Chee: Stop the exploitation of workers

Chee Soon Juan

I chanced upon a man dressed in office attire yesterday morning lying on a park bench. Covering his face was The New Paper’s Wednesday edition with the headline in big, black letters: I WANT TO JUMP OFF WITH MY KIDS.

It was a report on how Ng Chee Kiang set ablaze his flat, burnt his two children alive and then jumped to his death. He was a bankrupt and was being hounded by loan sharks, and was in the process of a divorce.

When he lifted the newspaper from his face and saw me, Lim (as he later introduced himself) smiled one of those half-smiles. We chatted. He had just lost his job because his company found a cheaper replacement, someone from mainland China.

Lim was contemplating his next move, not knowing where he could find another job as he was in his forties. “I don’t think anyone will hire me if I tell them how old I am,” he said blandly.

Sadly, Lim’s experience is not all that uncommon. As retrenchment and competition for jobs hot up, more and more people have no where to go – literally and economically. Singaporeans continue to face a difficult existence with wages plummeting but with the cost of living escalating.

This is the message that I have tried to get across in the 10 interviews that I have done, and about to do, with US radio stations these past few days.

All these years workers in this country have been getting the short end of the stick. They have no labour unions to speak up for them. The only existing one that has all the power has as its leader a cabinet minister who, incredibly, exhorts workers to work even “cheaper, better and faster”.

Included among them are elderly Singaporeans who have little option but to continue to work menial jobs like cleaning tables just to survive. There is no financial support for them in a system designed by a bunch of ministers who pay themselves $10,000/day.

In the meantime, the Government floods Singapore with guest workers in the millions. More than one in three people you see on the streets in Singapore are not Singaporeans.

While my colleagues and I have never objected to foreign talent – and let me be on record that we are in need of such talent – the truth is that the Foreign Talent Policy has much to do with foreign but little with talent.

The reality is that the Government exploits cheap foreign labour to suppress local wages. Foreign workers are allowed into Singapore to keep wages low. Wages are kept low so that we can remain attractive to MNCs.

The result is that Singaporeans bear the brunt of depressed wages.

Do the employers, many of them multinationals from America, care? With generous tax breaks and almost 100 percent repatriation of their profits, these MNCs adore Singapore as a business venue. And you have a Government that outlaws industrial action and crushes workers’ rights to boot. It’s corporate heaven on earth.

The PAP even consults these foreign companies on how much Sinaporeans’ should be paid. The National Wages Council has on its 2007/2008 board representatives from the US (Douglas Miller), Japanese (Shigeru Kobayashi), and German (Alexander Melchers) chambers of commerce.

The PAP’s Foreign Talent Policy benefits not the workers, both local and foreign, but the rich and powerful, both local and foreign.

When I get on the air in the US, it is the guy whom I met at the park and the old lady at the hawker centre who cleans tables whom I have have in mind.

This exploitation of Singaporeans must stop and Americans must know that their corporations cannot continue to operate in Singapore and ignore their corporate social responsibilities.

I call on the US not to remain silent when the Singapore Government, on behalf of American MNCs, exploits Singaporean workers.

The ultimate tragedy, Martin Luther King Jr once reminded us, is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.

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