An Attempt To Make Sense of The Migrant Worker Debate Thus Far

Yet, the migrant worker issue has remained conspicuously absent from the campaign trail thus far. It remains unclear what lessons we will draw from the outbreak, and whether we will see any fundamental policy changes post-pandemic.


Currently, different parties seem to be talking across each other, and cannot even agree on the points of consensus and contention. This article attempts to map out where the disagreement is, in the hopes that parties can continue to discuss this post-elections.


1. Disagree On Root Cause Of Outbreak in Migrant Dormitories


Civil society groups have pointed to crowded dorm conditions as the root cause of the Covid-19 outbreak in dormitories. They cite the Straits’ Times report about cramped living quarters and squalid sanitary conditions as the primary reason why, despite aggressive efforts to encourage ‘social distancing’, it is simply impossible for those in the migrant community to do so.


Some, however, disagree that the root cause of the Covid-19 outbreak is due to poor dormitory conditions, and thus, reject the idea that there is anything substantially wrong with the way Singapore treats migrant workers.


First lady Ho Ching, Former NMP Calvin Cheng, and NUS Professor Ben Leong have all written about how dormitory conditions are not to blame; rather, it is “communal living” that explains high infection rates. Ho Ching cited other examples of tightly-packed environments that led to high infection rates: cruise ships, nursing homes, and so forth. Some, like Ben, go even further to say that not only are dormitory conditions not the root cause of the Covid-19 outbreak in migrant dormitories, the fact that migrant worker NGOs and activists are “capitalizing” on this outbreak to “lobby for an agenda” is “despicable”.


As such, there is disagreement on whether the outbreak indicates that the status quo for migrant workers is bad.


In contrast, civil society representatives such as TWC2’s Vice-President Alex Au and activist Kokila Annamalai say that dormitories are just the tip of the iceberg, highlighting the myriad other issues migrant workers face: high agency fees, low wages, and the lack of labour rights and collective bargaining power.In contrast, those who disagree with the root cause would likely be inclined to say that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the way Singapore currently treats its migrant workers. Consider the trade and industry associations’ statement, which claimed that most migrant workers are treated well by their employers, and that the negative cases highlighted by rights groups represent only a small minority of such infractions.
2. Agree That We Need Reforms, Disagree on Why We Need To Make Them
Then there are those who agree that the status quo is bad, but disagree on why the status quo is bad, and therefore what are the next steps we need to take.


The government’s main takeaway from the outbreak seems to be that dormitories are part of the problem, and thus, need to be redesigned to be pandemic-proof. In fact, it has already announced plans to build new purpose-built dormitories that would be significantly more spacious for each migrant worker, capping each room to a maximum of ten people (in contrast to the 12 – 16 that’s currently the norm), with only single beds being used. They have also introduced minimum square footage requirements, and one set of toilets per five beds instead of fifteen.


The difference is, the government’s acceptance of the root cause doesn’t point to a fundamental ideological shift. The government is not saying that migrant workers’ rights are important in and of themselves, but that new spacious dormitories are important to improve pandemic-resilience. Pragmatically speaking, if another outbreak were to occur, Singapore might have to enter another circuit breaker, which would surely hurt the economy. As many people have said, “the virus does not discriminate based on citizenship”, so community infection rates apply to all, whether you are a migrant worker or not.


In contrast, migrant rights activists dispute this framework that migrant workers’ health should be seen primarily by their economic uti…