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Hard life, but foreign workers labour on

Many foreign workers bear the conditions for the promise of higher wages than they can hope for back home. -ST
Chia Yan Min and Melody Zaccheus

Mon, Dec 10, 2012
The Straits Times

SINGAPORE - BY DAY, they labour in the sun to build walls, weld pipes and drill at offshore rigs.

When it is time to turn in after a 10- or 12-hour shift, some go back to clean, well-kept dormitories. But many others face a fresh battle - with cockroaches that nest below their beds and pesky bedbugs that bite their flesh.

Some migrant workers get as little as four hours of shut-eye each night. Their sleep is disrupted by bedbugs, and fellow workers who share their dorm rooms and are on a different shift.

For some, the daily grind starts again as early as 4.30am, when they rise to start queuing to use the toilet.

Many foreign workers bear the conditions for the promise of higher wages than they can hope for back home.

Construction worker Guan Dao Si, 41, from China, says: "I'm supporting five family members so I just work. I work non-stop, no matter how hard it is, because I'm doing it for my family."

He earns about $1,500 a month and rests only on public holidays.

The wages and living conditions of workers like Mr Guan are in the spotlight after a recent strike by SMRT bus drivers from China.

The striking drivers highlighted issues such as lower pay compared with workers of other nationalities, inadequate rest days and poor dormitory conditions.

While the strike was illegal and the workers failed to make use of proper channels to resolve their grievances, their concerns have to be faced up to.

There are more than a million foreign workers here. Most do jobs Singaporeans do not want, such as those in the construction and marine sectors.

Insight spoke to 40 of them and found most accepting of their lot here.

The good and the bad

EVEN though they are paid far less than workers from China, Indian and Bangladeshi workers seem less likely to complain.

China workers earn monthly wages of $1,000 to $1,500 on average, significantly more than their counterparts from India and Bangladesh, who earn between $480 and $800. With no minimum wage laws, some Bangladeshis earn as little as $1.80 an hour, says one migrant workers' group.

Even as some Singaporeans debate the fairness of such wage differences, many of the workers interviewed by Insight seemed relatively satisfied about working here. They said their wages are higher than those back home, and employers pay them on time.

Workers from India and Bangladesh also said that if they had not come here to work, they would likely be jobless back home.

Bedbugs and disturbed sleep are common problems, which the workers spoke about only when asked specifically about their living conditions or problems they faced. There were also those who had no complaints as their dormitories were clean.

Of the 40 workers Insight spoke to, two were visibly unhappy with local conditions. Both were from China.

That is not surprising, given that higher wages are the main reason foreigners come here to work and the gap between what China workers can earn here and back home is closing - fast.

Construction worker Song Jian Hang, 34, tells Insight: "The economy in China is on the rise and the difference in wages for less skilled workers like us is now smaller than when I first came over to Singapore."

The father of two also explained that the Chinese still head to Singapore as working conditions here are generally safer.

The tropical climate also means they can work through the year, unlike in some parts of China where work stops in winter.

Given this mix of sentiments, any survey of foreign workers is likely to find an overwhelming majority saying they are satisfied with conditions here.

That was indeed the case when the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Migrant Workers' Centre commissioned a survey of just over 3,000 non-domestic work permit holders last year.

Besides good wages, the workers also said they would recommend working in Singapore to their relatives and friends because of the good prospects.

The experience of Mr Sharif Islam bears this out.

In six years, the 28-year-old Bangladeshi with A-level qualifications rose from construction labourer to chemical plant supervisor.

He came to Singapore with a "dream" and a resolution to "work hard".

After two years as a general worker, he knew hard work alone would not get him far, so he attended construction courses and beefed up his resume with seven different certificates. His ability to use the computer well allowed him to move to the company he is at now.

"How far we go depends on how motivated and talented we are. If I can improve myself here, I can earn more," he says, though he acknowledged that a large majority of his compatriots might not have such opportunities.

He now earns $2,000 a month on average - a far cry from the $600 he made when he first started here in 2006. Back home, he thinks his pay would be $500 or less.

In stark contrast to Mr Sharif's rise are the sad tales of those forced to stop work because of injury. Some are abandoned by their employers, despite laws setting out their obligations. It is not surprising that these workers' views of working in Singapore are largely negative.

The ugly

MIGRANT workers' groups deal daily with the ugly side of foreign worker employment.

In August, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) interviewed 250 Bangladeshi workers at Changi Airport before they left for home.

The focus of the poll was on the large sums that these workers pay agents or middlemen at home to secure jobs here.

The non-government organisation (NGO) found that, on average, these workers take 17.5 months to repay their loans. And that about one in five Bangladeshi construction workers might well be returning home without recovering his recruitment costs.

That is due in part to the fact that many workers are now here on one-year instead of two-year contracts, with employers making salary deductions to cover lodging, utilities and food.

In some cases, these add up to $200 a month, say advocates.

Ms Debbie Fordyce, a TWC2 volunteer who coordinates its food distribution scheme, The Cuff Road Project, says workers also pay kickbacks to employers to have their contracts renewed.

The average asking fee: $1,081.

She tells Insight: "The more palms they've greased in order to get the job, the less likely they are to want to back out of it or complain if they have any issues."

That sums up Mr Rifatul Islam's quandary.

The 30-year-old Bangladeshi worked for four years in Singapore as a construction worker. He spent his first year paying off a $3,500 debt to an agent here who had linked him to a job.

His salary of $700 a month helped to support his mother and sister back home, until his employer went bankrupt three months ago. He is now looking for another job.

Speaking through a translator, he says: "Since I've already paid so much to the agent, I want to stay in Singapore for at least another five years so I can earn more money for my family."

In September, MOM toughened penalties against those who collect kickbacks from foreign workers in return for a job.

With the changes to the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, those found guilty face a fine of up to $30,000 or up to two years in jail, or both.

But agents in these workers' home countries, who exploit them by charging exorbitant fees to secure jobs here, remain largely outside MOM's jurisdiction.

The ministry said that it enforces the law strictly on the prompt payment of salaries. Employers who fail to do so repeatedly have been prosecuted and jailed.

Foreign workers caught in wage disputes with their employers can seek help from MOM by calling its hotline, e-mailing the ministry or going in person to its one-stop service centre for foreign manpower issues. The centre is located at Bendemeer Road, near Potong Pasir MRT station.

But disputes over a fair wage, as in the SMRT bus drivers' case, fall into a grey area as they do not involve any breach of the law.

If workers were to call MOM to complain, for instance, that they were being paid too little or less than others of a different nationality who do the same job, MOM would first try to establish if this was a systemic problem affecting a significant number of workers, or the grouse of just one or two.

If it believed the problem was systemic, it would refer the matter back to the employer and urge the employer to do the reasonable and responsible thing, says Deputy Commissioner for Labour Then Yee Thoong.

"I have never encountered an employer who does not want to act when we ask them to," he says.

Mr Then adds that it is very difficult for any government to pass regulations on what constitutes a fair wage. Neither does the Government want to "over-prescribe" to companies how they should compensate workers.

In that light, he says, the five-page advisory that the Singapore National Employers' Federation (SNEF) issued to its members this week was "timely".

In it, the federation urged employers to handle workers' grievances "fairly, responsibly and expeditiously" and set out timelines for dealing with complaints.

Life away from home

MIGRANT workers' groups say that with wages and family obligations weighing heavily on their minds, foreign workers are reluctant to complain about poor living conditions.

Mr Tang Shin Yong, executive director at HealthServe, a charity which provides low-cost medical care to injured migrant workers, says living quarters for workers generally fall into three categories.

"Upper-scale" dormitories, which are managed by major operators, tend to be clean and well- maintained.

"Lower-scale" ones typically fail to meet standards, he says.

And living conditions at temporary lodgings on construction sites are usually the worst.

Workers may face a gamut of problems at these facilities, including cramped quarters, poor ventilation and infestations of pests such as bedbugs, mosquitoes, cockroaches and rats.

Sanitation can be poor too, with dozens of workers sharing a toilet.

The Government has in place a slew of regulations on acceptable accommodation for foreign workers. These set out, for example, the minimum space to be allocated to each worker in a dormitory as well as sanitation and fire safety standards.

Companies are allowed to house workers in temporary quarters on construction sites but they have to secure approval from government agencies, such as the Housing Board and Jurong Town Corporation, before doing so.

Not all employers abide by these regulations. Some continue to house foreign workers in unapproved housing which fail to meet minimum standards.

From 2009 to 2011, MOM prosecuted 4,500 employers for failing to meet minimum requirements for housing foreign workers.

The Employment of Foreign Manpower Act states that it is the duty of employers to ensure workers have a decent living environment where they can have adequate rest.

But in reality, this responsibility is often outsourced to dormitory operators, says Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, who chairs the Migrant Workers Centre (MWC), an NGO set up by SNEF and the National Trades Union Congress.

Such arrangements blur the responsibilities discharged by each party, he says, with operators tending to cut corners.

MWC feels more can be done.

It is facilitating the setting up of a dormitory industry association, to be launched within the month, to set benchmark standards for the industry. The aim is to instil a sense of self-regulation.

Even though there are many aspects of the current situation that are dismal, migrant worker advocates acknowledge that well-kept dormitories do exist.

They also welcome the fact that a growing number of workers pool money to share a laptop and a fridge in their rooms, which points to them enjoying their living spaces more.

As for employers, some do their part. Mr Raymond Er Reng, a project manager at Poh Lian Construction, says that his company conducts regular checks of its workers' dormitories at Woodlands and Defu Lane, "from the entrances of kitchens to the sleeping areas".

It rosters workers to clean up their living and sleeping quarters, and gives them time off to do so.

Work in progress

MIGRANT workers' advocates like Bridget Tan of Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) say Singapore society treats foreign workers as "economic digits" and that needs to change.

"We cannot keep bringing in migrant workers and not think about developing appropriate social infrastructure to support them." In her view, that should include a minimum wage law.

Mr Yeo of MWC believes that as the economy restructures, there will be a shift towards bringing in more skilled workers who are more aware of their rights and "less likely to face abuse and be saddled with large debts".

The Manpower Ministry says it reviews its laws regularly and seeks to enhance protection for workers, both foreign and local.

In the meantime, the foreigners who work here cling to their hopes for a better future.

Electrician Samrat Ali, 26, is working "extra hard" in hopes of finding a higher-paying job in the region. It took the Bangladeshi a while to get used to life here but now that he has, he is ready to move on. "I don't think I will stay for long," he said.

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