He had come to earn his daughter’s education and I to widen my vision and earn my own.
We’ve sung sufficient verses and drawn out (usually) romanticized accounts of the nameless worker seated behind the crane or climbing up scaffolds in our name. An increasing number of volunteers wander out to learn more about the migrants who built and still build our country whether well-meaning or simply for the credit attached. When we say “We are Singapore”, we claim that they are among our ranks. We’re doing more to reach out to them, trying our best to humanize them we insist.
And yet, I find myself questioning time and time again what substance actually lies behind our pretty statements and politically accurate pronouncements.
When asked to the face if we’re willing to bear the cost of ensuring their security, the certainty in our answers disappears. There are plenty of civic-minded souls willing to write away a few of their hours at volunteer organizations. At the Cuff Road Project, Monday nights can mean serving up to 476 free meals to workers who are either injured and out of work or engaged in a legal dispute with their employers. The volunteer run organization aims to provide food, shelter, medical and legal assistance as well as a communal space for as many workers as possible. Still, there’s only so many workers they can support as a single organization and their efforts remain scattered and the impact similarly disperse. Without a society willing to take on collective responsibility and create sufficient political pressure, there is little change that we can achieve.
Upon some introspection, it’s easy to see that the measures in place today hardly grant our migrant workers the level of security and support they deserve.
It was a leap into the unknown but which star can be caught while standing with our feet planted to the ground?
For the countless workers who arrive at our shores, the battle begins even before their first step on our soil. It begins with securing an agent and sufficient cash to pay a deposit to be flown a thousand miles and more to an unknown country based on the recommendation of an uncle or cousin already at work on our roads. It’s seeded by the scarcity of jobs back home and the desire to better support a child or a sibling in ways they couldn’t back home.
Once they arrive, they’re faced with a slew of contracts and jargon. By law, they are to be insured against workplace and non-workplace injuries as paid for by their employers but few are aware of the nuances and specifics. All they’re armed with are the desire to make the best of this opportunity and the dreams of reaching stability that they hold clenched within their fists.
We might have come to accept how heavily dependent we are on our foreign labor force but we’ve yet to come to terms with the accompanying responsibility we owe them. This goes beyond simply ensuring that on paper they’re paid fair wages and are meant to be housed in decent accommodation. It involves changing industry norms of how we treat our workers and the standards we hold our employers too. Had those standards been kept, we wouldn’t have to rely on groups such as Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a local NGO supporting migrant workers’ rights, to constantly push for their fair treatment single-handedly.
But the rug was pulled from beneath them and the fall unexpected as they find themselves free-falling towards the ground.
The feeling of helplessness when unexpected misfortunes hit us and derail the path we’ve charted isn’t unfamiliar. You could even say it’s a part of the process when chasing dreams, to climb our way back on track and pushing forward regardless.
That said, in an occupation abundant with risk, migrant workers receive more than their fair share of unexpected misfortunes. To a migrant worker, a spinal injury or even a broken bone could be translated into the possibility of sudden repatriation. There’s an asymmetry of power at play here and it is one which the law and our current legislation doesn’t take sufficient account of. While the law mandates that foreign workers be equipped to receive adequate medical benefits, there continue to be numerous accounts of follow-up treatments not being supported or thinly veiled threats of being sent back should the worker refuse to return to work. What sits uncomfortably with me here is the knowledge that employers hold full sway over their workers in terms of the treatments they might receive or whether they can even remain in the country. Take for example the Letter of Guarantee from employers. Should this simple piece of document be withheld from a migrant worker, they can’t even access a majority of non-emergency treatments without paying a $1000 deposit upfront. For a worker on a $500 monthly salary, that’s equivalent to asking them to pay with an arm and a leg.
Rules such as the necessity of the Letter of Guarantee then become a tool to assert the power asymmetry between employer and employee instead of encouraging social and financial responsibility among employers.
Limbs flailing, desperate fingers scramble for purchase only to come away with broken rock that weighed one down and brought the ground ever closer.
The possibility of legal recourse for unfair treatment while great on paper, isn’t a viable option for most workers. Though aiming for thoroughness, legislation such as the Work Injury Compensation Act often hit a wall when settling disputes between the accounts of how a certain injury was sustained. In a battle of narratives, the lines aren’t always clear cut. During this period, the fear of repatriation becomes that much more acute as the worker’s visa is no longer supported and they lose their employment and visa guarantor. The well-intentioned legal aid they may receive isn’t complemented by the system laid out for them and often the hassle involved itself in lodging a case acts as a deterrence against seeking recourse or sufficient treatment.
A system that was built to prevent being taken advantage of by the workers immediately assumes their lack of responsibility. If we began by constructing a system that intended first to protect our workers, the incentive to exploit loopholes in the system might be less. This begins with the public agreeing to taken on such a stance and to share the concern of fair employment. In its absence, sectors where workers need support such as the legal and healthcare sectors will continue to be lacking with little priority given to protecting them.
A dream in itself, he thinks to himself, that a rope should drop from above and swing as a lifeline to halt his fall.
It isn’t sufficient for us to support the workers superficially through single-day events commemorating their contributions or nodding in sympathy when a certain case hits the front page. I’m not going to be a whiny grandma reminding you that as far as we’ve progressed as a society, our discrimination against certain jobs leaves us dependent on foreign labor for them. Actually, no, that’s exactly what I’m saying.
Leaving it to corporates and employers to shoulder the responsibility of caring for these workers is only justified if we ensure they carry out the duty as required. We can’t use the private sector as a scapegoat for the dignity we can’t seem to afford our migrant workers. Even if the blatant discrimination against immigrants prevalent in certain other parts of our world (read: America) aren’t present here, it doesn’t mean such a scenario is an impossibility. We might have non-governmental organizations like HealthServe, an NGO providing subsidized medical service to workers, or TWC2 to forward the migrant workers cause. While heartening, they aren’t sufficient in providing widespread support to every worker who arrives at our gates. To create long-lasting change, the call for it needs to resonate in every one of us.
No dream is chased alone so perhaps we can now help them chase their dreams alongside our own.