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Labour and precarity in Singapore

Issue 81

Apologies for the late issue this week! I was in transit on Friday and then got caught up in cat dramas once I got home—we’re trying to introduce a new cat into the household. If anyone has  tips to make cats befriend one another instantly, I would love to hear them (I know this magic bullet doesn’t exist but one can dream).

First up, solidarity and support for the teams working on challenging Section 377A in court!

Let’s get the political stuff out of the way quickly…

I really only have one topic this week that I would like to explore more fully, so I’m going to run through some other headlines a little more quickly.

The PAP convention was held over this past week, and based on the reports, many a motherhood statement was uttered. For example: the upcoming election is a high-stakes one, which is why the PAP thinks we should vote for them. (My question is, when is a country’s election not high stakes for its people?)

File under “fun to note”. Nothing’s certain yet, but the Workers’ Party is now doing walkabouts in Tampines. That’s the constituency of current Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who we just talked about in last week’s issue about how his motion filed against the WP MPs wasn’t exactly executed flawlessly.

So we can get to something more interesting

This week I’m more interested in labour issues. It’s not secret that Singapore isn’t great when it comes to labour rights—and I’m not just talking about policy. I’m also talking about mindset, and how we think about labour and “skills” and deservedness. A recent survey found that 48% of Singaporeans think that migrant domestic workers should earn less than $600 a month. That’s terrible, but the reality is that a lot of domestic workers do earn less than $600 a month, and they don’t have the space, platform, or access to their right to demand for more and better conditions.

The lack of labour rights and decent wages also impacts Singaporeans. People who were identified as homeless in a recent study—also mentioned in last week’s issue, but you can now download the full report here—were also found to be working, which really blows up the myth that people are poor or homeless because they’re lazy/don’t want to work.

Another recent issue that’s highlighted the state of labour rights in Singapore was the ban on e-scooters. Food delivery riders have gathered at various Meet-the-People Sessions across Singapore to speak up about their anger and frustration over the sudden ban. For a country where we don’t have independent unions that do what they’re supposed to do, these collective appearances at the MPS can be seen as a significant demonstration of workers organising.

I understand that policy-making isn’t easy, and that there have been injuries and fatalities from irresponsible e-scooter riders on pavements, which is why many pedestrians have been saying for quite some time that something needs to be done. And while the ban was implemented overnight, it wasn’t the first action that the government took—someone on Reddit has compiled a handy timeline of PMD-related regulations and measures.

But the fact remains that the livelihood of many people have been affected, and these people have had no voice before the ban came into force. While some say that any sort of change or shift will always cause pain to some people, I think there’s also a lot more that can be said about measures to ease transitions and find ways to mitigate impacts on people’s work and income, which in turn have an impact on their families.

This is something that I’d like to explore further and learn more about. And not just about food delivery riders and e-scooters. I’d like to look further into the issue of labour and precarity in Singapore: at how so many Singaporeans are now working in jobs (like food delivery, but also driving for Grab or Gojek, or any other gig economy/freelance jobs) that have no protections and no safety net. While one might earn a fairly decent amount in a month, how many hours of labour was needed to achieve that sum? What’s the impact on our society when so many of us are just one accident, one illness, one family mishap away from falling into a terrible financial situation? I’m also interested in looking into the more political aspects of labour, including organising and protest, however it looks like in Singapore, and what the opportunities are for workers to make their voices heard.

I talk about this with Grab drivers occasionally, but would like to start looking into this even more in earnest. I’ll be reaching out to people, but am also ending this with a callout for people who might want to talk about their experiences, or who know people with stories to share. Just hit reply to this email to get in touch, and please forward this on to people you know!

This weekend I facilitated a democracy classroom at Straits Clan on inequality. We’ll be having another session, also on inequality, on 26 November—sign up here!

Last week, we also focused on our haze series:

  1. Powerful artwork by Charis Loke
  2. A video shot on location at Jambi Province when the fires were raging
  3. A citizens’ forum in Kuala Lumpur discussing long-term strategies to combat the haze, where we also raised money for the Indonesian environmental group WALHI
  4. A photo essay on the impact of and reactions to the haze in Kuala Lumpur
  5. A longform feature on forest fires in Muara Medak, South Sumatra

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