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Migrant Workers in Singapore

5 years ago / ntuc / worklifesg

They are people, too.

You know how some things - albeit minor - can happen when you're a child but somehow remain etched in your mind?

One such event for me happened when I was five or six (definitely before primary school because I remember being in my kindergarten uniform) and I had returned home from school and as I stood at the front gate waiting for my Mom to open up for me, she was in the bathroom or something that day and took much longer than usual. I ended up getting really scared and started crying... at the top of my lungs. (I was FIVE, don't judge!)

The next thing I knew, this Kor Kor appeared next to me and kept me company until my Mom came out. (I later found out that he rushed over cause he'd thought I was in some kinda trouble or was being kidnapped or something.)

Because this Kor Kor was working in my neighbourhood, I would continue to see him every day as I alight from my school bus and make my way home. I'll wave and he'll smile back - our little daily ritual.

We didn't speak much... in fact I don't think we had spoken to each other at all? But I'm very sure there was something genuine about him.

What I didn't mention was - this Kor Kor was a foreign worker, probably from Bangladesh or Sri Lanka - but would you have interpreted the story differently given his occupation and/or nationality?

I also remember coming home from school one day and he was having lunch and the sight of his lunchbox disturbed me so much I can still remember exactly how it looks like - plain white rice with two stems of green chilli.

(My heart just broke as I typed that :worried:)



Fast forward to today, I spent my growing up years feeling so sorry for foreign workers. Sometimes extremely angry and saddened when I read about how evil some employers can be? Like the guy who dumped his worker to die by the side of the road? I CANNOT FATHOM HOW CAN ANYONE TREAT ANOTHER FELLOW HUMAN BEING THIS WAY?

Not to mention how it's been like 25 years (!!!!) but workers today are still being served 'unappetising, stale food'. Or when people get upset when a foreign worker sits next to them on the MRT train, like Hello, how do you think the MRT track gets built in the first place?

I have heard plenty about how many of these workers give up so much to chase this 'Singapore Dream'. Most end up paying huge sums of placement fees of up to $9000 to rogue agents and resorting to sell their homes, land, farms etc in order to make it here to possibly earn as little as $1.80 an hour.


I wrote this post back in 2010 in my now-defunct Wordpress space wanting to champion for better welfare for foreign workers because errrr, I was noob and didn't know about the Migrant Workers’ Centre.

(Plus back in 2010, it was a period where migrant workers weren't a very sexy topic yet, unlike today.)


Last week, I caught up with Bernard Menon, Executive Director of Migrant Workers Centre (MWC) to find out more about the NGO set up by National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the Singapore National Employers’ Federation (SNEF).

There was no agenda, no specific topics to talk about but a very open discussion to see how will things flow and I've got to admit that I was very taken in by how fired up he was about the organisation he has pioneered, his continual efforts to build a positive and safe environment for these workers who are essentially the backbone of our society. Just so you know, the MWC has seen over 4000 cases per year for the past two years, and the centre has touched thousands of lives since its inception in 2009.

That's the thing I guess about talking to people who are extremely passionate about their cause (and charismatic; maybe cause he's a Josephian - like the hubs :smirk:)

Here are some takeaways I got:

1. At the end of the day, Singaporeans also benefit

As altruistic-sounding as it is, because the MWC is backed by the NTUC it goes back to what the Congress stands for - to improve jobs, wages and lives for all workers of Singapore. Yes, the train can be a tad of a squeeze on the NEL over the weekend but these one million migrant workers form 2/3 of our work force to build walls, weld pipes and drill at offshore rigs under the sun and rain and while some get to return to a comfortable-enough bed in a proper dormitory, there are those that are not so fortunate.

A few weeks ago, when we were celebrating the year-end holidays, the MWC responded to a distress call to their 24-hour helpline and conducted a visit to a makeshift dormitory in the eastern part Singapore where they found the employer to have, among other possible infringements, failed to provide safe and acceptable housing for the workers.


The inside of one of the many container housing units. Conditions were cramped and dirty, with each housing up to 10-12 workers within a restrictively small space.

While we continuously propel Singapore towards higher productivity, it would also do us good to keep in mind to upgrade the tools and skill set of these workers who actually form a significant part of our workforce.

Additionally, Bernard also said something that puts things into perspective for me -

"Whatever you advocate for migrant workers, local low-wage workers benefit too."

Because who are the ones that employers will abuse? The ones with lower bargaining rights.

So as we see changes to the Employment Act to make it mandatory for employers to provide itemised payslips for every employee to safekeep and key employment terms (what job, what salary and when is salary to be paid) to be formally documented before the start of employment, it not only helps migrant workers from unfair deductions, late payments or short payments, this prevention also extends to our fellow Singaporeans.


2. There are happy stories too

Last year, around 4500 workers sought the Ministry of Manpower's help to redress their salary woes - up from 900 in 2013.

When Bernard told us that most of the cases the MWC attends to are over wage disputes, my first thought was that for these workers, they are really just here to work as hard as they can to give their family back home a better life, to put their children through school, to put food on the table. It doesn't matter that they lead a hard life here with poor living conditions, bad food and other grievances, they will definitely tahan as much as they can - but when you take that money away from them (sometimes it can be as many as 6 to 7 months' worth of salary), you are denying them of that sole purpose of being here and that's when they lose it and seek redress.

But still, there are happy stories too - we have workers who have been in Singapore for TWENTY YEARS and counting, supporting their families and putting their children through university and basically transforming their lives. Remember the Tamil Nadu village that held a funeral procession for our late Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew? They also joined in our SG50 celebrations in Ullikkottai as two of three households here at some point in their lives worked in Singapore as construction workers, plumbers, movers and packers, painters, fitters and electricians. Today, Ullikkottai has grown from a rural sparse village to one with its own shops, community halls, 24-hour hospitals and ATMs and has become self-sufficient for the most part.

3. We are not there yet but we can get there

The nature of our economy is such that we can't do without migrant workers. We are not perfect but systematically we've got it more right than wrong and in fact countries like Japan and South Korea are looking to us as they realise they too need to do the same for economic sustainability.

For the most part of my life, I found people around me to be mostly at best apathetic about migrant workers but these days, with more community outreach programmes and media coverage such as these foreign workers who had helped save a baby in Jurong East,


I can now see a shift in sentiment and overall empathy as people understand them better :)

(Foreign workers wishing Singapore Happy Birthday)

I'd like to think, at the end of the day, we are all the same.

We all have the same dreams of wanting to make a decent living to support our loved ones and hopefully give them a better life than ours - except that they aren't as fortunate as us to be born in a home and in a country where they can land good jobs with access to education and opportunities like ours.

But ultimately, they are human too.


To find out more about the Migrant Workers' Centre, you can visit their website at or join them on Facebook. Migrant workers in need of assistance can call the MWC's 24-hr helpline at 6536 2692.