Protecting the rights of migrant workers in Singapore

Charles Tan

In the May TWC2 and HOME report (access the executive summary
here, the NGOs claimed that despite enhanced legislation such as increasing mandatory hospitalisation insurance coverage, foreign workers still face barriers in reporting mistreatment.

For instance, the current work pass system means that employers can easily terminate workers leaving the latter in a weaker position to negotiate better working conditions.


Furthermore, when employees lodge a complaint against their employers, they are given Special Passes which allows them to stay, though not work, in Singapore. This situation further impoverishes the worker who is stranded without any source of income.

Another Human Rights Watch (HRW) report which documented the the plight of migrant domestic workers in Asia and the Middle East also pointed out that a gap exists between acceptable human rights standards and legislation and official action in many of these countries, including Singapore. In the summary on these host states, the HRW writes that:


the combination of significant gaps in labor laws, visa systems that give employers immense control over workers, and racism against an often darker-skinned “servant” class has contributed to exploitative working conditions for migrant domestic workers. In addition to demanding excessively long hours with no days off for little or no pay, employers often take the passports of migrant domestic workers and confine them in their homes. In some cases, migrant domestic workers endure slavery-like conditions including physical abuse, sexual abuse, and food deprivation, sometimes continuing for months or years. In the worst cases, migrant domestic workers lose their lives or are trapped in situations of forced labor or trafficking.

In Singapore it is not mandatory to give domestic workers a weekly day off (except giving both employers and employees an option to negotiate one to four days off monthly or being paid to work in those days).

The lack of bargaining power on the side of the worker means that many are afraid to ask for time off. In other cases, migrant domestic workers often have to borrow to pay the employment agency before coming to Singapore.

Their predicament is worsened with the ongoing global economic recession which has reduced the number of jobs available for them. As much as it has affected the poor and middle class Singaporeans, its impact is also felt on stranded and unemployed migrant workers. It is therefore not surprising that a soup kitchen service run by TWC2 and One Singapore for jobless and homeless migrant workers are facing the prospect of stopping their program due to overwhelming expenditure as a result of increasing demand (

Instead, activists should seize this opportunity to promote a human-rights based framework for workers, domestic or migrant. As the HRW report points out, labor activists in some countries are already beginning to adopt this approach.

For instance, the Malaysian Trades Union Congress has started to coordinate with migrants NGOs. Hong Kong’s domestic work movement which is comprised of migrant, domestic workers and the larger labor movement has managed to successfully fought for improvements such as minimum wage and public accountability in employer abuse.

Charles Tan is a member and the ex-president of the Young Democrats. He is presently studying in Australia.

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