Singapore: Inside the Lion City, Part 5
Another in our multipart series on Singapore in conjunction with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings in Singapore. The series examines Singapore's social and political structure, its relationship with the press, its concerns about regional security and other issues.
Other than the tiny oil-rich Gulf states and Brunei, no economy in the world is as dependent on foreign workers, rich and poor, as Singapore. Foreign labor. has not only helped sustained the rate of growth of the economy, it has provided a labor. supply flexibility that assists expansion in the good times and acts as a cushion for Singaporeans when times are tougher and labor. is in surplus.
Foreign labor is also important in another way – raising the living standards of Singaporeans who get cheap foreign workers, with few rights, to do domestic chores and other dirty work.
But first some data although, as with other social and economic statistics, those on migration and foreign labor are incomplete and mostly out of date. This enables the government to hide some of the reality or to dismiss as “inaccurate” critiques of the country’s labor. policies. However, the numbers here are broadly accurate, or are based on official if out of date sources.
As of 2003, of a Singapore population of 4.35 million there were 747,000 non-residents holding various kinds of work permits. The total number of non-residents has more than doubled since 1990 but does fluctuate and actually fell in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998 but by 2006 it is likely that the total has reached 800,000.
Some of these are probably dependents, but as only business and professionals are permitted to bring dependents, the vast majority can be assumed to be members of the work force. Of those the majority are manual workers, including building workers, sex workers and – crucially – about 150,000 female domestic workers. All told, according to the Asian Development Bank, quoting the Ministry of Manpower, in 2004 there were 621,400 foreigners in the work force, comprising 28 percent of the total.
They fall into three categories. The largest by far is that of work-permit holders – low-skill workers. These are restricted to workers from 10 Asian countries from Pakistan to Korea (plus Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan) and have age and duration limits. The ADB estimated that 500,000 of the 621,400 were work-permit holders. Employers of work-permit holders must pay a tax to the government – which in effect becomes a deduction from the worker’s wage.
The employment pass is issued to those viewed as having acceptably high professional, educational or specialist qualifications and earning at least S$2,500 a month. There is no nationality restriction and dependents are permitted.
Third is the “S” pass, introduced in 2004 to give flexibility to employers in industries such as electronics and intended to allow entry of middle-skill workers earning at least $1,800 a month. They are not subject to nationality and duration restrictions.
In addition to those with these passes, there is a large but hard-to-quantify group working informally. Malaysians fall into a special category due to proximity and the historical links between the two nations. Some 50,000 commute daily. The ADB report estimates from various sources that the total working in Singapore is probably around 165,000, comprising some 85,000 work permit holders and large numbers of undocumented day workers or holders of social visit passes. Malaysians can get a 90-day Social Visit Pass and as many have relatives in Singapore they easily find accommodation and work.
Thais and (mainland) Chinese come on two-week or one-month tourist visas and find work as casual laborers or selling sex on the streets of Geylang. This district is little visited by tourists but its restaurants and brothels are well-patronized by locals. The sex services are mostly provided by itinerant women from Indonesia, China and Thailand.
Generalisation about foreigners’ income levels is difficult because of the huge range, from investment bankers through semi-skilled Malaysians – who are relatively well paid -- down to the lowest of the low, the domestic helpers. However, it can be assumed that if one excludes the employment pass holders, incomes are far below the median level for Singaporeans and workers’ rights are scarce.
The case of domestic workers known as Foreign Domestic Helpers is particularly striking. In the first instance there is an element of racism in that only women from brown-skinned nations of South and Southeast Asia may apply. No chopstick civilization people for this menial work.
The domestic workers are specially excluded from the Employment Ordinance, which provides other workers with some protection in the form of maximum weekly hours and minimum days off.
In return for being responsible for providing food, housing and medical care for the maid, and for returning her to her country of origin should she become pregnant, the employer has almost total control.
Maids are not entitled to any days off. They cannot leave the house without the employer’s permission. They are not protected by any minimum level of wage. Maids can be (and often are) treated like bonded servants or children. Last year there was outrage among some employers when it was suggested that one day off a month be made compulsory. One wrote to a newspaper: “We can’t control the maids so it’s best that when we employ the maid we tell the agent we don’t want to give days off”. A local newspaper survey in 2003 found that 50 percent of maids got no days off and only a lucky 10 percent were given one day off a week.
The power of the employer extends to salary as well. All are subject to individual contracts. As a result these vary widely with Indonesians, the largest group, at the bottom of the scale. Conditions are understood to have improved a little since 2005 when the government set a minimum age limit of 23 for new contracts and required eight years of education and an English-language competency test. This necessarily reduced the number of Indonesians willing to work for the lowest wages and endure possible domestic isolation. Indonesians are still paid very much less than maids from the Philippines, however, whose superior levels of English and education appeal to better-off employers.
Recent changes to the standard employment contract seek to guarantee three meals a day for the helper and recommend that eight hours of continuous rest are provided daily. But there is no compulsion to provide this, nor to allow days off.
Indonesians in particular also suffer from having to pay higher fees for recruitment, fees which mostly go into the hands of Indonesian officials and exploitive agencies. While much of the blame lies with Indonesia, the lack of Singapore control on the practices of the highly competitive employment agencies means that employees have to give between four and 10 months of their meager salaries to the agency. Only the goodwill of employers can protect workers who are excluded from normal legal protection.
Overall however it is estimated that domestic helpers are paid a fraction of the median income of Singaporeans in full-time employment. Press reports say salaries can be as low as S$200 ($117) a month but probably now average around S$300 ($176) a month compared with a median income of S$2,000 ($1,170) for Singaporeans in full time employment.
Even allowing for tax, transport, housing and food costs borne by the employer, this is exploitation on a grand scale. The Singapore situation is in stark contrast to that of Hong Kong, where GDP per head is roughly the same as Singapore’s, where there is a statutory requirement for one day off a week and a minimum wage which is about one third of the median. Although it is estimated that in practice 20 percent of maids in Hong Kong receive much less than the minimum – with the Indonesians again being the most exploited -- there is more legal protection for the maids, and far more support for them from the worker NGOs which are permitted there but effectively outlawed in Singapore.
Apart from low pay, long hours and lack of personal freedom, maids in Singapore are, it is believed, often subject to physical abuse. The government has taken action and prosecuted some of the most blatant offenders. However, much goes unreported, gets only as far as the Indonesian consulate or is covered up by quick repatriation for the maid.
Doubtless there is more exploitation in other countries – of Cambodians and Burmese in Thailand, of Bangladeshis in Malaysia, of assorted nationalities in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia. But much of this could be attributed to a mix of poverty and general weakness in administering labor laws. However, Singapore not only has wealth. Its government maintains a level of social oversight and control unheard of elsewhere in Asia other than North Korea. The treatment of foreign workers, and particularly the maids who serve one in six of local households, is a consequence of deliberate official policy.