But this was not a small city in central or western China, this was Singapore, supposedly one of the most advanced and modern cities in the world.
Singapore is currently the world’s second largest market for Chinese labour after Japan, with total labour contracts valued at US$527 million in 2008. And yet, the working and living conditions for migrant workers in Singapore are often no better, and sometimes even worse, than they would face at home. Many workers, expecting gleaming skyscrapers and a clean, hi-tech environment, are shocked when arrive at their destination.
“When I first arrived at Changi Airport, I was so impressed. Then a goods vehicle came to pick us up. I felt very ill-at-ease, why is this company sending a goods vehicle to pick us up?” one worker said.
More than 200,000 workers are transported to and from their worksites each day on the back of such vehicles. And in 2009, on average, four workers were injured on their way to work each week as a result. Click here to see the humans aren't cargo photo stream on flickr.
Having just spent a week in Singapore talking to migrant workers and researching employment conditions there, it is clear to me that neither Singapore nor China provides adequate protection to these workers. Many Singaporean laws favour employers. Employers are able to terminate work-permits anytime without even informing the workers. It is also standard practice for employers to withhold migrant workers’ passports. Wage arrears and long working hours are common problems.
According to Singaporean government regulations, foreign workers are supposed to be housed in purpose-built dormitories or other suitable accommodation, but these regulations are widely ignored.
The Singapore media recently exposed a case of more than one hundred foreign workers living in converted cargo containers. Each container was furnished with two three-deck-bunk-beds, and workers had to cook, eat and sleep in this tiny space. There was no bathroom and they had to shower and wash their clothes in the open air. Nevertheless, the workers put up with these conditions because they feared their employers would cancel their work permit if they complained.
China Labour Bulletin will publish a detailed research report on Chinese workers in Singapore later in the year.