The Plight of Migrant Workers: Reforming Singapore’s Inequities

Goh Jun Cheng

Singapore’s rapid development from third world to first world status in a single generation was fueled significantly by cheap migrant labor from across Asia. Today, over 1.4 million low-wage migrant workers fill jobs in construction, domestic service, shipyards and other manual labor.

However, even as Singapore celebrates its developed nation achievements, the treatment of these migrant workers starkly contradicts its ideals of equity and justice. Migrant workers face well-documented abuses around unfair pay, lack of rest days, dangerous working conditions, and lack of basic dignities.

This article explores the issues surrounding migrant worker conditions in Singapore, why inequities persist, stories illustrating their plight, and potential reforms to align practices with principles. No society can claim to be enlightened while continuing to exploit the vulnerable.

Overview of Migrant Workers in Singapore

Migrants come mainly from South Asian and Southeast Asian developing nations:

  • Approximately 300,000 domestic workers, mostly females from Indonesia and the Philippines.
  • Over 700,000 low-skilled construction workers from Bangladesh, India, China and Malaysia.
  • 200,000 marine and shipping industry workers from India, Bangladesh and Philippines.
  • 200,000 factory workers from China, Malaysia, Bangladesh and other countries.

Attracted by salaries higher than at home, they perform essential yet unglamorous jobs locally shunned. But despite contributions to Singapore’s economy, they remain excluded from social protections other workers enjoy.

Detrimental Working and Living Conditions

Common issues faced include:

  • Excessively long work hours, lack of adequate rest days and overtime pay violations.
  • Unsafe, cramped dormitories putting 12-20 in single room with shared facilities.
  • Lack of proper safety protections from hazardous conditions.
  • Salary exploitation and unreasonable employment terms. Confiscation of passports by employers.
  • Verbal and physical abuse, issues seeking medical care.
  • Barriers to switching employers freely under restrictive work permit system.

Such inhumane treatment contravenes Singapore’s reputation as a modern society. Why do these conditions persist?

Drivers of Migrant Worker Inequity

Several interconnected factors perpetuate poor treatment:

  • Viewed solely as cheap labor, not valued members of society.
  • Lack of robust, strictly enforced protections under Employment Act.
  • Work permit system gives employers inordinate power over employees.
  • Migrants excluded from unions, limiting bargaining power.
  • Reluctance to improve conditions due to impact on costs, competitiveness.
  • Societal indifference to migrants’ dehumanization.
  • Migrants afraid to speak up due to lack of alternatives if repatriated.

Mindsets and structural factors collude to perpetrate everyday injustices.

Everyday Indignities

Beneath statistics, migrant workers suffer myriad humiliations:

  • Bangladeshi construction worker Amir injured on job but denied medical leave by boss threatening work permit cancellation.
  • Domestic helper Jenny given only one meal a day by employers and forced to sleep in kitchen.
  • Indonesian shipyard worker Rahim’s passport held by company preventing him from leaving abusive employer.
  • Filipino maid Celia made to scrub floors 20 hours a day without rest by cruel employers.
  • Indian metal worker Vijay cheated of overtime pay and terrified to report workplace injuries.

Behind each migrant with a story waits a family depending on wage remittances. Basic humanity warrants urgent reforms.

Pathways for Progress

  • Enforce existing laws strictly; enact new laws guaranteeing reasonable working hours, living conditions, days off.
  • Establish an independent Workpass Ombudsman office allowing workers to report issues without repatriation fears.
  • Overhaul dormitory standards. Rethink employee housing policies separating families.
  • Grant migrants greater freedoms to change employers, access permanent residency, bring families.
  • Include migrant workers under the Employment Act’s provisions. Expandwork injury insurance and healthcare.
  • Work with migrant source countries to monitor broker practices.
  • Partner employers to improve dormitory, worksite auditing alongside government.


Singapore cannot claim to be a truly advanced society while continuing to treat its most vulnerable workers as expendable and invisible. Progress necessitates protecting migrant worker welfare as integral to national identity.

With good faith effort and moral conviction, Singapore can implement reforms upholding its ideals of justice, empathy and community. The time is overdue to formally extend human dignity to everyone powering Singapore’s success story.

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