Singapore’s transport minister Khaw Boon Wan is probably right in saying that “foreign workers”, meaning Indian and Bangladeshi labourers, “know they are safer in Singapore now, than elsewhere, even at home.”
That is all the more reason why with a large number of Indians among the 1,016 foreign workers who tested positive on Wednesday, India’s image and self-respect, as well as India Singapore relations, demands that exporting unskilled manpower should not be so important for our foreign economic policy. This is further confirmed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s reference to migrant workers when he extended the lockdown (Singapore calls it “circuit-breaker”) from May 4 to June 1.
Promising economic support including wage subsides, Mr Lee announced he would ensure that infections in dormitories occupied by foreign workers do not spread even more. It has already done so for foreign workers are not isolated in ghettos. They use buses and trains, visit shops, supermarkets and wet markets, eat in hawker stalls and frequent coffee shops. The outbreak in the island of 5.7 million people exposes their poor living conditions. Of about 981,000 work permit holders in June 2019, about 284,000 were in construction.
Some 230,000 low-wage foreign workers, or one-third of the labour force, live in 43 crowded, unhygienic cockroach-infested dormitories, 10 to 12 sharing a room, making social distancing impossible. Thirteen dormitory complexes linked to virus clusters have been isolated, meaning workers will not be allowed to leave their rooms for 14 days.
“The dormitories were like a time bomb waiting to explode” said Tommy Koh Thong Bee, popularly known as Tommy Koh, a respected veteran diplomat who was Singapore’s United Nations Permanent Representative. “They have now exploded with many infected workers.” Commenting on the lockdown in two dormitories for 20,000 men after nearly 100 of them tested positive for coronavirus, Mr Koh commented that Singapore’s treatment of foreign workers was “not First World but Third World”.
Thousands of new cases — almost 70 per cent of Singapore’s total — are concentrated in these dormitories, highlighting the vulnerability of those in overcrowded homes whose risks of infection are exacerbated by poor nutrition, inadequate health care and personal protective equipment, low wages and, in some cases, discrimination. A recent article in the local Chinese-language daily, Lianhe Zaobao, blamed the COVID-19 outbreak on the lack of hygiene among these workers as well as their cultural differences with Singaporeans when it comes to cleanliness.
Online critics at once accused the author of “zero understanding” of the extent to which Singapore benefits from foreign workers and yet allows them to be so poorly housed. Critics think it was “morally reprehensible and utterly irresponsible” for the editors of a mainline daily like Lianhe Zaobao to publish such an article “and at a time of pandemic to boot!”
“Do you think anyone would share a room, toilet facilities and kitchens with twenty to thirty other men by choice? Do you think they wouldn’t rather eat at a nice swanky restaurant on off days rather than sit outside on the floor?” critics raged. “The truth of the matter is that they are paid so little that there is hardly anything else that they can afford to do but to sit outside. The fact that the columnist is a self-entitled ignoramus is not something that needs proving. His or her article speaks for itself.”
The plain truth is that Indian – I can’t speak of Bangladeshis but they are bound to be in the same boat – workers are at the mercy of cynically exploitative middlemen (dalals) in India and of employers in Singapore who are also often of the same disposition. Appointed to investigate the phenomenon, Shashank, later Indian Foreign Secretary, found that collusion between officials and syndicates masterminding the traffic led to doctored passports and forged work permits.
He persuaded the Tamil Nadu government to put up notices at all bus stands and railway stations stressing the need for valid passports and Singapore visas, and warning of the dangers of working without permission or of staying on after permission had expired. Not all abuses were removed. Middlemen and employers are known to impound passports so that workers are at their mercy. The wages actually paid can be less than promised or the legal norm.
There are unauthorised deductions, such as for the employment tax which employers are supposed to pay to the Singapore government but which they often recover illegally from already poorly paid employees. Some employers make further deductions on account of accommodation even though they are contractually bound to provide it. When they do, the quality is atrocious, prompting Mr Koh’s strictures. The labourers don’t complain because whatever they earn in Singapore is so much more than they would have earned in India. I knew a man with an engineering diploma from Chennai who went to Singapore as a labourer.
The Straits Times newspaper ran a feature on a Karun gundi (rag-andbone man, bikriwalla) with a law degree who had practised for a while in Tamil Nadu but earned more peddling rubbish in Singapore. Many of the labourers had sold or mortgaged their wife’s gold ornaments or whatever little land they had to pay the middleman as well as for passport, visa and airline ticket.
The resultant anger and frustration exploded in a riot in Singapore’s Little India district in 2013 when a 33-year-old Tamil construction worker was run over and killed by a private bus driven by an ethnic Chinese. Several Tamil workers were punished but India’s High Commissioner, Mrs Vijay Thakur Singh, appeared on TV on a conducted tour of obvious showpiece dormitories gushing how well Indian workers lived. It’s a good job the more credible Mr Koh has given the lie to such propaganda.
Singapore’s Manpower Minister Josephine Teo has also vowed to improve dormitories because it is “not only the right thing to do but also in our own interests.” The most encouraging signal came from Singapore’s Prime Minister. “We will look after your health, your welfare and your livelihood” Mr Lee promised foreign workers. “We will work with your employers to make sure that you get paid, and you can send money home. And we will help you stay in touch with friends and family.”
Then came promises to help during Ramadan and Eid like the government had helped to celebrate the Indian New Year. “This is our duty and responsibility to you, and to your families.” Amen to that. But India will not be respected by Singaporeans and other foreigners so long as dismal economic conditions force thousands of Indians to eke out a living abroad in the most brutish conditions. That is something for Narendra Modi to remember when we limp back to normalcy. The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.