Migrant workers

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Definitions and Scope

Target Population: Distressed Migrant Workers

The foreign workforce in Singapore was 1,387,300 in 2015 [1]. Out of these, there are 326,000 semi-skilled migrant workers in the construction industry. The target population of interest is not all low wage migrant workers, but distressed migrant workers who have been unfairly treated by employers or require some form of health care or social support. The size of this specific group is therefore smaller but still substantial.

Client Segments

careerforceNZ is cool

Domestic workers

There are 27,870 Indonesian Domestic Workers in Singapore. See Indonesian domestic workers and the (un)making of transnational livelihoods and provisional futures

Indicative Size of the Problem

kay is here

The number of work injury compensation awarded in 2014 was 14,733 cases, however this does not indicate what proportion are foreign workers.

[Stats on applications and unsuccessful cases will give better sense of relevant clients of HealthServe?]

A survey [2] by TWC2 estimates that a third of male foreign workers are not paid their dues. Extrapolating to the larger universe of foreign Work Permit holders, they estimate that about 140,000 may not be correctly paid.

Migrant Worker Needs

Prevention, Screening & Detection

Need to prevent exploitation or human trafficking of foreign workers at source country

Existing Resources

Gaps and Their Causes

Fraud, misrepresentation (e.g. contract substitution) and high fees charged by agencies lead workers to accept undesirable terms of employment

See ARI's policy brief on Singapore's domestic work industry

Fraudsters who fraudulently obtain work passes for foreign workers, for shell companies i.e. companies which are not in operation and have no work for the workers, and who then collect kickbacks from the workers by threatening to have their work passes cancelled [3].

A joint research by Dr Sallie Yea and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) reveals that trafficked fishermen face insurmountable barriers to access legal and economic justice and protection. These barriers are caused by the following factors: - significant gaps in measures for victim identification, - a lack of coordinated support for the psycho-social needs and well-being of trafficked fishermen upon exiting the trafficked situation and during criminal justice proceedings, - a lack of political will of authorities from different jurisdictions to help secure documentary evidence and extradite witnesses hampering successful prosecution, - a lack of political will of concerned authorities to be pro-active in investigating named suspects involved in trafficking networks, - the tendency for concerned authorities to cite jurisdictional loopholes thus deflecting responsibility over investigating trafficking crimes and prosecuting alleged criminals. [4]

Possible Solutions

Need for maltreated foreign workers to be identified and access means of redress

Maltreated migrant workers may not seek help from service providers because of the fear of repatriation.

[Knowledge gap: unclear what the extent and effectiveness of outreach efforts of service providers, and whether substantial numbers are afraid of coming forth for help]

Public Awareness

Need for public to understand/respect the diversity of foreign worker populations, circumstances they face, and the value they bring to Singapore

There is combination of large campaigns to the general public (e.g. International Migrants Day) and more intense efforts targeted at specific groups (e.g. medical students) but social prejudice is still likely to be prevalent

[Knowledge gap: unclear about level of public prejudice, any studies? Or news reports]

Existing Resources

VWOs student outreach and service learning (eg MWC)

Migrant poetry competition

International Migrants Day

Gaps and Their Causes Have basic understanding but no empathy of tough working conditions and cramped living conditions? Those programmes that help create empathy are hard to scale?

Possible Solutions

Need for migrant workers to understand their employment rights and services they can access

While MOM provides such information, these may not reach migrant workers who are not internet savvy. On the other hand, VWO information sessions are more understandable, but may not have the reach. [Knowledge gap: To what extent do migrant workers understand their rights, know where and who they can seek help from?]

Need for employers to understand the rights of their foreign workforce

[Knowledge gap: Do employers understand rights adequately but are ignoring them? Or are employers ill-informed and inadvertently violating such rights?]

Main Needs

Need for adequate & affordable nutrition

Food may be low in nutritional content and even unsafe, especially when caterers (some unlicensed) prepare and deliver lunch together with breakfast in order to save costs.

[Knowledge gap: proportion of workers who are undernourished; caterers who are unlicensed or do not follow NEA guidelines]

Existing Resources

Fortified Rice known as '45Rice' funded by raiSE to serve 350,000 construction workers nutritional needs in Singapore.CNA

Gaps and Their Causes

Costs: Middlemen who charge a fee bring up costs of catering Safety & Nutrition: Food is prepared many hours before

Possible Solutions

Collaborate with food banks / private operators stepping up to provide better food (45rice, etc)

Need for clean, safe and affordable housing

With the passing of the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act (FEDA) in 2015, licensed dormitories that house more than 1000 are assured of basic standards. However, smaller and illegal dormitories have unsafe, overcrowded or unhygienic conditions and are likely to be prevalent [Knowledge gap: proportion of foreign workforce housed in larger dorms under FEDA and those in smaller or illegal dorms]

Existing Resources

URA Guidelines

2015 Foreign Employee Dormitories Act (FEDA) was enacted. 20 January 2015

Raids on smaller dorms

Gaps and Their Causes

FEDA apply for dorms that hold more than 1k pax, but not smaller ones

Illegal dormitories often have the worst living conditions (anecdotal, need verification)

Possible Solutions

Need for safe and secure workplace

Existing Resources

Gaps and Their Causes

The rate of workplace injuries have remained stable, but the absolute numbers have increased due to rise in size of the foreign workforce. There are 2915 cases alone in construction industry in 2015.

[Knowledge gap: Is MOM and employers taking adequate precautions to ensure workplace safety?]

Possible Solutions

Need for timely & adequate medical treatment when injured, whether sustained at workplace or not

[Knowledge gap: -WICA changes since Jan 2016 better? In what way? -Indicative sense of how many employers who refuse to pay for medical treatment?]

Existing Resources

Gaps and Their Causes

'Botched jobs' causes by non-specialists providing treatment--eg hand injuries by orthopedic surgeons instead of hand specialists--that may be inadequate. Singapore Medical Council has guidelines against this, but has no teeth.

Under-prescription of medical certificates given. Had to return to normal duty even though not fit for work. When they went to public hospital, they were given 3 days or more MC than the 2 days or below that private hospitals initially gave them. Practice of backdating MCs. Doctors let employers decide how long the MC should be. Lack of guidelines in Singapore.

Scale of under-reporting of workplace injuries is very large, compared to countries such as Finland (insert link to HealthServe study).

Thanks to 2014 amendment of incident reporting requirement by MOM, behavior of issuing MCs and rpeorting them may have changed. Private doctors giving only 2 days MC to escape from reporting requirements. Anecdote: a locum was warned that he wont be engaged if he issues more than 2 days MC.

Migrant workers have to prove that injury sustained at workplace, and its their word against employer. Worker will then be denied medical treatment until case is over.

[knowledge gaps: how to access medical treatment while in investigative stage?]

Possible Solutions

Provide guidelines to doctors on how long MCs should be for specific medical conditions.

Enforce penalties on employers for not reporting; Penalties on doctors that collude with employers.

Mandatory reporting and expand reporting criteria by health professionals individually (or by institution), as is done for infectious diseases. reporting criteria expand to including all injuries, and add severity criteria.

Need for fair compensation by employers

Existing Resources

Employment of Foreign Manpower Act http://www.mom.gov.sg/legislation/employment-of-foreign-manpower-act

Gaps and Their Causes

TWC2 estimates that a third of male foreign workers have unauthorised salary deductions

Workplace Injury compensations…

[Knowledge gap: Injury compensations via WICA adequate? In terms of amount of compensation and timeliness? Emergency shelter, legal help provided while in the process adequate?]

Possible Solutions

Need for social integration & community belonging

[Knowledge gap: What social activities and what are the spaces that allow for these? Adequate?]

Existing Resources

Gaps and Their Causes

Possible Solutions

Resource Directory

List of Migrant Worker NGOs













ASKI Global


Relevant research centres and academics

Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme at the Asian Research institute

They also run a blog to share stories

Needs and Gaps Reports

Distressed Migrant Workers: Needs and Gaps Report 2016


There are currently 2 team members behind the Migrant workers project.

They come from organisations such as HealthServe and IPS.

You don't need to join the team to contribute, but if you would like to do more, please contact: Justin Lee [[email protected]]

The team will then include you in their future meetings to:

1. Implement editorial policies & duties

2. Solicit participation from relevant community organizations and experts

3. Convene annual sense-making sessions to produce a needs & gaps report