Singapore: Migrant Workers Face Abuse, Advocates Say

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By Lien Hoang

With clean streets and clean politicians, Singapore rose quickly to its spot among the planet's wealthy and well-oiled economies.

But beneath the shiny coat of technocratic prosperity, labor advocates say, there's an underbelly of migrant workers who face wage theft, long shifts with limited overtime pay or days off, extortion, and poor food and housing.

From the vantage point of U.S. farms or Dubai construction zones, the Singapore puzzle would look familiar: how to cope when, as a nation's citizens climb the income ladder, plenty of low-skilled jobs remain that someone must do.

‘False Pretenses’

For some employers in Singapore, issues don't come from a few bad apples exploiting workers, but from a corporate modus operandi, according to John Gee, chair of the research subcommittee at Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). Gee noted the “false pretenses” he often sees in hiring: Migrants arrive on the Southeast Asian island to find their wages are lower than those guaranteed in their signed contracts. The boss offers an explanation that he cut costs because business conditions worsened, and the Ministry of Manpower accepts it. Then the company turns around and advertises the same higher pay when it searches abroad for more workers.

“We had to conclude that this was deliberate,” Gee said by phone from Singapore. “It's very clear that this is a tactic.”

The ministry did not respond to this criticism but told Bloomberg BNA by email: “Errant employers are firmly taken to task, which includes fines, imprisonment, and barring them from hiring foreign workers.”

Too many businesses cultivated a now-entrenched belief that to survive they had to suppress wages and benefits, said Stephanie Chok, case manager at the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics.

Migrants Nearly 30 Percent of Employees

From shipyards to assembly lines, migrants holding work permits comprise nearly 30 percent of the city-state's workforce. Gee thinks industries like construction couldn't function without them but sees a social angle too: One in five households employs a foreign domestic helper, which feeds a national goal to get Singaporean women into the workplace.

In August, the manpower ministry urged foreigners to report employer abuse. It was responding to a local press story about laborers forced to take falsified paychecks and fearing expulsion.

“What the workers have had to go through is painful,” the ministry said.

Chok is skeptical of this call for workplace complaints.

“It was quite an unrealistic demand or expectation because if they do come forward, they'll probably lose their job,” she said in a phone interview. “That's generally the problem we have with statements like that.”

In the email to BNA, a ministry spokesperson did not address that concern. Instead, the ministry pointed to recent investigations on behalf of workers, such as those it said paid kickbacks to stay on the job and others placed in dirty housing with “evidence of rat infestation.”

The ministry also highlighted a survey it co-organized, reporting a rate of foreign worker satisfaction of 90 percent.

But Gee dismissed the study as skewed because it lumps Bangladeshis and Indians—the main groups seeking help from TWC2—together with Malaysians, who often have stable pay, don't owe five-figure debts to job brokers, and easily return home across the border.


Gee said authorities should work with source countries to combat unscrupulous recruiters, while Chok wants Singapore to demand more often that misbehaving companies forfeit part of the S$5,000 (US$3,700) security bond they hold for migrant employees. They and other advocates recommended loosening the regulations that shackle foreigners to one sponsoring employer, making it hard for them to switch jobs.

Other solutions would have the government ramp up workplace safety inspections and require electronic wage payment to increase wage transparency, according to a 2015 report from the National University of Singapore's Asia Research Institute.

Admittedly, the environment for workers has improved in recent years, Gee said, noting that reputation matters to Singapore, which has low rates of crime and homelessness and Asia's highest income per capita. But alongside the billionaires, there are migrant workers like the 41 foreigners sharing two toilets in a cramped dorm or the domestic helper who lost 20 kilograms (44 pounds) when her employer starved her. Both were cases taken to court in the past year.

“I think Singapore gets quite sensitive,” Gee said, “to anything that's damaging to its international standing.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Lien Hoang in Ho Chi Minh City at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rick Vollmar at

For More Information

For more information on Singaporean HR law and regulation, see the Singapore primer.

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