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Ride the wave of goodwill to further protect and recognise the dignity of migrant workers

Migrant workers matter. The treatment and recognition of one of our most vulnerable groups will be key to how Singapore will navigate a post-pandemic future.

Migrant workers at Westlite Toh Guan Dormitory look out their window on June 12, 2020.

Migrant workers at Westlite Toh Guan Dormitory look out their window on June 12, 2020.

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Migrant workers matter. The treatment and recognition of one of our most vulnerable groups will be key to how Singapore will navigate a post-pandemic future. 

About this time last year, infection rates among foreign workers living in dormitories numbered in the thousands. The coronavirus exposed the not-too-ideal living conditions of migrant workers that made Covid-19 rampant.

They were housed in relatively secluded areas and often rendered invisible, but their plight was of national concern.

The hope was for migrant workers to recover quickly and for infections in the dormitories to cease. 

Some of the people watching on and wanting their recovery were motivated by sincere concern and recognition of our shared humanity.

However, it was undeniable that there were also many who needed migrant workers back on their feet because their work is so integral to our quality of life in Singapore.

Their salient role in many aspects of our lives is evident, in keeping up much-needed construction efforts to house the population and in maintaining a well-landscaped and clean environment for all.

Our collective learning through that episode was that in this battle with the virus, an attack on one group must be taken as a potential attack on all of us. The virus has reminded us — albeit painfully for some — how we are all inextricably connected. 


The Government took much-needed steps to improve the unsatisfactory dormitory conditions.

It worked on reducing density by building new dormitories and repurposing unused state property such as schools and factories to house migrant workers temporarily.  

For the long term, more dormitories with better facilities are being built and new living standards at dormitories are also being implemented. This will ensure better living conditions and increase resilience to public health risks.

These measures aside, there are many other needed changes if migrant workers are to be treated with dignity. 

Recently, the transportation of migrant workers in lorries was in the spotlight again after a number of them were injured or died in three lorry accidents.

Migrant workers often undertake work that entails more risks than for the average Singaporean, but some hazards are avoidable.

In May, Parliament discussed the proposal that workers be transported in seated vehicles rather than at the back of goods vehicles. 

Such a move, if adopted, clearly adds an extra burden to businesses already struggling from the economic impact of the pandemic. 

However, as Mr Melvin Yong, assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), highlighted during the debates, some progressive companies have already started using buses with seat belts for such transfers. 

Migrant workers he had travelled with on a bus informed him that they feel much safer with this mode of transport.

Other companies need to consider this seriously.

On a more symbolic level, the move to transport migrant workers in seated vehicles will provide a much-needed mindset shift. 

We will better acknowledge migrant workers as deserving of safety as other workers, and recognise that they are people, not cargo.

Still, there remains gaps in areas of help extended to migrant workers in which there are opportunities to do more.

This includes ensuring that there are no barriers to them receiving outpatient care and paid medical leave when this is needed or timely recourse when they have salary disputes.

A foreign worker in the construction industry. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

It is also time we look at their wages in relation to workload. The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) recently wrote to The Straits Times Forum page suggesting that cleaners who are migrant workers be included under the Progressive Wage Model.

The organisation's research on Bangladeshi conservancy workers suggested that they had low monthly wages of under S$800, 12-hour shifts and little rest even on public holidays. Given their low social status and little bargaining power, they are vulnerable to exploitation.    

While legislation has been strengthened over the years to address welfare issues of workers, errant employers are quick to find loopholes. There thus remains the need to find broader, systematic ways to raise the baseline of protections and welfare.

The good thing is, the spillover benefits from having better safeguards in place to ensure that migrant workers are not exploited would be felt by low-wage workers in Singapore regardless of nationality.

Contractors would, for example, think twice before overworking a migrant worker let alone a Singaporean one, thus encouraging more responsible human resource management and outsourcing.

Better protection for the most vulnerable in the labour force, low-wage migrant workers, would send a clear signal that Singaporean or not, no one should be exploited.


The positive views that Singaporeans have towards such workers have grown and these are facilitating more changes to improve the workers’ living conditions and safety. We should take advantage of this trend to enact even more positive changes. 

From online polls conducted over 22 “waves” by the Institute of Policy Studies to ascertain population attitudes and sentiments during the pandemic, it was found that 30 to 40 per cent of the respondents reported that they felt more or much more positively about migrant workers.

These figures were on par with the increased positive sentiments towards government officials and law enforcement that were observed over the course of the pandemic.   

There has also been an outpouring of support for migrant workers ever since many of them have been confined to their dormitories at the start of the outbreak last year.

Many random acts of kindness have been shown by the public, along with well-organised initiatives by voluntary groups.

The Migrant Workers' Centre, an initiative of the Singapore National Employment Federation and NTUC for instance, recently celebrated Labour Day for migrant workers online where about 50,000 migrant workers tuned in to be entertained by international performing artistes.

There have also been many efforts to distribute “care packs” or supplies of food and other items to these workers. Recently a group of musicians collaborated with migrant worker support groups and started an initiative WeEat that provides migrant workers with quality meals bought from struggling hawkers.


The increased awareness of migrant workers’ lives and of their essential work and living conditions have certainly changed the perceptions of some segments of the Singapore population.

We have to find even more ways to correct perceptions, especially among those who have entrenched beliefs of disdain towards such workers. 

The Government’s plans to build new dormitories with better standards near residential areas over the next few years should hasten our efforts on this front.

Ideas are needed to help change the “not in my backyard” mentality expressed recently and seen even before this pandemic began. 

One noteworthy suggestion is to foster community initiatives to honour these well-deserving migrant workers. 

Perhaps we should have completion ceremonies to celebrate their role in building our new homes or other properties.  

Most of the time, we do not know who built our homes, our offices or our malls.

Surely, there can be some dedicated space, particularly in our residential areas, where we can memorialise their contributions.

Photographs and names of the workers involved in such development projects and even QR codes put up on posters to tell of their contributions and experiences would help current and future generations of Singaporeans to recognise their immense contributions. 

Some town councils occasionally hold events to thank the many migrant workers who clean and maintain our neighbourhoods. Hopefully, activities like these will become mainstream and regular.

The public should be encouraged to come up with their own ground-up initiatives to recognise and contribute to the welfare of migrant workers in their communities.

The labels we place on people will have a major impact on how we perceive and treat them. This is crucial as Singapore continues its efforts to build a cohesive society that will thrive in a post-pandemic future. 

It is high time we work to keep all workers safe, and give especially the vulnerable their overdue credit.



Mathew Mathews is head of Social Lab and principal research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore. Shamil Zainuddin is a research associate at the Institute of Policy Studies.

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