concrete structures they occupy?

So, in addition to how “green” a building is, can a mechanism enable homebuyers and building dwellers to know if the workers who built their homes and facilities were fully and fairly paid, including for overtime, given sick leave, and if they were housed in acceptable accommodation?

We could perhaps build on the Building and Construction Authority’s Green Mark Scheme, and roll out a Fair Labour Scheme or a holistic Better Building Scheme.

Post-Covid-19, it may not be realistic for workers to live in pandemic-ready spacious conditions, just like it is difficult to space students out in classrooms, Fordyce noted.

Nobody knows what the next outbreak will be or how it would spread, but what is important, is to deal with it promptly, she said.

According to Fordyce, the bigger issue—beyond living conditions—is the wage levels of these workers. Their salaries are often meagre and workers have to pay staggering recruitment fees (amounting to one or two years’ of labour) to secure jobs that some were misled on. Their strenuous and risky work conditions are something no Singaporean would put up with, she said. This needs to be urgently regulated.

“Covid-19 has put migrant workers on the front pages, but not always for the right reasons,” she said.

In the wake of Covid-19, the authorities can help migrant workers who lose their jobs from the downturn by facilitating switches and ensuring local companies do not charge them for their new positions, Fordyce said.

To be sure, the plight of migrant workers is not unique to Singapore. Advocacy groups in Asia have highlighted the need to uphold the rights of this vulnerable group amid the pandemic. Governments in places like the Gulf states have also been urged to come up with solutions unique to their context.

As societies look forward to the day when Covid-19 is adequately contained and learn from the series of events triggered by the tiny pathogen, may the lives of migrant workers also take a turn for the better.

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