In Singapore, migrant workers are not our brothers

·3-min read

OCTOBER 24 — A migrant worker penned an open letter to the Ministry of Manpower and its minister Tan See Leng about the conditions experienced by foreign migrant workers in Singapore.

The catalyst for the letter, written by Zakir Hossain, were the events at Westlite Jalan Tukang Dorm. Workers housed in the dormitory protested about maggots and worms in their food and the lack of medical care received for Covid-19 patients in their facility.

Their actions saw them met not with a considerate response but with riot police.

The tragedy of Singapore’s treatment of its migrant workers is well documented and well understood by anyone who chooses to look or inquire about the matter.

A developed, democratic nation should not treat a large class of its resident population in this manner.

Zakir makes a good point when he calls out Tan See Long for his entirely inadequate response to the legitimate complaints of workers. He is particularly critical of the Minister’s attempts to address the workers as brothers.

“To our migrant worker brothers living in the dormitories, I would also like to assure them that they will continue to receive the appropriate medical care if and when they require it,” was the minister’s response to worker complaints.

Zakir is clearly angered by the apparent hypocrisy and condescension in the response. Migrant workers are not treated as “brothers” by anyone in Singapore.

“If we are truly your brothers, why do you surround us with riot squad and policemen?” asked Zakir. The brutal truth is we are all complicit in this hypocrisy and exploitation, it’s not just politicians

If our relatives, our countrymen anywhere were being treated the way we treat migrant workers, I’d like to think Singaporeans wouldn’t stand for it. So why do we treat men who share this island with us and do so much for us — literally building our nation on wages we won’t accept — why are we so indifferent to their treatment?

Sometimes we open half blind eyes and pen ineffectual letters; the best of us (and I am ashamed to say I am not one) volunteer and work directly with workers trying to help them with the issues they face.

But none of us really do enough and it honestly brings shame.

There is no brotherhood here.

Foreign workers staying at Westlite Woodlands dormitory boarding a bus that will transport them to a government quarantine facility on April 22, 2021. — TODAY pic
Foreign workers staying at Westlite Woodlands dormitory boarding a bus that will transport them to a government quarantine facility on April 22, 2021. — TODAY pic

Long before brotherhood, what workers need is just basic rights, and basic respect. For us to understand that they are people and who deserve a basic standard of living and care.

Their lives here are constrained at the best of times but with Covid-19 they have basically been imprisoned in their dorms for almost two years.

They have basically not been free to leave their dorms and go for walks or enter some shops or malls for well over a year and they say they have not been given space to isolate themselves or distance themselves from colleagues who have Covid-19.

Basically, they have been imprisoned for our safety.

Then when they protest, we send in the riot police? There is no real negotiation, no real improvement.

The Singapore government can rapidly introduce health tracker apps and FICA laws, but it can’t mandate that transport for workers must have seat belts despite years of preventable accidents? Why?

Perhaps the best most of us can manage is guilt, apologies and a commitment to exert more pressure on our representatives to make the lives of these people better.

Whatever we do, we don’t deserve to be calling these individuals our brothers.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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