Hired on Sufferance: China’s migrant workers in Singapore

10 February 2011
There are an estimated 200,000 Chinese migrant workers in Singapore. They are employed in the city’s construction sites, factories, shops and restaurants; working long hours for low pay in frequently hazardous conditions. Many have to endure abuse, discrimination and violations of their rights but few can obtain legal redress. Their movements, behaviour and even their “moral conduct,” are tightly controlled by their boss, who can terminate their employment and send them back to China at anytime and without any justification.

China Labour Bulletin’s new research report, Hired on Sufferance: China’s migrant workers in Singapore, systematically examines the entire process by which mainland Chinese workers are recruited, employed and, when no longer needed in Singapore, repatriated.

The 60-page report outlines a series of measures the Chinese and Singaporean governments should take to improve the working conditions and safeguard the legal rights of Chinese workers in Singapore. Specifically, CLB calls on Singapore to abolish its employer-sponsored work visa policy, which gives employers excessive power and control over foreign workers, and calls on China to tighten its monitoring and supervision of the country’s rapidly expanding and increasingly chaotic labour export business.

Just to get to Singapore, Chinese workers have to pay commissions that are equivalent to one or two years’ salary at home. Moreover, many have to sign contracts that contain onerous or even illegal clauses that significantly constrain their civil liberties on arrival.

Once in Singapore, workers routinely have their passports withheld. Their accommodation ranges from adequate to appalling, and they are kept as far away from Singaporean citizens as possible in order to minimize social interaction. Access to medical care is often curtailed, and although workers are entitled to work-related injury compensation, payments are limited, and many workers are coerced by their employer into not even applying for compensation.

Violations of migrant workers’ rights are widespread, but many workers choose not to take legal action because they lack the knowledge and confidence to pursue a claim. Many feel alone, with no one to turn to for help. Others fear reprisals from their employer if they make a fuss. Those that do seek legal redress have to face numerous hurdles, including properly understanding the legal process and collecting sufficient documentary evidence to file a lawsuit. Many Chinese migrant workers interviewed by CLB for this report felt there was one law for the Singaporean boss and another for them.

Singapore is currently the second largest global market for Chinese labour behind Japan; the subject of CLB’s new Chinese language research report published last week. An English version of the report entitled Unfulfilled Dreams in a Foreign Land: The rights and interests of Chinese “trainees” in Japan, will be published later in the year.

Hired on Sufferance: China’s migrant workers in Singapore is available now as a downloadable PDF. It will soon be available from CLB in a bound edition.
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