Singapore’s Gastarbeiters: A Stormy Future

Singapore’s Gastarbeiters: A Stormy Future

Recent incidents involving migrant workers and Singaporean law enforcement call into question Singapore’s treatment of foreign workers in the construction sector.

Photo: Basile Morin

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

Recent incidents involving migrant workers and Singaporean law enforcement call into question Singapore’s treatment of foreign workers in the construction sector.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Tensions between migrant workers and Singaporean authorities will remain strained while COVID-19 measures remain in place.
– Flaws in the government’s handling of foreign labor revealed during the pandemic, will likely further encourage a push for local talent and technological solutions.
– Rising anti-migrant sentiment amongst Singaporeans may lead to further employment restrictions for foreigners.

ANGER AMONGST THE PROLETARIAT

On October 13th, riot police were deployed to the Jalan Tukang dormitory in response to reported riotous conditions. Tensions flared following complaints from mostly Chinese workers regarding poor living conditions and the perceived unwillingness of their employers to address their concerns. While the situation was resolved peacefully, the clash between Chinese citizens and police led the Chinese ambassador to register concerns with Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Investigations carried out in the aftermath led to an unusual acceptance of shortcomings by the Ministry of Manpower, which acknowledged that mistakes had been made

Singapore’s economy is highly reliant on foreign labor, which comprises over one-fifth of the population, making any disruption to the labor market a serious concern for the government. Simultaneously, the country has needed to justify this economic policy to the public due to fears of job outsourcing. Balancing the need for external labor with the concerns of local citizens has been a priority for the government for decades, with anti-foreigner sentiment rising and falling depending on the economic climate.

A STORMY MARRIAGE

An island nation, Singapore has historically viewed foreign labor as an essential component of its rapid economic success. Beginning in the 1980s, successive Singaporean governments implemented policies designed to encourage rapid economic expansion via the transformation of the country into a global financial hub. A major component of this initiative was the liberalization of work visas, which had previously been limited, for both skilled and unskilled workers as a means of compensating for the nation’s falling birth rate. The result was the rapid growth of an ex-pat community that has become synonymous with Singapore’s status as a financial hub. 

While this system has succeeded in boosting the Singaporean economy, it is not without controversy. The two main sectors employing unskilled laborers — construction and domestic help — have been criticized both domestically and internationally. For instance, the number of cases of abuse against domestic helpers by their Singaporean employers has been a persistent blight on the sector’s reputation. However, it is the construction sector, in which the Jalan Tukang workers are employed, that is most in political dispute. Construction workers are kept in dormitories by their employers, often living in cramped housing shared between dozens of people. Working hours are long and somewhat unsafe; workers are often driven to and from work in the backs of open-top trucks. Due to the government’s policy of classifying unskilled workers as temporary residents of Singapore, there is also little effort put into encouraging the mingling of workers with the public.  

While this system functioned effectively for decades, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken its foundations. Migrant workers living in dormitories were placed under quarantine orders that have remained tightly enforced despite the gradual easing of measures for the general public. Additionally, as seen in the Jalan Tukang incident, many dorm residents view their treatment as substandard and discriminatory. The coincidental rise of discriminatory incidents amongst the public, targeting migrant workers and locals alike, certainly does nothing to discourage this view. Most alarmingly, despite the above quarantine measures, COVID-19 infections within the dormitories continue to arise.

A PARADIGM SHIFT IN THE MAKING?

Tensions between foreign workers and the Singaporean government are likely to ease in the short term as COVID-19 transitions to an endemic state. While anger persists and is not likely to fully dissipate, many contributing factors that led to the incident may fade. Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower’s willingness to accept a share of the responsibility in the Jalan Tukang incident illustrates that it is eager to avoid further unrest, especially in the context of potentially angering Beijing. Additionally, the Singapore Civil Service’s reputation for efficiency suggests a resolution will quickly be found once priority is given to the issue. With the country transitioning to a near-full opening next year, it is also probable that quarantine measures imposed on worker dormitories will return to an approximation of their pre-pandemic state.

The more serious risk Singapore faces comes with the potential damage its policies may have caused to its reputation. The country has faced criticism on several issues before, including the manner in which it handles its foreign workers. The current difference is that a more dominant China is involved. Unlike less influential Asian states, China’s protests against the perceived mistreatment of its citizens carry a weight that Singapore cannot ignore.

This may well suggest that foreign workers will increasingly be seen as a potential risk to Singapore’s independence and economic position if a more powerful state seeks to capitalize on domestic troubles. Indeed, it is possible that less influential states with large contingents of migrant workers in Singapore, such as Bangladesh and the Philippines, may become more assertive in defending their citizens’ rights because of China’s growing assertiveness. This could take the form of said states demanding new labor agreements between themselves and the Singaporean authorities. Similar incidents have already occurred. The Philippines banned its citizens from working in the United Arab Emirates after decades of abuse complaints. While that incident was resolved via the signing of a joint labor agreement, the prospect of sharing the embarrassment suffered by the UAE is one Singapore would seek to avoid. 

Such considerations are likely to factor into the Singaporean government’s economic roadmap in the years to come. There have already been shifts to accommodate rising nativist sentiment amongst the electorate, with the number of work visas issued steadily decreasing. With the global order seemingly weakening, Singapore will likely continue to push for locals to replace foreign talent over the coming decade as a means of ensuring their economy develops a level of autarky in the labor force. Further investment in robotics is also likely to be prioritized to reduce the need for foreign unskilled labor. Taken as a whole, it is likely that the pandemic will dramatically reshape Singapore’s economy for decades to come.