A Committee of Inquiry (COI) has been appointed by the home affairs ministry to establish the factors and circumstances that led to the riot in Little India on December 8, 2013. It will also look into how the riot unfolded and how well the authorities responded. Moreover, the COI will also “consider whether current measures to manage such incidents in areas where foreign workers congregate such as Little India are adequate, and recommend any further measures to improve their management and reduce the risk of such incidents”.
But it’s not clear whether it will look into, what according to Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2)- a non-profit advocacy group working for fair treatment of foreign workers in Singapore, are “festering grievances” of the foreign worker communities here.
TWC2 argues that “while we can understand that there are festering grievances, it is not possible at this stage to say what part these feelings played in the explosion of random violence. Nonetheless, it would still be good for the authorities to pay more attention to such grievances”.
TWC2 shares the list of these grievances. “The foreign worker communities here have been at the receiving end of employment unfairness for a long time. Many do not receive correct salaries, or have no way (in the absence of payslips) to check whether they have been correctly paid. Some have not been paid for months. Other workers have been denied proper medical treatment by their employers. Yet others have seen their friends repatriated suddenly without receiving full salaries or injury compensation.”
On the question, whether there has been instances of friction between the police and foreign workers in Little India, TWC2 elaborated, “Perhaps not the main police force, but the auxiliary police could have antagonised many foreign workers in the last few years. The auxiliary police have been hired to patrol void decks and related areas, and quite aggressively chase away migrant workers who naturally wish to enjoy the shade and the space. TWC2 has also noticed that they issue summonses quite liberally for minor infringements such as littering. While we don’t condone littering, education is key, not overzealous policing. Foreign workers likely see the actions of the auxiliary police as harassment. It won’t be surprising if they confuse the auxiliary police with the main police.”
Newzzit, in fact, did a detailed story last year on migrant labour woes in Singapore, Miseries migrate as well, for an Indian daily The Hindu. “The most important reason for exploitation of foreign workers is the employer-sponsored work visa policy prevalent in Singapore, which gives employers excessive power and control over their workers,” Debbie Fordyce, coordinator at TWC2 had told us then.
The issues were exactly the same at that time as well, duly noted in our story.
“It starts with having to pay high agency fees to secure a job in Singapore. Once here, the workers are made to sign contracts limiting their civil liberties and agreeing to receive lower wages than promised. Additionally, the prevalence of unpaid salaries, long working hours with no offs, forced dangerous work leading to injuries, employers refusing to bear the cost of medical treatment, poor accommodations, passports routinely withheld, and above all, forced repatriation to their home countries without the employer settling their claims, make migrant workers one of the most vulnerable section of Singapore society.”
So much so, that even the High Court of Singapore in a 2011 case [Lee Chiang Theng vs Public Prosecutor SGHC 252] had said, “Foreign workers are unquestionably not chattel like the slaves of less enlightened times” and are “especially vulnerable”.
Measures taken since then
To be sure, the ministry of manpower (MOM) did brought in some amendments to the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA) in November 2012.