Photo of foreign workers and TWC2 Debbie Fordyce from Straits Times Chew Seng Kim

When approached by Singaporean students for their schoolwork over the plight of low income foreign workers, a volunteer worker said that she was surprised that the students labelled “anti-foreigner” sentiments as the root cause behind the abject poverty.

It is understood that the Singapore Education Ministry is teaching Singaporean students to blame xenophobia for the depression of salaries in Singapore. TWC2 volunteer Debbie Fordyce told the students that they were wrong and the employment situation in Singapore should instead be blamed for exploitation and cheating leading to extreme poverty among the foreign workers.

“There are structural problems causing employers to cut corners for things like food, accommodation and protective equipment.”

The volunteer blasted the Singapore government’s work permit system:

“The work permit system results in workers not having the freedom to switch jobs easily, and gives them little say in where they live, how much they are paid, and how much they have to pay in recruitment fees or kickbacks.”

Foreign worker help group TWC2 is one of the few volunteer organisations that help foreign workers with employment issues and financial aid. TWC2 serves 11 meals every week at Cuff Road in the poverty-stricken area of Little India frequented by foreign workers from India and Bangladesh. Around 500 to 600 troubled workers on Special Passes due to injuries and outstanding salary claim go for the free food every week and the demand is increasing.

Aside from providing food, TWC2 also offer financial aid help with transportation by topping up EZ-link cards and paying for urgent medical treatment.

The Singapore government and the Manpower Ministry does not offer any form of help to troubled foreign workers who are often victims of cheating cases. However, the government’s airport police often call TWC2 for help if they heard of any cases of “forced repatriation” by Singapore employers.

A typical foreign worker in the construction sector in Singapore earns around S$700 a month, after deduction for dormitory lodging. Usually, employment agents charge around S$4,000 per worker to bring them from India or Bangladesh to Singapore. Singapore employers, especially private construction contractors, often join in the cheat-bullying by demanding foreign workers to return a portion of their salaries back in cash as a condition for sponsoring their employment work permits. The Singapore Ministry of Manpower (MOM) turns a blind eye to such malpractice and conduct checks sparingly or only act upon complains. However, a foreign worker has to think twice before complaining to the MOM because he will lose his job once his employer is caught for employment malpractices.

Singapore’s thriving economy is built on a modern slavery system where there is no Minimum Wage to protect low income workers. The Singapore government pushes responsibilities for exploited workers to volunteer organisations as pro-business elements like the Singapore Business Federation are very vocal in the government.