Migrants take hit in Singapore recession but keep coming

Kai Portmann

Abdur Rouf Abdul Mannan is furious with his boss. The 26-year-old Bangladeshi earns 16 Singapore dollars, or about 11 US dollars, a day as a worker at a Singapore shipyard.

“My boss promised he’ll give me 18 dollars after I finished training,’ Abdur Rouf said. ‘I passed training, but the boss didn’t live up to his promise.”

As the global economic downturn hits the city-state hard, conditions for about 750,000 migrant workers in Singapore, who already draw low pay, have become harsher.

“We have seen a lot of workers since the recession started,” said Jolovan Wham, executive director of the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), which provides legal assistance, help and shelter for needy migrant workers.

In Singapore, “more foreign workers complain about pay cuts, not being paid on time, having their working days reduced, and not being provided food, shelter and health care, which employers are legally obliged to provide,” said a paper by the International Labour Organization on the effects of the global economic crisis.

Abdur Rouf, who lives in HOME’s shelter in Singapore’s Little India quarter, made his claim for a higher wage at the Ministry of Manpower.

His boss, a subcontractor, offered him 300 Singapore dollars to settle the matter.

If he takes that money, the Bangladeshi said, the ministry ‘will send me back.

“But going home would have devastating consequences for him,” he said.

He borrowed 8,000 Singapore dollars from his cousin and a money lender in Bangladesh to pay an agent to bring him to Singapore.

So far, Abdur Rouf has worked just 13 months in the island state, earning about 500 Singapore dollars a month, by far not enough to recoup his investment.

“I’ve planned to stay four or five years,” he said.

His countryman Anoare Hassin Anu Abdul Haque also faces the danger of going back home nearly empty-handed with a huge debt waiting there for him.

“I will have problems in Bangladesh,” the 24-year-old said. “I came to Singapore for work and money.”

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stressed that the city-state would not send foreign workers home, even during the recession.

While countries like Malaysia have started to shut their doors to migrant workers, Singapore would not follow that policy, he said.

“We need to keep ourselves open,’ Lee told a union conference in February. ‘We need to be rational.”

Emotionally, Lee said he could understand that people say they “find it very difficult to accept foreigners here in this difficult period.”

“There are Singaporeans who are ready to take the jobs of the foreign workers,” said John Gee, president of the migrant worker advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too.

Of course, these are not the hard and low-paid jobs at construction sites or shipyards.

A job in a restaurant is what desperate Singaporeans would take, a job with a minimum fixed monthly wage of 1,800 Singapore dollars.

“That’s where the pressure is felt,” Gee said.

The pressure would mount when “construction companies have finished their projects but new jobs are not coming up,” Gee warned.

Although life for migrant workers is getting tougher in Singapore, it is still a magnet for foreign job seekers.

“We still see them coming in,” Jolovan Wham said.

Some agents and subcontractors continue to recruit workers in their home countries, knowing there are no jobs in Singapore, Gee said.

But it’s not only false promises by dubious agents or a lack of information about the real situation that brings migrant workers to Singapore even in these gloomy times.

“They still have this hope that things are going to work out,” Gee said.


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