Migrant workers in Singapore fear financial ruin after COVID-19 ordeal


Bangladeshi construction supervisor Sharif Uddin, 42, fears about his future, as he was leaving the cramped Singapore dormitory where he has spent weeks under coronavirus quarantine.

Mr. Uddin is one of thousands of low-income migrant workers trapped in overcrowded accommodations that were ravaged by the coronavirus, accounting for more than 90% of Singapore’s 38,000 infections.

As Singapore began easing its lockdown measures this month, migrants like him are thinking about returning to the outside world, wondering whether jobs would still be available in the city that braces for a deepest ever recession.

“The fear of losing jobs is worrying everyone at the moment,” said Mr. Uddin, who sends the bulk of his wages to his family in Bangladesh and is still repaying loans taken to pay off his recruitment agent, like many of the South Asian migrant workers in Singapore.

For Singapore, the system of cheap, imported labour to do jobs in the construction, shipping, manufacturing and service industries works effectively. When times are good, it means jobs that locals usually shun can be filled, but when the economy is weak, it is easy to cut back on foreign workers.

That leaves migrant workers like Mr. Uddin vulnerable and at real risk of being forced to return to their home country where employment opportunities are scarce.

In interviews with more than a dozen workers in Singapore, many said while they were still being paid, they feared they would lose their jobs when the quarantine is lifted.

Mr. Uddin said Singapore was his “dream city” when he first arrived in 2008, but like many migrants he found most of his toil went towards paying family expenses and creditors, meaning he saved very little.

He has worked on building Singapore’s subway, says he writes poetry and hopes to one day open a bookshop back in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka. But already on his fourth job, he is still many years away from saving the money he needs.

The Singapore government has waived foreign worker levies for companies to try and ensure migrants get paid while under quarantine and introduced measures to help laid off workers find new positions without having to first travel back to their home country, a core complaint of many labourers.

Lawrence Wong, the co-head of Singapore’s virus taskforce, told Reuters the government’s waiving of levies and other steps have helped alleviate “major concerns” of workers around job security, but added that layoffs were possible given the grim economic outlook.

“The contractor may have a project today, but down the road will they still have projects? That depends on the economy. So many uncertain factors when it comes to job security,” said Mr. Wong, who is also the minister for national development.

He added that some workers may remain quarantined in their dormitories until August, or possibly beyond, as the government completes mass testing.

The pandemic has drawn attention to the stark inequalities in the modern city-state where more than 300,000 labourers from Bangladesh, India and China often live in rooms for 12 to 20 men, working jobs that pay as little as S$20 (US$14.30) a day.

That is higher than they would make at home. But the median salary for Singaporean employees in 2019 was S$4,563 per month, according to the manpower ministry.

The bigger worry for many migrants like Mr. Uddin is the debts they have racked up securing jobs in Singapore.

Migrants will usually be charged S$7,000-10,000 in fees by a recruitment agent in their home country, equivalent to more than a year of their basic salary, according to rights groups. If they lose their job, this debt could haunt their families for years.

Mr. Wong said the government will continue to work to improve migrants’ lives in Singapore, but tackling issues like fees is difficult because many agents operate in the workers’ home countries outside the city-state’s jurisdiction.

Singapore’s government has pledged to improve living conditions for migrant workers in the short-term and build new, higher-spec dormitories over the coming years.

A 2019 U.N. study found that 60% of Singaporeans thought migrant workers should not receive the same pay and benefits as locals. There have been backlashes about rising numbers of foreign workers in the city-state, such as opposition to the building of dormitories near residential areas.

The percentage of foreign workers in Singapore’s total labour force has risen from 3% in the 1970s to 38% today, according to data from Migration Policy Institute and the government.

Some foreign labourers who come in search of a better life in Singapore leave feeling marginalised and disappointed, especially given the time they have sacrificed away from their families.

On his tenth birthday last year, Mr. Uddin’s son reminded him that they had only spent seven months of his life together.

“It hurts both of us the same way and I can’t do anything about it,” he said. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)