The pandemic has uncovered the harsh reality of migrant workers in Singapore

January 29, 2021
In the early stages of the pandemic, Singapore stood out as a role model for its successful strategy. However, later outbreaks among the migrant community have exposed an entrenched societal division between native Singaporeans and foreign workers. Now that the country seems ready to move forward, migrants are again left behind.
View from an alley in downtown Singapore.
 Credits: Valeria Raimondo

‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’

2020: a year often described as a dreary prelude to a dystopian future. With mass-media manipulation becoming commonplace and the long-feared rise of technocratic rule materializing, many people have turned to George Orwell’s works: they have found outstanding similarities between the state of affairs depicted in his works and our everyday reality. In his novels, the British author wrote of issues of inequality and portrayed bleak scenarios of surveillance states. Nothing too distant from us—at least in some parts of the world. 
On December 14 last year, the Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed the nation in a succinct message and announced a partial lifting of the restrictions implemented to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. PM Lee unveiled plans to move to a third phase of reopening. Starting from December 28, gatherings with up to eight people have largely been permitted—at least, they have for native Singaporeans and Long Term Residents (LTR). In fact, the over 300,000 foreign workers residing in Singapore were not part of these reopening plans. 

Singapore has been lauded for its swift tackling of the virus by many. However, behind the ritzy downtown of Singapore lies a blunt reality of social inequality—one that the pandemic has uncovered. 

As of January 28, the country had recorded fewer than sixty thousand cases and a mere twenty-nine deaths. This is undoubtedly a remarkable performance for Singapore, a cosmopolitan hub boasting one of the highest densities of population in the world. After the first case of the novel coronavirus was detected in a man coming from Wuhan on January 23 last year, the country, home to a population of 5.7 million, enforced a meticulous contact-tracing system. Whenever they detected a positive case, authorities did not hesitate in posting online personal data of infected people so that other potential cases could be easily identified—a rather Orwellian scenario. Citizens infringing upon the regulations were sanctioned with draconian fines up to 5,000 USD. By carrying out this painstakingly vigilant system, often deemed impractical in a Western context, the city-state was able to halt the pandemic without a full-fledged lockdown. Singaporeans were free to roam without wearing masks and social distancing went largely unrespected. The Singaporean model received high praise from foreign epidemiologists for its effectiveness and transparency—perhaps unsurprisingly, given Singapore’s proven experience in coping with lethal diseases such as tuberculosis and, more recently, HIV and SARS.

The situation appeared to be roughly under control. However, in early April a series of small-scale outbreaks prompted the government to shut down schools and businesses. A strict lockdown was immediately enforced and masks became mandatory. The greatest majority of the clusters occurred in five dormitories where thousands of foreign workers were housed.

These laborers––usually young men––often live in cramped buildings where social distancing is practically impossible. They have been persistently left out of the benefit-rich safety net that Singaporeans citizens and highly-skilled foreign workers are entitled to. Despite their crucial role in the country’s economy, migrant workers are subjected to discrimination on the basis of their legal status. The former Singaporean diplomat Tommy Koh pointed out that the spike in COVID-19 infections inside the dormitories was hardly unexpectable considering the living conditions of migrants. He has spoken up against the treatment reserved to foreign migrants in his country, thundering, “The way Singapore treats its foreign workers is not First World, but Third World’’.

Singapore, where over forty-percent of the population is made up of immigrants, has a long history of inward migration. From the 1970s, the country has been importing foreign workers who found employment in sectors shunned by Singaporeans, such as shipbuilding or construction. These workers hailed mostly from China, India and Bangladesh. Their right to live in the country was tied to their jobs, as they were forced to maintain the status of temporary residents. Up to this day, although their employers are required to take care of their livelihoods, migrants often lack any social benefits and are laid off in case of injury, without anywhere to go but the streets.

According to governmental statistics, as of December 13 the total percentage of migrants who contracted COVID-19 hovered around forty-seven percent. They constitute a staggering ninety-three percent of the total number of cases recorded in the country. However, activist groups have criticised these statistics, pointing out that, when limited to PCR-positive cases in accordance to international standards of measurement, the infection percentage drops to 17%. Further, the infection rate within the dormitories in the ten days prior to the reopening was around 0.1 infections, equal to numbers recorded among the wider non-dorm population. Considering the low rates and the fact that migrants are more likely to have developed more widespread immunity to the virus, it would appear reasonable to let dormitories be part of the reopening. Nonetheless, migrant workers will remain under a strict lockdown and will be allowed to leave their lodgings once a month under a pilot plan, provided that they wear contact-tracing devices. While the rest of the country seems ready to move forward, migrants are stuck indoors, subjected to constant oversight.

The Singaporean NPO Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) has lambasted the government for its handling of the pandemic in the dormitories, defining the treatment of foreign workers “egregious discrimination’’, and calling for a complete reopening of the dormitories. In the past months, a surge in suicide rates in the migrant community has raised concerns among the public. Responding to a sharp critique of the ‘’Singaporean model’’ published on The New York Times Magazine by the American author Megan K. Stack, the Singaporean ambassador to Washington Ashok Kumar Mirpuri took up the cudgels for his government and declared that Singapore “has done more for [its] migrant workers than any other country with large numbers of them’’.

To reach Singapore and gain employment, migrants are prepared to borrow thousands of dollars and leave behind entire families. Most of their income is sent back to their home countries in the form of remittances, as Singaporean dollars are worth a lot more in countries such as India or Bangladesh. This is why entire weeks out of work could bring about a significant disruption not only on workers’ own livelihoods, but on entire communities in their countries of origin.

In Singapore the pandemic has further widened the educational and socio-economic gap on which society is built. The paradox of so-called “essential workers’’—an irreplaceable lifeline of society being disregarded by the same society—has never been as clear. The marginalization of migrants, once again blatantly exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, pertains to the entirety of the Singaporean society and must feature among the top priorities for the Singaporean government.

Trying to satisfy employers’ needs to keep costs down, Singapore has turned a blind eye to its migrant community for too long. As its native population shrinks and ages, the city-state is now facing a decisive choice: what to do with its foreign community. To maintain its economic competitiveness, it is about time for Singapore to make a concrete effort to ensure the welfare of its foreign workers. A good starting point would be providing migrant labourers with a proper healthcare policy, thus raising their quality of life. But mounting tensions among native Singaporeans concerning issues of migrant labor suggest that striking a balance is easier said than done.

Gabriele Ninivaggi
Co-Founder and Head of News.
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