Singapore’s foreign workers

2 weeks ago, almost 200 mainland Chinese bus drivers in Singapore staged the first industrial action our little city state has seen in decades.They absented themselves from work for 2 days, protesting against the unjust treatment they have received from their employers. Somehow, someone in authority had decided that it is fair for a wage disparity to exist between local and foreign workers doing the same job. Additionally, there appears to be salary differences even amongst foreign workers- all seemingly based on their country of origin. Workers who live in accommodation provided by their employers have also voiced concerns about the standard of living conditions they have to put up with. They were unhappy and desperate, and had thus decided to take matters into their own hands. They staged a strike that is illegal by Singapore’s law, and caused a great deal of inconvenience to Singaporean commuters.

In a country where a previously uncontrolled influx of “foreign talents” has led to much tension between the locals and their foreign counterparts, this incident was equivalent to picking the scab off a wound that has barely healed over. From a quick browse through online forums, people are quick to throw around irresponsible comments like “this would not have happened with Singaporean drivers,” or “you do not deserve to be paid more,” or “go back to China if you can’t obey the laws of this country!” The Chinese workers are lambasted for what they have done because it inconvenienced us, it disrupted the facade of industrial harmony that we have become so proud of, and simply because they are workers from China.

2 things have happened since. Firstly, one man has been jailed for inciting the strike and 29 others have been fired and repatriated back to China. Secondly, the employers have been forced to step out, explain themselves, and deliberate a solution to the presenting problem. Unfortunately, they do not seem to think that there is a problem with how much the Chinese workers are being paid and are certainly not in great haste to give them a pay rise.

All that talk about giving bus drivers a better wage has led the transport minister to suggest that a hike in bus fares is due. This is obviously a very unpopular motion and Singaporeans are hugely against it. “Why should we have to pay for THEIR salary rises? It does not benefit MY interests so I am against it!” I beg my fellow Singaporeans to consider then what right they have to enjoy riding in comfortable new buses with air-conditioning, what right they have to demand an efficient and reliable bus service, what right do they have in expecting smiling, polite and safe-driving bus drivers on the roads? Surely, someone has to pay for it! We complain that the cost of living in Singapore is rising exponentially to the point that we are struggling to cope with the expenses of daily living. We desire and demand wage increases and bonuses at work. Yet, have we considered the fact that these foreign workers live within the same city, pay the same prices for rent, food and bills, and desire the same pay rise that we ask for? How dare we self-righteously denounce and rebuke them for wanting the very same things we petition for? How can such double standards be just?

My fellow countrymen love to say “Give Singaporeans the job! Don’t let the ‘foreign talents’ rob us of employment!” I agree to this to an extent. I do believe that the Singaporean government and employers within the country should learn to look after their own citizens better. I agree that jobs that can be filled by Singaporeans should go to Singaporeans first- it is ridiculous to have a country chock-full of foreign workers that have driven most of their own citizens into unemployment. I agree that I do prefer to go home to the real Singapore and be served in public places by Singlish spouting Singaporeans. I agree that I do not like seeing my country slowly morph into a “mini-China” or “mini-India.”

However, I also realise that we cannot expect all jobs to go to Singaporeans. Why? Well, simply because Singaporeans will not do them! Singaporeans do not want to sweep the roads, clean toilets in McDonalds, work on construction sites… There are too many “dirty jobs” that Singaporeans will not do, jobs that are so “dirty” yet so fundamental to our development into a first world country, jobs that we are dependent on our foreign counterparts to do. This is their contribution to our country- should we not at least be thankful? Do we not at least owe them a reasonable wage and a respectable standard of living?

A Singaporean journalist recently visited a dormitory that these foreign workers live in and documented some of the sights and smells that he was greeted with. 8-10 men are squashed into a room, sleeping on bunk beds, without any wardrobes or storage spaces. There is no window for ventilation, and laundry is hung to dry indoors. A stale smell lingers in the air. Pictures of the place reminded me of the living conditions within a 3rd world country, certainly not something I would expect to have come from some remote corner where foreign workers are suffering in Singapore. This led me to think, how can we blissfully enjoy the comfort of the beautiful bungalows and comfortable condominiums that our foreign workers have built, yet feel unmoved by the fact that they live in these rat-holes? How have we become so callous?

I really worry about the state of our society sometimes. We are self-centred and selfish, full of anger and lacking in compassion. Xenophobia has driven us to justify injustice, and we sometimes forget to treat fellow human beings as humans.

Something needs to be done, but I don’t know how or what.

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