Migrant workers

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Definitions and Scope

Target Population: Distressed Migrant Workers

The "United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families" [1] defines migrant worker as follows: “ The term "migrant worker" refers to a person who is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national. The foreign workforce in Singapore was 1,393,000 in 2016 [2]. Of which 772,200 were low-wage migrant workers (hereafter migrant workers) in the construction, marine, manufacturing, process and services sectors. There were also 237,100 migrant domestic workers (MDWs) on work permits. [3] Out of these, there are 315,500 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

Singapore receives migrant labour from a number of countries. Most notably Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Thailand [Nicolas Piper, http://www.fes.de/aktuell/focus_interkulturelles/focus_1/documents/8_000.pdf]. According to a 2013 report by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, there are about 1 million male migrant workers and 1.2 million female migrant workers. [UN’s data doesn’t match with ST’s reported data of 1.4 million workers though https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/c2180c_236ca62d0546405a86b4795f6ab0372d.pdf]

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

See this page on Refugee in Singapore.

Indicative Size of the Problem

The number of work injury compensation awarded in 2016 was 15,679 cases, [4] however this does not indicate what proportion are foreign workers. Inadequate medical leave is also granted to migrant workers at times, with HealthServe providing 60 to 70 workers a year with additional healthcare services. Based on anecdotal reports, workers only approached alternative sources of medical help when they felt unbearably uncomfortable. [5] Given that an individual’s threshold of pain and availability to visit supplementary healthcare services differs from one to another, the number of migrant workers who had failed to receive the appropriate treatment but remained silent is potentially higher than what we are able to gauge.

Findings by SGH suggest that labour agencies hold a vested interest to deliberately decrease the amount of medical leave and aid. [6] Under the Workplace Safety and Health Regulations, employers must report to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in 10 days if an accident leaves an employee unfit for work for more than 3 consecutive days. Reporting such incidents may tarnish the construction company’s reputation, and even disqualify them from LTA’s Accident Free Awards. Consequently, contractors approached private clinics where they could dictate the length of medical leaves. TWC2 found that about 1 in 3 workers who had consulted private clinics received fewer than 4 days Medical Certificate, leaving some to suffer from the lack of appropriate rest and treatment. [7]. Contractors’ efforts to manipulate information cloud the actual, much larger, size of the problem that migrant workers face.

The mistreatment of migrant workers is also prevalent in the domestic domain. The Straits Times reported that maid abuse cases in the State Courts almost doubled, from 14 cases in 2012 to 26 cases in 2014. Common forms of mistreatment include starvation, emotional abuse and physical abuse. The Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training (FAST) has been operating a 24-hour helpline for maids from June 2013 and its statistics are revealing. Since this initiative’s inception, the number of incoming calls has increased from 50 calls a month to about 180 calls a month in 2016. [8] The numbers imply that a significant number of migrant domestic workers feel troubled, or even mistreated, despite the lower amount of formally reported maid abuse cases. Of course, as Ms Shirley Ng of Orange Employment Agency puts it, having more complaints doesn’t mean the reality of more abuse cases. [9]

Regardless, the presence of unreported cases cannot be denied, and troubled signs can still hint at abuse. If so, the gulf between troubled workers and the number of formally reported cases can be bridged by an understanding of the migrant domestic workers’ predicaments. Celine Dermine, a Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) consultant, mentioned that workers under-report for fear of losing their jobs. [10] In 2014, HOME also helped report 333 cases of psychological and emotional abuse. However, they are more difficult to qualify due to a lack of evidence and not many surfaced to the State Courts. Despite this complication, a rough sense of the large magnitude the troubles migrant domestic workers face can be derived.

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

A survey [11] 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. Within this pool of workers who believed they were correctly paid, TWC2 questioned their awareness of their actual salary. Only 29% of these workers received a salary slip, which states the elements of their pay. It is suggested that workers could easily be swindled into believing the amount they had received is the right amount. The majority’s lack of knowledge of their pay could reduce the workers to vulnerable and easily exploitable labour.

Similarly, despite MOM’s regulation to declare a fixed monthly salary when applying for a foreign domestic worker’s work permit [12], it is not uncommon for migrant domestic workers to be paid less as and when employers wished to. [13] This proves that contractual agreements are not enough to safeguard migrant workers’ interests. In 2014, MOM took action against 58 employers who failed to pay their domestic workers [14], and the actual scale of disenfranchised workers could be even larger than reported. If further actions were not taken by MOM to enforce the workplace agreements, more migrant workers could be, and would be, exploited. In 2022, 5 foreign workers protested due to unpaid wages, making it to the news. [1] 8 years on despite MOM's enforcement efforts, the safeguards proved to be variably weak for the migrant workers.

Migrant Worker Needs

LKYSPP has recent commentary (4 July 2019) that provides overview of their circumstances

Prevention, Screening & Detection

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

According to TWC2, human trafficking is not a singular act, but a process of exploitative and abusive practices. [15] This understanding is aligned with Singapore’s Prevention of Human Trafficking Act. This act indicates that a victim of human trafficking can be identified if recruited, transported, transferred, harboured or received by means of (a) The threat or use of force, or any other form of coercion (b) Abuduction (c) Fraud or deception (d) The abuse of power (e) The abuse of the position of vulnerability of the individual (f) The giving to, or the receipt by, another person having control over that individual of any money or other benefit to secure that other person’s consent for the purporse of the exploitation (whether in Singapore or elsewhere) of the individual.

Indeed, the above law shows us that one would first have to be geographically displaced through a specific set of actions, and then exploited, in order to be qualified as human trafficking. Since exploitation is a means to no end, human trafficking must be understood as a process.

The Prevention of Human Trafficking Act has only just been implemented in 2014 and not much official statistics has been collected to allow us to recognise the severity and incidence of human trafficking in Singapore. Of 48 labour trafficking cases reported in 2014, only 5 were found to involve trafficking.

However, other studies suggest that the issue is more critical in reality. One Singapore reveals that to secure a job in Singapore, migrant workers often have to pay high agency fees. It is estimated that a foreign domestic worker takes up to 6 months out of a 2-year contract to pay off her debt to an agency, whereas a construction worker may take up to 18 months. [16] This finding indicates a violation of point (f), whereby a worker is at their employer’s disposal purely for the latter’s benefit.

According to the Ministry of Manpower’s 2016 report, Singapore works for an average of 45.6 hours a week. [17] A TWC2 2017 survey found out that migrant labourers work for 62.5 hours a week [18], with a Bangladeshi migrant worker sharing about his way below average $1.50 hourly wage in 2014. [19]. While it is difficult to prove whether such workers were illegally transported to Singapore, exploitative measures that fit the conditions for human trafficking are apparent.

Existing Resources

StopTraffickingSG (https://stoptrafficking.sg/) The StopTraffickingSG Campaign is led by HOME, AWARE and TWC2 MARUAH and UN Women. It lobbies for the inclusion of victims’ rights in the legislation and for the state to adopt a rights-based and victim-centric approach to handling trafficked cases. Following the 2014 Prevention of Human Trafficking Acts, StopTraffickingSG submitted a 1,050 signature petition to Member of Parliament Christopher de Souza to be more sensitive to the victims’ rights. Instead of being labelled as undocumented migrants, victims of humans trafficking were to be allowed to work while their cases were being investigated. [Mely Caballero-Anthony, Toshihiro Menju (eds.), Asia on the Move: Regional Migration and the Role of Civil Society, Brookings Institution Press, 2015, 75]

Singapore Inter-Agency Taskforce (http://www.mom.gov.sg/trafficking-in-persons/) The Singapore Inter-Agency Taskforce aims to implement holistic, coordinated strategies to combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP) more effectively. It is co-led by the Ministry of Manpower and the Ministry of Home Affairs, with representatives from Singapore Police Force, Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, Ministry of Social and Family Development, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Law, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Attorney General’s Chambers.

They have identified 4 key strategies under their National Approach, to combat TIP. Specifically, prevention, prosecution, protection, and partnership. Find out more at [20]

They have also introduced a TIP Public Awareness Grant to encourage public education initiatives that help raise awareness of TIP crimes, so that incidents can be detected early and reported to the authorities. In 2014, up to $80,000 was awarded to UN Women, EmancipAsia, and Dr Sallie Yea from the National Institute of Education. [21]

However, StopTraffickingSG has also pointed out that July 2014 was the last known award of a Public Awareness Grant. [22] It is nevertheless poignant to note that applications were once again opened in January 2017.

Gaps and Their Causes

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

Undesirable terms of employment in Singapore’s domestic work industry are examined in ARI's policy brief. ARI identifies the following 5 key challenges that impede the industry from providing a favourable working environment for migrant domestic workers: 1) Unregulated wage levels: monthly salaries ranged from S$170 to S$750 2) Undervaluation of paid domestic work: no significant correlation between qualifications and work experience with monthly salary and employment terms 3) High recruitment and placement fees: workers are bonded to employment agents through high debts 4) Workers’ weak and unequal bargaining power: held hostage by their fear of repatriation, paralysing their intent to reveal discontent 5) Discriminatory advertising practices by employment agencies: some agencies promote their workers with clauses such as ‘no days off’, portraying them as commodities

Also, there could also be a potential power imbalance facing the migrant workers. With the 5 key challenges mentioned by ARI, the push factors for them to accept undesirable terms of employment will be higher. Additionally, the core operational model within industries that hire migrant workers often takes advantage of these power imbalance, leaving the effectiveness of government interventions to be less than ideal.

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 [23].

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. [24]

Lapses between different governments’ labour laws also allow the occasion for migrant workers to be exploited. Under Philippine law, agencies are not allowed to charge any placement and administrative fees to domestic workers. However, Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower allows agencies to deduct up to a maximum of two months’ worth of a domestic worker’s wages for placement fee. [25]

Possible Solutions

Following ARI’s research on the undesirable terms of employment, they have also made a number of recommendations to redress challenges that the migrant workers face in the industry: 1) Encourage skill differentiation within the domestic work industry: introduce a two-tiered visa system to differentiate between specialised caregivers and general housekeepers, ensuring the quality of services provided and remunerating appropriately 2) Provide standardized training and testing for pertinent household and care-giving skills: certifying levels of proficiency enables more effective labour matching services based on particular household needs 3) Ensure greater transparency and accountability in the industry: formalise employment contracts and translating it into the employee’s preferred language to ensure an acknowledgement of the fine print 4) Increase workers’ access to labour mobility and social protection measures: ensuring that migrant workers understand their basic rights, through a Settling-in-Programme 5) Prohibit discriminatory advertisements by employment agencies: emphasise on marketable skills and relevant work experiences, rather than immutable categories of nationality, race, or even gender Other solutions worth visiting regard to shifting the burden of administrative fees from migrant workers to the employers themselves. The Singapore Government could adjust its stance on placement fees such that it aligns with that of the Philippine law. As the relevant paper work and tariffs are part of the employment process, and the employers desire the workers’ services, they should be responsible for the above mentioned items. It is noteworthy that as of March 2017, the Philippine Overseas Labour Office Singapore (POLO-SG) has decided to suspend the documentary processing for agencies that collect placement fees through salary deduction. [26] While POLO-SG’s stance may indeed reduce the incidence of financial deprivation for the migrant domestic workers, total suspension of the relevant agencies’ operations may affect the supply of migrant domestic workers in Singapore, potentially adversely affecting the economy. As such, it is still recommended for the Ministry of Manpower to compromise with POLO-SG’s stance on not having workers to pay placement fees, charging the employers instead.

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

Physical, emotional and sexual abuse all fall under the umbrella of maltreatment. According to the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) in 2014, they helped report 97 cases of physical abuse, 19 cases of sexual harassment and 333 cases of verbal/psychological abuse. [27] However, case logs show that maltreated foreign workers often do not seek immediate redress, allowing abuses to continue. In 2014, a foreign domestic worker escaped from her workplace only after 1.5 years of physical. Through insufficient nutrition, she has lost 20kg since employment. [28] It remains to be addressed, whether migrant workers do not seek redress because they do not want to, or because they do not know how to.

Existing Resources

Migrant Workers’ Centre (http://www.mwc.org.sg/) Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC) is a bipartite initiative by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the Singapore’s National Employers’ Federation (SNEF). MWC aims to champion fair employment practices and the well-being of migrant workers in Singapore. MWC hosts a 24-hour hotline where foreign workers are able to express themselves in their native language. The 13 languages include Thai, Bahasa Indonesia, Mandarin, and Chinese dialects like Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese. [29] A benefit of a helpline relates to how a worker would be able to tip MWC off anonymously, without the employer being able to identify the worker and retaliate with threats. In January 2014, a call allowed MWC to successfully aid 120 migrant workers in securing wages that were due for up to 3.5 months from their employers. [30]

Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (http://home.org.sg/) HOME provides shelters for maltreated foreign workers. They are not unique in this initiative, however. Other providers include the MWC and the Centre for Domestic Employees.

Gaps and Their Causes

Maltreated migrant workers may not want to seek help from service providers because of the fear of repatriation and financial penalties. A fearful attitude in the workforce is indeed apparent, as a study on migrant workers by Nicholas Harrigan and Koh Chiu Yee reveals that various sources of distress, such as housing debts and threats of deportation has resulted in serious mental illnesses. It must be noted that employers often have the power to relief or aggravate these sources of distress. 62% of migrant workers awaiting salary or injury claims and 13% of regular workers have met at least one of the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual-IV disorder criteria [31], amongst other worrying predicaments, such as bipolar disorders and suicide attempts. This study shows us the prevalent internal struggles of the migrant workers. Their emotional distress alludes to the presence of a threatening, restrictive environment, possibly engendered by their employers and causing the workers’ lack of initiative to seek redress. Emotional distress could be a byproduct of conflicting interests between the employers and the employees. Threats against the migrant workers ensued when the employers wish to prioritise and fulfill their interests above those of the workers. Thus, paralysing the workers from acting in their interests, often breaching their rights instead. In 2016, a migrant construction worker was advised by medical professionals to be warded for observation. However, he did not do so as his manager threatened to fine him a penalty of $1,000. [32] To put the severity of this ultimatum into perspective, TWC2 reveals in a report that migrant construction workers earn a starting pay ranging from S$548-1137. [33] In the worst case scenario, the worker would have hardly received any wages for 2 months’ worth of work if he wished to have access to suitable healthcare services. Workers may therefore continue toiling away in physical and emotional pain so as to not jeopardise their purpose of coming to Singapore to work, which is to be more financially able.

Migrant workers also fear subverting their employer’s authority as employers are free to terminate the former’s contract and repatriate them within 3 working days. [34] Most migrant workers have paid a hefty sum to secure a work placement in Singapore, with 2 workers interviewed by TWC2 reportedly having had paid S$3,200-S$3,500 to a Bangladeshi job agency. [35] With reference to data depository Numbeo, that amounts to about 7-8 months’ worth of average Bangladeshi pay. [36] Being repatriated would thus incur a high sunk cost for migrant workers and, while not always easy, subjecting to their employer’s wishes appears to be a more practical alternative. Another possible understanding of the migrant workers’ needs is that they do not seek redress because they do not know how to. In this aspect, external forces would have to intervene to address the status quo. The inability or lack of knowledge to get help is more common in the domestic domain. Reason being, migrant construction workers stay in a dormitory together, with minimal supervision after working hours. The lack of supervision creates more opportunities for them to communicate with each other, and recognise the desirability of their working and living conditions. Consensus will subsequently compound into collective acts of looking for help, if need be. In January 2014, a migrant worker’s call informed Migrant Workers’ Centre of their intent to strike if 120 migrant workers did not receive wages that were due for up to 3.5 months from their employers. [37] On the other hand, migrant domestic workers are always under close scrutiny by their employers at home. Common restrictive measures implemented by the employers minimize their workers’ interactions with the outside world. These include having no off days, despite it being a mandatory provision under MOM’s law [38], and prohibiting the possession of a mobile phone. With limited access to spaces beyond their workplaces, regardless of the quality of the help available in Singapore, workers are unlikely to be aware of the relevant services and even less likely to seek help. As such, instead of creating channels for them to seek help at, the importance of actively reaching out to foreign workers must be highlighted.

Possible Solutions

The Ministry of Manpower could take ownership of communicating the migrant workers’ rights to themselves and to the employers. The migrant workers could be alerted to red flags they should look out for, and the appropriate authorities or NGOs they sound inform if they were to be maltreated. The employers could also be informed about the appropriate treatment workers should receive, and be guided to provide the relevant infrastructure, to minimise the potential circumstances for physical maltreatment. Outreach efforts will also potentially enable us to assess whether they’re victims of maltreatment and helping them accordingly. Of course, it must be recognised that most of these possible solutions require additional labour to implement, and this barrier is a possible hindrance to facilitating more desirable treatment towards the migrant workers.

[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 and Singapore’s commitment to address and minimise racial discrimination continues raising questions. Academic James Gomez mentions that even though Singapore claims to be a meritocratic multi-ethnic society, it has not yet, in 2010, signed the first human right treaties called the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1996). [39] Even with Article 12, which guarantees all persons equality before the law [40], prejudiced inclinations remain prevalent. Discriminatory practices such as Wisma Atrium’s toilet ban against contractors limit the migrant workers’ accessibility to public spaces. [41] While the management’s concern for the toilet’s cleanliness is valid, it could have worded its stance more carefully, such as disqualifying people with dirty or muddy footwear from the toilet rather than contractors altogether.

Other instances of public discrimination include the colloquially termed ‘Serangoon Gardens Dormitory Saga’ in 2009. In this saga, about 1,600 residents signed a petition against the plan to build a dormitory for foreign workers. [42] The residents also voiced out concerns about how these workers would soil up the park, clog the streets, and violate their children and womenfolk. [43] These comments reveal that some Singaporeans remain prejudiced against the migrant workers, and affiliate migrant workers with negative connotations.

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

Existing Resources

SamaSama (https://www.facebook.com/groups/samasama2016/) SamaSama is a Facebook group that seeks to improve the lives of low-wage migrant workers here through positive messaging and changing the ways locals perceive them. SamaSama has also held an art exhibition with a guided dormitory tour in 2016, allowing the public to know the people behind our nation’s construction.

SportCares Foundation (https://www.sportsingapore.gov.sg/about-us/sportcares) SportCares activates sport as a force of social good, organizing sports programmes and workshops for the underprivileged to bridge communities. In August 2016, SportCares organised an event at Tuas View Dormitory, where games were played between migrant workers and Singaporeans. [44] Through this initiative, migrant workers and Singaporeans both helped to facilitate and participate in the games, leading to a better understanding and relationship for those involved. While not an organisation specially focused on aiding migrant workers, SportCares shows us the possibilities of cultural exchange and mutual understanding through quality time spent together. In other words, it is possible for any public or private entity to create space for the public to understand and respect the migrant workers’ diversity.

VWOs student outreach and service learning (eg MWC)

The Migrant Worker Poetry Contest The Singapore Migrant Worker Poetry Contest saw its third iteration in 2016, received 70 entries in Bengali, Tamil, Mandarin, Tagalog, Bahasa Indonesia, Cebuano and English. [45] This initiative offered workers a platform to display their artistic potential, enable them to reconcile with their feelings and helps humanise migrant workers as individuals instead of being a unit of faceless labourers.

International Migrants Day

Gaps and Their Causes

In 2013, Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC) Chairman Yeo Guat Kwang mentioned that MWC aims to better integrate migrant workers into the community by promoting better understanding of our social norms and laws for them to comply. [46] By definition, integration refers to the understanding and acceptance of foreign and incumbent entities into one community. Instead, Mr Yeo’s vision relates more to assimilation rather than integration. A day of festivities was organized on International Migrants Day, in which 50,000 workers were reported to have attended. While indeed crucial for migrant workers to feel appreciated, we cannot purposefully integrate the foreign labour force into our community without having public participation in these initiatives. Without the latter, these initiatives could entrench how segmented our society is, with migrant workers being accepted by a select group of Singaporeans while the rest remain nonchalant or lack chances for interaction. In other words, festivities for migrant workers could breed exclusivity rather than integrate. Despite the many initiatives implemented to encourage understanding between Singaporeans and the migrant workers, most of them, while commendable, remain one-off efforts to bridge our communities. One inhibition could also stem from the fact that migrant workers typically work long hours, leaving limited time for either party to reach out for the other. More recent initiatives like breaking fast with Muslim workers in June 2017 held in the evening certainly brought us a step closer together. [47] However, such matters may hold a smaller number of participants and a fleeting degree of intercommunity interaction if not sustained and developed into a day-to-day Singaporean reflex to treat each other with respect.

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

With the aim of social integration in mind, organising events to promote inclusivity in general could be more effective than organizing activities specifically for migrant workers. As HOME’s representative Vanessa Ho has highlighted, such initiatives, while motivated by desirable intent, continue to perpetuate the use of labels like ‘migrant’ or ‘foreign worker’. [48] The use of such labels is often derogatory and should be minimised through delivering initiatives that are more inclusive and non-discriminatory, such like more activities like SportCares’ initiative.

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

Current Problem

Though it is difficult to ascertain the extent in which most migrant workers understand basic employment law and their related rights, research done by relevant NGOs (e.g HOME) can be helpful in painting a relevant picture. [2] Most social workers and MOM employers on the ground would comment that issues of kickbacks, wage exploitation, excessive agent fees, etc, still remain extremely prominent for many of the foreign migrant workers today, especially those in construction, manufacturing and service sectors.

Legal procedure and avenue for claims

On the surface, it should be noted that the Singaporean government provides the basic mechanism for employment claims and compensation. The Employment Act, Chp 91 [3] outlines basic rights of Non-domestic Foreign Migrant Workers (note that Foreign Domestic Workers fall under another act, Employment of Foreign Manpower Act). In the case where there is a violation of a right prescribed by the Employment Act, or by the Work Compensation Injury Act (in relation to work injuries), workers may visit employment clinics at MOM offices, where they will be given a consult with an MOM officer to discuss their case. After such a consultation, the case can either be dropped (due to lack of merit) or advanced to the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) for mediation. If mediation fails, the claim is advanced to the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT), a subset of the state courts where trial will be held.

In summary, MOM provides a direct touchpoint for workers to pursue their claims. However, there remains substantial gaps in two forms (1) lack of legal education (2) lack of legal representation during mediation and trial process.

Lack of Legal education

Generally, there remains a low understanding amongst foreign migrant workers of what they are entitled to under Singaporean Law. The insulated experience of being transferred from the mercy of their agents, to the mercy of their employers, often mean that the employees have little opportunity to negotiate terms of their employment contract. This is not helped by the fact that the In-principle Approval (IPA) stating industry, salary and future employer of the incoming worker, is registered by the employer to MOM, without the involvement of the employee. Though contractual terms and work conditions may be considered void and illegal under the law, workers do not know this. Hence, they might think that they are bound to private contracts with their employer involving illegal kickbacks, excessive deductions and unpaid overtime wages.

MOM attempts to provide a solution by providing educational programmes (usually a day long), where workers who first enter the country are briefed on their rights. Furthermore, if there is any legal aid available by cursory workshops and pamphlets, they may be in English, which is a second language to many migrant workers.

[Knowledge gaps: need to fill in why workers need legal representation]

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 clarity on job scope and duties (and suitable workload)

Existing Resources

Gaps and Their Causes

Job scope for foreign domestic workers are not clear, rules are vague and therefore prone to abuse. Without clarity, employers' whims and fancies dictate maids' duties. Overtaxing maids can also actually hurt loved ones they care for (ST 30 Mar 2017)

Possible Solutions

-Clarify job scope, like those spelled out in ILO’s 2011 Domestic Worker’s Convention (ST 30 Mar 2017)

-Letting maids live outside employers’ homes to manage workload (Walter Theseira)(ST 30 Mar 2017)

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

Migrant workers in Singapore who seek to file claims against their employers face the prospect of losing their jobs, being repatriated or even intimidation. (TWC2 Report)

Existing Resources

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

Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT) - for salary and contract-related claims up to $20,000 for work permit holders.

Gaps and Their Causes

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

Workplace Injury compensations: Employers may under report their injuries, or not support their injury claims due to a lack of evidence, and being unable to enforce claims as employers refuse to pay. When a worker files a salary or injury claim with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), an employer typically cancels his work permit so as to avoid paying the monthly foreign worker levy. Once a work permit is cancelled, the affected worker would be issued a special pass so that he can stay in Singapore until the conclusion of the claim. However, a special pass does not allow a worker to continue working here.(TWC2 Report)

According to the MOM website, employers are required to provide food, acceptable housing and pay any medical leave wages and medical bills during the entire claim process for work injury compensation, even after the worker’s work permit is cancelled.Traditionally, workers whose claims cannot be settled by mediation can escalate the matter to the Labour Court but this presents difficulties to them, as they are unfamiliar with court processes and lack the skills to represent themselves in court. The Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT), replaced the Labour Court for salary and contract-related claims up to $20,000 for work permit holders. Unlike the Labour Court, ECT orders are treated like court orders. However, enforcement orders still require extra funds on the worker’s part, which might not be viable for them. The resolution of injury claims can take between one and three years, while salary claims can take up to nine months.TWC2 Report

[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

Have the workers sign a Standard Employment Contract, which ensures minimum standards, such as basic salary, rest day pay and working hours, are in place (TWC2 Report)

Need for social integration & community belonging

Local Singaporeans need to appreciate the efforts and hard work done by migrant workers. By doing so, migrant workers are seen as fellow humans and treated as such. In addition, migrant workers make up a significant percentage of Singapore's population. As of March 2020, there were 720,800 work permit holders in Singapore, excluding foreign domestic workers.[4] Hence, this community cannot be ignored and must be considered as part of Singapore society.

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

Existing Resources

Migrant Worker Poetry Competition https://www.singaporeworkerpoetry.com

Gaps and Their Causes

Many businesses see migrant workers as assets first, then fellow human beings. As a result, there is a risk of them being mistreated and abused by employers. Hence, there is a need to reemphasis to society that these migrant workers are just as human as Singaporeans.

Spatially, foreign workers might be segregated from the rest of society. What this means is that public spaces may represent certain divisions in society due to the formation of enclaves. One example of this is Lucky Plaza which is where many foreign domestic workers gather on their off-days. Lucky Plaza is a mall that contains many services targeted towards Filipinos such as ATMs for sending back money, Filipino food and stores that sell Filipino products. As such, the mall has become a well-known place for FDWs. While this provides FDWs with a place of familiarity where their culture is celebrated, it may also serve to deepen divisions as Singaporeans may have preconceived judgements towards Lucky Plaza.

Possible Solutions

Conduct engagement sessions between Singaporeans and migrant workers. Examples are:

- College of Alice and Peter Tan's Active Community Engagement (Migrants) provides students an platform to interact and learn more about migrant workers.[5]

- The Smart Local's video on a day in the life of a migrant worker helps to give Singaporeans an insight into the daily life, thoughts and emotions of migrant workers in Singapore.[6]

- The Welcome In My Backyard (WIMBY) ground-up campaign was launched in April 2020 by volunteers to encourage Singaporeans to welcome migrant workers relocated from dormitories to Housing Board estates as part of efforts to curtail the spread of the coronavirus. WIMBY's Backyard Conversation helps give a platform for ordinary Singaporeans to meaningfully interact with migrant workers.[7]

- Use social media to raise awareness on migrant workers. NGOs can increase their online presence so that migrant workers also know how to reach out to them.

These platforms will helps Singaporeans empathise better with migrant workers.

Resource Directory

List of Migrant Worker NGOs

Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants & Itinerant People








Justice Without Borders


Helps exploited migrant workers seek civil claims after leaving S'pore, see ST article







ASKI Global


It's Raining Raincoats


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 [justin.lee@nus.edu.sg]

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