Little India Riot: Hidden Issues
On 8 December 2013 around 400 South Asian migrant workers battled police and set vehicles ablaze in Singapore's worst riot in decades. A Singaporean writer gives his honest opinion about the exploitation of migrant workers and society's role in the matter.
t was a devastating sight: police cars and ambulances were on fire, bus windscreens were smashed, paramedics were fleeing from the scene. One's intuitive response would be that the perpetrators must be stopped, arrested and charged. Meanwhile, social media was abounding with comments ranging from "We must deport them all" to "Don't play the racist card."
But there are many things we don't see from the photos, videos and reports about the riots in Singapore. At this point, it's worth considering that, at risk of stating the obvious, people generally don't turn into a frenzied mob if not for intense anger that has been pent up over a considerable period of time - having experienced oppression and injustice.
The Jasmine Revolution, the Syrian civil war, the Bangkok protests, the SMRT Bus Workers Strike and now the Little India riots; events such as these, although often triggered by particular events, are the result of a host of underlying background factors.
Bluntly put, happy people don't riot.
Yes, it is also possible that herd behaviour or 'mob effect' may have been at work. But they do not detract from the greater possibility that there were other underlying causal factors resulting in such a phenomenon; the herd behaviour merely amplified the intensity of the event.
It is telling that just this year, we had an unprecedented number of incidents from collective action of migrant workers i.e. the SMRT Bus Workers incident involving PRC (People’s Republic of China) workers; and now this riot involving South Asian workers.
Few Singaporeans really understand about our migrant workers experience. No doubt, there is a diverse spectrum of experiences. Some are well treated; some are not. The workers tend to be accommodated at locations that few Singaporeans even know exist.
One such dormitory I have visited was located in a remote heavy industry area lacking street lamps or proper tarmac roads. Migrant workers are kept out of sight and out of mind. When they rest on their day off (for those who do actually have rest days) they would be strongly discouraged from going to places where the majority of Singaporeans frequent. The fact that their accommodation (which typically have curfew times) is located in such remote, inaccessible areas already provides deterrence. Those who venture out are often stopped and inspected by patrolling security officers. Sure these officers are doing their jobs. Yet, consider how often they are stopped, as compared to Singaporeans. Think of the liberty of movement and freedom of a legal resident as opposed to the oppression of migrant workers.
When most Singaporeans have only limited access to migrant workers, let alone any semblance of acquaintanceship or friendship with any of them, then it is almost impossible to imagine - let alone understand - what they experience.
Secondly, many migrant workers are treated inhumanely. Perhaps official reports and statements will say that the majority of migrant workers are well treated. But based on personal anecdotal accounts, it's certainly more than a handful, and could possibly include several thousand or more.
One might recall the recent news report of an employer who left his injured migrant worker for dead along the roadside. It might be argued, “Oh that's just a one-off incident.”
Sure it is but it reflects a trend.
In my volunteering with community groups and charities I have come across many cases of mistreatment and abuse; the trends are prevalent and consistent.
Workers are generally housed in deplorable conditions. In 2011, acting Manpower Minister, Tan Chuan Jin, personally participated in a raid of worker dormitories and commented that the conditions were "abysmal.”
Workers are not given proper medical attention and compensation. In many cases I have come across or been told about, workers who get significantly injured in the course of their work are given only superficial medical treatment. For example, there had been a worker who had rather severe physical injuries; he was given Panadol.
The details of such cases can be obtained if one were to ask the few NGOs which serve migrant workers.
In some cases, employers refuse to let the worker report the injury to the Ministry of Manpower and make a Workman Injury Compensation Act claim. The employers provide their own medical treatment but do not adequately compensate the worker. Why should they? If they allow the claim, insurance premiums increase, and this results in price increases. The repercussions would be that various goods and services we consume would become more expensive (including our chicken rice and HDB flats). Companies or employers have to be price competitive or they will lose out and die out; they cannot afford to be kind.
In some cases, employers don't pay workers their salaries, on time or at all. Some of these workers work for up to 15-17 hours a day (including overtime work, clocking hours that are technically against the law); some work their rest days away. Some choose to work on rest days, because they are supposed to get paid better. But the Employment Act provides that if the worker himself voluntarily consents to work on rest days, he gets paid normal wages or something to that effect (but employers may not keep their end of the bargain).
There have been cases of employers forcing workers to sign contracts in English (or whatever language that's obviously not comprehensible to the worker) stating that the worker would voluntarily work on rest days without claiming rest day wages. Of course, the Employment Act stipulates certain rules about rest hours and rest days and payment of salaries and such. They are not welfare state standards for sure, but at least it's something. Yet violations happen all the time. In any event, workers dare not complain against their employers because once they do, they would likely be repatriated. Once the employer terminates the work permit, workers are often forced to pay for their own repatriation costs despite the Act providing that it should be the employer who pays. This can be devastating for the worker because of the debts they chalk up from the agency fees.
Three years ago, I visited a dorm where a few days prior to my visit, a 19-year-old worker had committed suicide.
The worker had lost his work permit and feared repatriation. He was a long way from paying off his almost SGD$10,000 debt of agency fees. It's likely his family had sold off land and various assets to raise at least part of those fees. Such economic circumstances are subjectively devastating for workers like the young man who had committed suicide.
In some termination cases, employers hire repatriation companies, some of which practically manhandle and "abduct" the workers, lock them in storerooms until the time for their departure and ensure that they can never squeak a word to anyone about their employers. I believe The Straits Times has only ever done a few stories about such cases. But of course Singaporeans won't get too riled up by these stories, at least not as riled up as the idea of having worker dormitories or elderly homes in their 'backyard'.
In many cases, workers are cheated of even their wages (which are already at pathetic levels). Many armchair polemics would say, these workers are better off earning SGD$400-$500 a month here than to have much less income or no hope of employment at all in their home country. But it's another thing when their employment agent charge them up to SGD$8,000-$9,000 to help arrange their transportation and employment.
With SGD$400 per month, that's about 20 months. And that's not taking into account the food and accommodation they're being charged (which one would have thought ought to have been provided by the employer).
What is worse is when workers are cheated of their wages. I was recently asked to assess a case where almost 30 workers made a claim against their employer for not paying their salaries; one issue was that they were paid SGD$2.00 an hour (US$1.60).
Now that's what had been stated in their contract, written in English which they obviously did not understand. They signed simply because on arrival their employer told them to sign it as a matter of "admin". But that's not what they had been told by their agents. That's also not what had been stated in the In-Principle Approval Letters (IPA letters) issued by Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to them.
What usually happens is those employers will apply to MOM for a work permit based on a certain wage rate, so that is reflected in the IPA letter. Often, however, the employer forces the worker to sign a contract they do not understand which provides for a different wage rate. So what was stated in this case was SGD$3.40 an hour. To some of us, that's an insignificant difference. But objectively, that's a 70% difference as compared to SGD$2 an hour. When SGD$1.40 makes 70% difference to your income and you slog for 15 hours a day, with substantial amount of that time being overtime pay (i.e. 1.5 times the normal wage rate), you see that SGD$1.40 differently.
In some other cases, employers make unauthorized deductions from workers' salaries. These range from penalties for negligent work or damage caused to the employer's property (which would obviously be determined at the employer's absolute discretion) to misbehaviour to food and accommodation. In some countries, their laws provide that such scenarios are called 'debt bondage' and are criminalized as a form of human trafficking or related crime. Not in Singapore.
There are countless other issues really, and there are more severe cases but we are talking about general trends here. Suffice to say, many employers do not treat migrant workers rightly; that's an understatement, of course.
At this point, one might point fingers and say it's the employers' problem not ours. It's the Government's problem, not ours. It's the workers' own problem, not ours. It's their home countries' fault, not Singapore's.
Perhaps everyone has some responsibility. That's not the point of this article. The point is that we should stop and ask the right questions before we come to any conclusions about the matter - about the Little India riot or migrant workers generally.
Not only should we ask the right questions, we should also ask ourselves how we think about these questions and how we behave in relation to the issues underlying them. I would suggest that at some level, our own attitudes and behaviour have contributed to this result, this state of affairs, even if not directly causally. How we think, the comments we make, the issues we harp on, the prices we are willing to pay, the stories we choose to listen to, the stories we choose to feature, the way we vote. They all matter somewhat.
I would add further that migration and migrant workers' issues are not unique to Singapore. The International Labour Organisation has an international treaty on migrant workers’ rights (ILO Conventions No. 97 and 143). Even ASEAN has a declaration on it (2007 ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers).
Why is that so? Simply, because in a foreign country, migrants have no one to stand up for them. Politicians and governments pander to their electorate. Migrants do not vote. Policy implementation is funded by tax payer money; migrants pay other types of taxes. The rational economic man, being logical and self-interested, would only behave in ways that benefits himself and the people immediately around him whom he cares about (e.g. his family).
It takes compassion and courage for a human being to break out of that bondage and transcend the paradigm of the rational economic person. It takes magnanimity and higher virtues for people to stand up for those who are oppressed and suffer injustice. It may be that it would take a riot to wake us up to certain realities; or a riot may be just another event we think we should enforce the law against. No, it does not necessarily make Singaporeans more charitable to migrant workers.
Perhaps in the wake of this riot, many will call for stricter law enforcement and policing; increased subjugation of basic liberties like freedom of movement; increased reporting requirements on workers and banning migrant workers from certain public areas. Perhaps such calls would be heeded.
But if they are, it would be a sad moment for Singapore.
These are unprecedented times when we can choose to rise above selfishness and aspire to be a nation that seeks the good of all those who are a part of our local community, regardless of ethnicity or nationality or language or culture or religion. Or we can choose otherwise. BW
The views of the writer do not necessarily represent the views of the Banana Writers team.
Ronald Wong is a lawyer who volunteers to serve underserved communities. He writes essays and fiction; his short story has been published in Ceriph and nominated in The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume One, Honourable Mentions. He also co-founded theatre group, The Parables Company.