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Working conditions not behind Little India riot

But COI believes there is 'room for improvement' in the treatment of foreign workers

The Committee of Inquiry (COI) into last year's Little India riot believes there is "room for improvement" in the treatment of foreign workers here, even though it says that migrant workers' employment and living conditions were not the cause of Dec 8's unrest - PHOTO: SPH

[SINGAPORE] The Committee of Inquiry (COI) into last year's Little India riot believes there is "room for improvement" in the treatment of foreign workers here, even though it says that migrant workers' employment and living conditions were not the cause of Dec 8's unrest.

On the contrary, the COI report - released yesterday, six-and-a-half months after the committee was appointed - asserted that the triggering cause of the riot was the fatal accident which killed 33-year-old construction worker Sakthivel Kumaravelu.

It added that three other "contributory factors" fuelled the escalation of the riot: misperceptions about the accident and the intentions of the first officers who responded; some rioters' wish for "street-justice" and a desire to defy law enforcers; and alcohol intoxication. It found that the police response was effective on the whole, but suffered from several lapses.

At the same time, the COI took pains to highlight "what, in its estimation, this riot was not about" - racial or ethnic issues, and foreign workers' dissatisfaction over conditions in Singapore. "Anecdotal complaints, however valid, do not amount to evidence of systemic mistreatment," said the report.

"Nearly every foreign worker who the COI spoke to testified emphatically that they were happy with their jobs and living quarters in Singapore and condemned the riot."

Nevertheless, "while the COI is satisfied that foreign workers' employment and living conditions were not the cause of this riot, this is not to say that a riot may never occur on this basis," said the four-member committee.

"There is no doubt that there are some foreign workers here who face real difficulties in their employment or living situation, especially those employed by errant firms who might withhold their salaries, not maintain the standards of their accommodation, or refuse workers warranted medical leave."

As such, the COI "observed" several ways to improve the lives of foreign workers, and highlighted common problems that some workers face. For instance, it acknowledged that there are still workers who are hesitant and unsure of their rights when making salary or workplace injury claims.

The committee also flagged high foreign employment agency fees which put workers into heavy debt.

While the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) cannot regulate the fees charged by agents registered overseas, the COI said that MOM could consider working with employer associations to encourage annual increments as a norm in the industry, since that would give workers greater hope of overcoming their debt more quickly.

The COI added that accommodation facilities here - although already "ranked well" in the world - can be improved to "significantly better workers' bare lives".

While such steps will certainly push up already-rising business costs, UOB economist Francis Tan told The Business Times that companies shouldn't take such suggestions negatively: "Don't just look at the short term. (Improving foreign workers' conditions means) you'd be insuring yourself against unhappiness later on, and the cost of discontent could actually hurt you - but you just don't know it because you can't calculate it."

Observers had earlier told BT that the Little India riot, if repeated, could shake business confidence in Singapore.

When Parliament sits next Monday, both the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and MOM will provide the government's response to the COI report, which included recommendations to reduce any future risk of such incidents in Singapore.

Giving its take on the Singapore Police Force's (SPF) response on the night of Dec 8, the COI said that it found "several lapses" in police actions, but stressed that overall, the SPF responded to the riot "relatively swiftly and efficiently".

The committee pointed to SPF's decision to hold officers' positions and not arrest rioters while awaiting the arrival of the Special Operations Command (SOC). "This decision should have been re-evaluated when the SOC was late in arriving. Holding positions at the two ends of the riot area was inadequate to prevent the free movement of rioters in and out of the area through other routes, and the perceived inaction could have emboldened the rioters," said the COI.

It believes there were sufficient officers to take action, had they been marshalled and directed to do so.

In addition to its findings on the causes of last year's riot, the committee also offered eight recommendations to the government. These included strengthening the Home Team by increasing manpower resources, enhancing the safety of congregation areas with stricter enforcement against public drunkenness, and reducing congestion at congregation sites by making services and amenities available elsewhere.

In a letter thanking COI chairman and former Supreme Court Judge, G Pannir Selvam, Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean said that the report "makes several important recommendations and observations to improve the management of such incidents and to prevent their recurrence".

The other members were former commissioner of Police Tee Tua Ba, former president of the Singapore National Trades Union Congress John De Payva, and managing director of SME Care and chairman of the West Coast Citizens' Consultative Committee Andrew Chua Thiam Chwee.