TWC2: Advocating for Fair Treatment of Migrant Workers
Singapore, a country with population of 5.18millions, 1.27millions is foreigner workers mostly in construction, manufacturing and domestic services. The November strike by Chinese bus drivers last year generated both supportive and xenophobic remarks against migrant workers and highlighted the less than satisfactory working conditions. It was in 2012, that the compulsory day off for domestic workers was also announced. We spoke to Transient Workers Count too (TWC2), our member in Singapore that is advocating for fair treatment of migrant workers about the situation faced by migrant workers and TWC2’s activities in support for them.
Last June you had conducted a briefing to the media on ethics of reporting on trafficking. Have you seen changes in the media report following the workshop?
It is hard to pin down specific changes, though not long after the briefing, I noticed that reports on police raids in red light areas usually seemed to appear without the pictures of the women detained that they routinely used to feature before. This was one issue we had raised, though not the main one. I think that there's been a bit more awareness of the need for a victim-centred approach, though it is still not thoroughly understood. The big problem is still to get over the concentration on 'sex trafficking': to recognise labour trafficking and see trafficking into sexual exploitation as a part of that. The obstacle here is not so much journalists' own attitudes and understanding, but official problems in dealing with an issue that is seen to pose tremendous problems for Singapore's migrant labour model: there are so many abuses of migrant workers in the placement process (deception as to the nature of work, seizure of passports, attempts to control freedom of communication in the case of domestic workers…) that it is hard to draw a definite line between labour migration and labour trafficking. Our approach is to try to bring changes that open up more of a clear distinction between the two, and that is a longer term goal. We did not expect one briefing to resolve it.
What is the trafficking scenario in Singapore? What are the responses to all forms of trafficking including sex trafficking and labour trafficking?
Trafficking into sexual exploitation is fairly readily acknowledged. The public is against it, and so is the government. The pieces need putting into place to tackle it effectively, but I would say that this is gradually being done. There still needs to be a full commitment to a victim-centred approach, which is recognised verbally, but not fully embodied in practice as yet (More training for the police and a dedicated shelter for the women concerned are necessary, we think), but things are moving forward. Labour trafficking is more problematic: if government agencies had to deal with complaints from every migrant worker who had experienced one of the things described as trafficking indicators, nearly all the million migrant workers here could cite at least one of them. So labour trafficking is officially recognised, but it is hard to pin down what the government or its Trafficking in Persons Task Force regards as labour trafficking. There still needs to be a breakthrough on this, but it may come partly through establishing better labour standards, enforceable contracts, documentation trails for pay, opening channels for workers here to change jobs - these kind of measures that are not conceived of in the first place as part of an anti-trafficking programme, but that can establish a legal and social status for 'regular' labour migrants that makes it simpler to identify workers who do not share that status and for whom there may be a strong presumption of trafficking having occurred.
The Task Force's work is part of a National Plan of Action and is due to be completed by 2015. One issue under consideration is whether there should be a specific anti-trafficking law or whether it is enough to amend existing anti-trafficking provisions. We think the former is preferable- it will make it easier to refer to it and implement its measures. The Task Force was launched in 2012 and is steered by the Ministry of Manpower and the Ministry of Home Affairs. It includes people involved in dealing with migrant workers, social workers and the police. Besides considering the best legislative approach, it is looking at enforcement and raising public awareness. It has met concerned NGOs, though we think that the level of engagement should be raised.
Can you tell us briefly about your work with migrant workers, including migrant domestic workers? Based from your work, what are the common cases/problems of MWs in Singapore?
We work through advocacy, research and direct services.
Our longest running campaign was for all domestic workers to have a weekly day off, guaranteed by law. We have taken up many other issues, including safe and decent transport for male workers, safe and decent accommodation, documentation of pay so that it is easier to challenge non-payment of salaries, simplifying the transfer of workers in Singapore to other employer, respecting the private life of domestic workers (for example, they should not have their love lives regulated by their employers) and action to reduce placement costs. We have taken up these issues with the government, through the media and in public outreach.
We have produced a series of research reports, including a joint report with another NGO on access to justice, one on the problems Indonesian domestic workers encounter in coming to Singapore and returning home, a big one last year on the costs borne by Bangladeshi construction workers in the placement process and a series of proposals on legislative change that now cover all the key laws concerning migrant workers in Singapore.
Our direct services take up the largest share of our resources. The biggest individual programme is the Cuff Road Project, a food programme based in Little India that provides meals daily to destitute male workers who are waiting for cases or work injury compensation claims to be settled. Currently, we are seeing over 300 men a day there, and we find out what brought them to us and whether they need further assistance beyond food. Many do. We give advice to workers on how to raise complaints and have helped workers get medical treatment when their employers have sought to evade their legal responsibility to see that they get it - or if they're not eligible for support from their employer, we have helped arrange treatment for them.
With domestic workers, the numbers we see concerning complaints are much fewer. Of course, throughout the 'day off' campaign, we cooperated with domestic worker contacts in raising the issue. We work with two unofficial networks - one Indonesian, the other Filipina, which are an alternative source of advice for domestic workers (they refer some workers to us when the issues raised are difficult for them to handle). They provide a social gathering point and classes (computers are the favourite) as well as help and advice.
The major complaints of both male and female migrant workers concern pay. They will bear with a lot of hardships, work long hours and endure insensitive treatment provided they get paid their due salary on time. When an employer falls down on that, then they complain. We are often made aware of other issues by workers who come to us with pay complaints, and then it turns out that they are housed badly, subjected to verbal abuse, and other objectionable treatment. The level of physical abuse of domestic workers has fallen from its high in 1997, but we think there are around 60-70 cases reported and confirmed by the authorities each year (no statistics have come out in the past few years). In most ways, there has been an improvement in the position of migrant workers since TWC2 started work, and we believe that we had a role in that. The only respect in which we think that their position has deteriorated is in placement costs. In 2003, we found that domestic workers paid about six months' salary for their placement; now it is eight to nine months'. Men are paid more, but also burdened with higher placement costs. Our 2012 study found that Bangladeshi workers typically required seventeen and a half months to pay off their placement costs - though it is true that they had to spend part of their salary on their own living expenses over this time.
We talked about the debt that migrant workers carry resulting also from high recruitment fees. The purview of your work is only in Singapore. Is there a way to influence placement agencies that recruit migrant workers to address this issue of debt bondage and high recruitment fees?
We are not in a strong position to do that. We have spoken with the embassies of the countries of origin. We are in touch with organisations that stand up for migrant rights in countries of origin, and they campaign on these issues and try to inform potential migrants of some of the pitfalls they will encounter. We have argued for a cap on what Singapore agencies can charge. There was an official limit of one-tenth of one month's salary on domestic workers a few years ago, but this was completely disregarded in practice. A new cap of one month's deduction for one year's service up to a maximum of two years was then introduced, which would have been a big step forward if that had covered all of domestic worker's costs, but it doesn't: home country charges aren't covered, and it seems that costs claimed by agencies are not either, though this still needs to be clarified. From what new workers say, they are still paying around eight or nine months' salary for placement costs. Employers here refer to this as a cost they bear in hiring a worker, but the fact is that the great majority take it back from their workers by salary deductions.
Are there ways that you have been able to reach out to the employers of migrant workers? How do you see your work contributing to changing the public attitudes towards migrant workers?
When we have had events to which employers were invited, only those who already treated their workers well showed up. The ones who treat them badly tend to stay aloof or huddle with their co-thinkers, swapping tales of bad behaviour by migrants and how to control them more tightly. If direct outreach doesn't work, indirect outreach may. We have kept up good media contacts, and that's one way to reach our message out to hundreds of thousands of people who we wouldn't reach otherwise. We also provide talks for students and assist them with projects, and this both introduces more enlightened thinking into some households and encourages the emergence of a new generation of more considerate employers.
Do you see changes in situation of migrant workers over the years, including migrant domestic workers in terms of realizing their rights through your advocacy efforts?
Our advocacy activities include approaches to government bodies, on both general issues and on specific cases that raise broader issues. We have an active website that has new material added every week. News articles attract maybe 300 views within the first 48 hours after they go up, but some get many more. A small number have attracted viewers in the tens of thousands. We have regular contacts with the media, and provide information for articles or get letters in the press every week or two. We respond to information requests. We have held day schools to provide basic information on migrant workers and their rights to the newly interested. We have a monthly briefing for volunteers that draws from 15 to 25 people every time, and the volunteers then get integrated into programmes where they learn more about migrant workers and their situation.
All the changes over the years have been partial, never the full realisation of a goal. I'm attaching a copy of the TWC2 newsletter that contains a pretty thorough overview of the changes concerning domestic workers over the past ten years, which well illustrates this point. You can see that there is still quite a way to go.
For the greater impact of your work, what level of alliance support or interaction with members organisation would be helpful for TWC2?
I think that there's an important role for international cooperation between NGOs. For us right now, the placement issue is a very obvious case in point. It can't be resolved on either a country of origin or country of destination basis. Cooperation over documentation of promised pay and conditions is desirable and also providing information to empower potential migrants - what might they encounter, and how can they assert their rights? With trafficked people and some returning workers, assisting with reception on their return home to help them avoid further exploitation is a very practical need. Exchanging information on positive and negative experiences, or on good legislative and practical measures -there really is a lot that can be done.
One way in which GAATW-IS can be helpful is propagating 'best examples'. You could take, for example, police procedure when a migrant is detained: what consideration is given to the possibility that the person was trafficked, how are they treated, what are the conditions for housing trafficked people, and so on. I'm not sure how good organisations are at finding out things for themselves. There's the problem of a certain separation between academic research and NGOs in a lot of countries, which can mean these things aren't circulated well. Of course, the same can be done with positive examples from NGOs' own work, where it is possible to release the information in a form that respects the rights of trafficked individuals.