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Migrant workers: A better life in Singapore than back home?

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
6 min read

I first published this as a Facebook note on Friday, because I really wanted to respond to remarks I’ve seen floating around on Facebook dismissing criticism of migrant workers’ living conditions based on two main claims: that what they have in Singapore is better than what they had back home, and that they chose to come here anyway. I’ve since heard about it circulating on WhatsApp as well, so I thought I’d email this out to people (for those of you who can’t be bothered with Facebook) and also publish it someplace easier to find and link to.

I’ve edited it slightly, so it’s a little different from what’s on Facebook.

In the years that I've spent in the company of migrant labour rights organisations and activists, reporting on issues that migrant workers in Singapore face, I’ve often heard these claims used as a rebuttal:

“Hey, Singapore gives them a better life than they have back home!”

“If it’s so bad, why did they choose to come?”

“If they chose to come, then they shouldn’t complain.”

According to these arguments, migrant workers' conditions in Singapore are not so bad, because it's better than what they have back home (i.e. Bangladesh, India, China, etc.) and the opportunities they have here, such as the salaries they earn, are better than what they get in their home countries. In any case, they've come willingly, so what's the problem?

I’d like to address these claims.

“It’s better here than back home.”

When we say this, we need to be very clear about what we mean by “better”. And also, what we know about what “back home” is like.

In conversations with people in Singapore, I find that sometimes the impression of where migrant workers have come from is skewed, informed by ideas and stereotypes of their home countries.

Because we’re aware that there’s poverty in countries like Bangladesh and India, we imagine these workers to be so impoverished and destitute back home that surely anything Singapore can offer must be an improvement. In this narrative that we tell ourselves, hauling Singaporeans’ trash or working long shifts on construction sites are preferable to whatever their lives were in Bangladesh.

Yes, there’s a lot of poverty in Bangladesh and India. But the workers who come to Singapore aren’t the slum-dwellers that many Singaporeans imagine them to be. Just think about it: it costs thousands of dollars to pay the agent fees to come to Singapore. On the most basic level, this means that the workers who come to Singapore are those who have the ability and access to take out loans from banks or friends, have jewellery or valuables to pawn, or family land to lease, mortgage, or sell. There are also many migrant workers with diplomas and degrees, even advanced degrees.

These men come to Singapore because corruption, exploitation, and inequality in their home countries means that it can be difficult to secure jobs that match their level of education (for example, one worker once explained to me how he has a Bachelor’s degree, but found it difficult to get a civil service position that would provide job security because his family didn’t have the right connections), or that salaries are so depressed that working in Singapore carries the promise of a higher income that can be used to support elderly parents, schooling siblings, wives and children. But that doesn’t mean Singapore is paradise in comparison, nor does it mean that workers are used to conditions like living 12 to 20 men in a poorly ventilated room.

To assume that Singapore is objectively better than home in Bangladesh or India or China is to measure only in terms of money, and to discount what’s sacrificed: social ties, the love and companionship of family and friends, the comforting familiarity of things that look and feel and smell like home. And even then it’s also often an over-estimation of how much money is involved.

“They chose to come here.”

On my first trip to Bangladesh, I started chatting with one of the staff members at the guest house. He was excited about me being from Singapore, and told me that he wanted to come. He said he was saving money to pay the recruitment fees. When I told him that what he’d find in Singapore wouldn’t be that great, and that he was probably better off sticking to this job at the guest house in a nice part of Dhaka, he shook his head. He didn’t believe me. “But Singapore is so shiny,” he said. “I saw it on the TV.”

Most of the men who come to Singapore have heard good things before coming. Friends and relatives who have worked here before (and been lucky to have good employers who paid them on time, allowing them to pay off debts and save up money) might have been welcomed home as success stories, motivating others to make the journey. Those who haven’t been so successful, and returned to Bangladesh worse off, might not be so willing to speak of what happened, out of embarrassment or shame. Some might not even be returning home — one worker told me, before he was repatriated with only a fraction of the salary owed him, that he was planning to just hide out in Dhaka rather than return home, because he didn’t have the money to pay the creditors who would come knocking if they knew he was back.

Yes, men choose to come to Singapore. But what conditions were they expecting? Many might not have been expecting such cramped rooms, such dirty toilets, such dehumanising treatment. And certainly no one chooses to come to Singapore to get their passports confiscated, their overtime hours miscalculated (if calculated at all), their salaries deducted for all sorts of expenses, or held back by employers for “safe-keeping”.

NGOs will also tell you that it’s not uncommon to see cases of straight-up deception, where agreements about salary and jobs made prior to paying the agent fee and/or leaving Bangladesh are suddenly changed, so that the worker finds himself facing different conditions once he sets foot in Singapore. I’ve met workers who, upon arrival, were told to sign documents specifying different terms from what they’d been promised, or blank payment vouchers that employers would later fill in.

Some might say that they could always say no — but can they, really? Agent fees have already been paid, debts incurred. If they say no, how will they pay this off? How will they pay for the flight home? What will they tell their parents whose land they sold, wives whose jewellery they pawned, uncles whose money they borrowed? In these conditions... I’ve never heard of a man who didn’t sign.

Of course, what really needs to be said is that I shouldn’t have to explain any of this to anyone to be able to say that human beings need to be treated like human beings, people with agency and feelings and the right to demand to be treated with dignity. Even if conditions back in Bangladesh or India were so poor that even a dormitory in Singapore is an improvement, that doesn’t mean that Singapore — a city-state that takes pride in punching above our weight and being “world-class” — should be setting the bar so low.

If we’re so successful and so outstanding, we should have more capacity to think about quality of life, not just for citizens, but for everyone who lives in Singapore, including migrant workers. After all, migrant workers prop up the country in very real ways, from cleaning HDB estates to building malls like Marina Bay Sands and Jewel, that help us shine on the international stage.

And if anyone says that we can’t possibly do better because we can’t afford it, or because it’ll destabilise or ruin the economy, then I think Singapore will need to do more hard thinking about whether we’re really comfortable with our economic system being built on such unjust, and ultimately unsustainable, structures.

But what about the keyboard warriors?

One other argument I’ve seen used to downplay or dismiss the public outcry about over migrant workers’ conditions in Singapore is the narrative that most people never cared about this before, and are only jumping on the bandwagon because it’s “trendy” to talk about migrant workers right now. This framing makes it seem as if the migrant worker problem isn’t really a problem — just something that’s being played up by people who want to “virtue signal” — and that Singaporeans aren’t really concerned.

It’s probably true that there are many people talking about migrant workers now who never did before. But I don’t think there’s any shame in that — everyone comes to an issue via different entry points, and it’s better late than never.

What’s important, though, is that while it might be someone’s first time reading and speaking up about migrant workers’ issues, it cannot be their last. Caring about this issue cannot be a one-off — that would truly just be posturing.

After the worst is over with COVID-19, migrant labour rights groups are still going to be needing plenty of support to help them raise issues and place pressure in the right places to make sure that there are meaningful and substantial changes to the situation, so that we don’t come back to this place again the next time a crisis rolls around.

Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are already paying the price for Singapore neglecting their rights and needs at a crucial time. We need to make sure that it doesn’t happen again, and for that, we’re going to need everyone who has been stirred enough by the current situation to take a stand.

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