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A high-ranking United Nations official on Wednesday urged Singapore to better protect the human rights of migrant workers, saying the introduction of a minimum wage and more legal safeguards could prevent their exploitation.
“I would strongly urge the government to act swiftly to ensure the protection of migrant workers’ human rights, as this is one area where the situation is quite dire,” UN Special Rapporteur on racism Githu Muigai told a news conference after a one-week visit to the city-state.
The Singapore authorities had taken numerous initiatives to prevent the manifold human rights violations and sometimes physical abuse suffered by migrant workers, he said.
However, migrant workers still face a number of difficulties, Muigai said, for example unilateral cancellations of work permits by employers, poor and unhygienic living conditions or denial of medical insurance contrary to official policy.
As of December 2009, 1.05 million, or 35.2 per cent, of Singapore’s workforce of 2.99 million people were foreigners, according to the Ministry of Manpower. Migrants mainly work in theconstruction sector, in shipyards and as domestic helpers.
Singapore’s more than 180,000 migrant domestic servants face a number of additional problems, the UN expert said, as they are excluded from the Employment Act, which regulates working hours and guarantees adequate resting time.
Muigai said Singapore should introduce “a minimum wage for migrant workers particularly vulnerable to exploitation, such as construction and domestic workers.”
Considering the ethnic and religious riots four decades ago, the current peaceful coexistence of diverse ethnic communities in Singapore was “a remarkable achievement in itself,” he said.
However, he urged the Singapore government to allow a more open debate on the matter, as some laws, which strictly prohibit the promotion of ill-will or hostility between members of different ethnic groups, were restricting public discussion.
“It is absolutely necessary in a free society that restrictions on public debate or discourse and the protection of racial harmony are not implemented at the detriment of fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly,” he said.
“Time is ripe for the authorities to review any legislative restrictions that may exist in the statute books in order to allow Singaporeans to share their views on matters of ethnicity […] and work together to find solutions,” he said.