Feb 17, 2011
The 200,000 migrants from China working in Singapore suffer abuse, discrimination and violations of their rights but few can obtain legal redress because they are under the control of their employers, according to a report by the China Labour Bulletin.
The 60-page report, "Hired on Sufferance", called on Singapore and Beijing to sign the three major international conventions on migrant worker rights and take other steps to protect the workers.
Foreign workers play a critical role in Singapore's economy: one million migrants made up one third of its workforce in 2009, accounting for 70 per cent of those in construction, 51 per cent in manufacturing and 25 per cent in services. More than 80 per cent are unskilled.
The migrants come from Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, the Philippines and China. Those from China work mainly in construction, manufacturing and transport. Singapore is the second-largest market in the world, after Japan, for labour from China.
The abuse begins even before the migrant leaves their own shores, the report said. Chinese regulations stipulate that overseas labour contractors can only charge workers a maximum commission of 19,000 yuan (HK$22,480) but CLB found that the migrants paid between 30,000 and 50,000 yuan for a two-year contract.
Chinese law also states that before they leave workers should sign contracts of employment that comply with the law of the country where they are going. In reality, many workers have no contract - merely a verbal agreement on wages and working hours - or sign contracts with illegal clauses, many signing only a few hours before they board the plane.
When they arrive in Singapore, most are told to hand over their passports, even though this is illegal under the city's laws. For its one million foreign workers, the city has only 35 government-approved and purpose-built dormitories. The rest live in on-site quarters, shared flats, illegal dormitories converted from private buildings or cargo containers.
According to a report in The Straits Times, about 40 per cent of the 1,460 workers' quarters inspected by the government between 2009 and 2010 were deemed unacceptable.
The report found foreign workers in the construction and service sectors earned about half of the average wage of local workers doing the same job. Those from China worked 10 to 12 hours a day, with two days off per month. The average working week for a Singaporean in 2009 was 46 hours and the average monthly wage S$3,872 (HK$23,580). The city has no minimum wage.
Most migrant workers received no paid sick leave, although the law provides for 14 days a year for outpatient problems and 60 days when time in hospital is required. One suffered an eye injury and was told he would lose his sight without treatment. "I told my boss but he refused to pay for the treatment. It is cheaper to let me go blind than to provide treatment."
Despite such cases, the report found that, in 2009, the rate of complaints to the Ministry of Manpower about violations of the Employment Act was 3.6 per 1,000 workers among foreign workers, compared with 8.4 per 1,000 among Singaporeans.
Most of the interviewees who had gone through mediation and Labour Court proceedings said Singapore was strict in terms of evidence and procedures and that the courts were impartial. But they found it hard to enforce the judgments once they returned to China.
On its website, the Ministry of Manpower said that Singapore had been a member of the International Labour Organisation since independence in 1965. Its website has a page inviting people to inform the ministry of irregularities in the employment and treatment of foreign workers.
"But Singapore's legal protection falls short of internationally acceptable standards," the report said. It said Singapore and China should sign the three major international conventions on migrant labour. "China should significantly tighten its monitoring and supervision of the country's rapidly expanding and increasingly chaotic labour export business. China's embassy in Singapore should take a far more proactive role in helping to resolve labour disputes involving Chinese citizens."