In Singapore, helping migrant workers: the role of civil society

The 13th ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labor (AFML) was held on November 10–12. In response to COVID-19, this theme was chosen to bring together governments, labor organizations, and civil society to address the unjust burden of COVID-19 on migrant workers. The virtual forum, hosted by Vietnam, the 2020 ASEAN Chair, was organized around the theme ‘Supporting Migrant Workers for a Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN Community During the Pandemic.’

Singapore receives many ASEAN migrants, along with Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand. Singapore’s 1.4 million migrant workers constitute 24.3 percent of the population of Singapore and 37 percent of its workforce. The economy of Singapore is heavily dependent on access from neighboring countries including Indonesia, the Philippines and Bangladesh to low-wage, low-skilled labor.

COVID-19 has also highlighted the challenges faced by migrant workers in accessing healthcare, according to a study by HealthServe, a nonprofit that supports migrant workers with health needs. The national universal health care scheme excludes migrant workers. Healthcare is instead a “employer responsibility.” Fears of termination and repatriation also make employees hesitant, despite their legal rights, to pursue medical treatment.

Migrant workers do not have a political voice, as a disenfranchised political minority and migrant members of the Singapore community. The government actively discourages employees from participating in concerted efforts to defend their interests and enforce them. The real risk of deportation or not getting their contracts extended is faced by migrant workers.

Progress has been made by civil society and community organizations in achieving greater rights for migrant workers. Groups such as the Migration Economics Humanitarian Organization (HOME) and TWC2 played an active role in raising public consciousness of the weak dormitory and food conditions to which workers were subjected during the lockdown. Public backlash was instrumental in keeping the government to account, as the Ministry of Manpower subsequently took steps to boost food for quarantined foreign employees.

Over the past decade, campaigning for labor rights has also seen some improvement. In 2012, in response to campaign efforts by civil society, the Ministry of Manpower amended the Jobs of International Manpower Act (EFMA) to provide the right of domestic employees to a weekly rest day.