Issue of foreign worker exploitation dominates public forum

Gail Chai

Does Singapore have a culture that respects the work of low-wage foreign workers?

This issue came up time and again during a public forum on the minimum wage for low wage workers held on Saturday afternoon at the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre in Clarke Quay.
Organised by, an organisation that helps support the unemployed, the panel of speakers included Singapore Democratic Party treasurer, Dr. Vincent Wijeysingha, Leong Sze Hian, ex-President of the Society of Financial Service Professionals and Kumaran Pillai, Chief Editor of The Online Citizen.

Wijeysingha told the audience of 40 guests that he was concerned Singapore had developed a culture of exploiting its foreign workers such as construction workers, hawker centre and toilet cleaners.

“The fundamental engine of our growth, essentially speaking, is exploiting our workers more and more and more as it is. Wages need to be kept low in order for profits to be kept high," he said.

Another panel speaker, Jolovan Wham, Executive Director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics (HOME), agreed and said migrant workers are easy to take advantage of.

“When we don’t have a culture that respects workers’ rights in general, and the issue of low wages is an important component of this culture, then all low wage workers will suffer," he said.

"The reason local workers are displaced is because migrant workers are easy to exploit so the solution is not to target these foreigners. This is a huge concern for me,” added Wham

Leong said among those being exploited are students from neighbouring universities who came to Singapore to serve their internship.

“Many the waiters and waitresses earn S$450 and you know why?  I did some checking and to my horror, all these interns are not counted in the foreign worker quota so employers can employ as many of them as they like because they don’t count in the foreign worker quota.  so if you’re an employer, you can get this slave for six months for S$450 and the slave will work extremely hard,” he said.

Another panel speaker, Businessman Mr Wei Chan, however, said foreign workers were an inevitable necessity because they did jobs that neither "you and I do not want to do".

“Our society is moving up and there are jobs that you and I do not want to do. If you ask me to clean toilets, I wouldn’t want to! We need these foreign workers to come in and help us to do the minimum service that we want so that our cost can remain low. Without all these foreign workers, the very jobs that we’re trying to save at the higher levels will go off," he said.

Last month, the National Wages Council recommended a $50 increase in salary for the lowest-wage workers.

How would you suggest Singaporeans develop a sense of appreciation for the work of low-wage workers?