The Business Times

Putting the pieces together, after a riot

Published Fri, Dec 13, 2013 · 10:00 PM
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YOU load sixteen tons, what do you get? Almost 70 years after Tennessee Ernie Ford's coal-mining hero asked this question in song, millions of migrants ask a variant of this question every year as they cross borders to earn a living.

Even before they show up in Little India or Chinatown, a lot of math has taken place. In India and Bangladesh, the per capita income is US$1,491 and US$1,044, respectively. Here, migrant workers make anything from $700 to $900 a month in industries where steel and concrete make up the working man's sixteen tons.

Usually, the math works out. Working on the site of a terrace house here, A Arasappan is putting two of his children through university in India on his wages as a construction worker. They are studying electrical engineering, he says. A grizzled man with greying hair, he has been here a while and plans to keep coming back.

For us, Mr Arasappan is good math, too. Singapore has been in the throes of a building frenzy, under the pressure of a populace that wants affordable housing and transport, and wants it by yesterday. As at June 2013, in the preceding two-and-a-half years, work-permit holders - the lowest tier of the foreign workforce - ballooned almost 100,000 to 970,600

As this situation of mutual need ensued, an informal compact formed - build our houses, highways and ships for less pay than we would accept, don't make any trouble and go home better off than before you came.

"I always believe that they're here to make a living, they want to work hard and do well. So, we always provide the opportunity for them to do so," says Von Lee, executive chairman of Expand Construction.

A break in the compact

Last Sunday, after a bus killed a foreign worker in Little India, others picked up sticks, rocks and bottles, and a full-blown riot ensued. As a horrified nation witnessed upturned police cars and an ambulance in flames, this compact appeared to have ruptured in real time. In the wake of the 400-strong riot, 31 people have been charged so far.

In the days that followed, the questions that were asked required answers that only those who had rioted could offer.

On Thursday, Law Minister K Shanmugam objected to foreign media inferring an immediate relationship between the riot and workers' dissatisfaction. "I'm not saying you can't say it, but I think I'd like to see some evidence to back up a fairly substantive statement," he said.

Other quarters seem to be fairly certain.

"(The Migrant Workers' Centre) firmly believes that the incident is an isolated issue and not related to employment," its spokeswoman told The Business Times. MWC, a non-governmental organisation, is a joint effort of the National Trades Union Congress and the Singapore National Employers Federation.

As an alcohol ban hangs over Little India this weekend, for some, the initial analysis is much more complex. "It's not just a simple problem of law and order . . . I think this alcohol reason will not wash," says Alan Chong, an associate professor with NTU's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. "There are these background trigger issues, because people don't resort to violence out of a single reason."

In the coming weeks, these possible trigger issues are likely to be hotly contended.

According to Prof Chong, what we saw last Sunday could be called a "globalisation riot".

While the actions of the rioters stood out in stark contrast from the rest of the populace here, Singapore is itself somewhat an outlier in the current restive climate. This is its first riot in decades.

In a sense, the riot afforded the country a glimpse of what the rest of the world could be like, where the underclass is a lot more visible and given to expression.

"When people think of globalisation, they think of having fine wines in Paris tonight, watching Broadway theatre in New York the next night, and consuming fine sushi in Tokyo after that," says Prof Chong.

"There is the other story of globalisation, which I think Singaporeans are not fully aware of, where people who are poor have to find work in the nearest accessible wealthy country. There is another globalisation that is not glamorous at all."

The poor and the low-skilled tend to have the most problems, and the problems are ugly.

Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, now faces an influx of returning citizens after Saudi Arabia expelled thousands of illegal migrant workers, partially under the pressure of a 12 per cent unemployment rate.

In Qatar, preparations for the 2022 Fifa World Cup are rife with reports of forced labour, unpaid wages of migrant workers and 19-hour workdays.

From the time a worker leaves his hometown, a series of opportunities for the picking of his pocket exists for agents that charge a fee, loansharks that charge interest and employers who demand kickbacks for work permit renewals.

On average, a foreign labourer works for five to nine months before his wages stop going into the pockets of middlemen and into his own, according to a survey of 163 foreign workers by migrant workers' rights group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). The bulk of them paid the fees to agents in their home country.

Errant employers take their cut, too. Last year, a local construction firm was charged with taking up to $500 per work permit renewal in kickbacks.

Even after all that, some employers simply will not pay. The most common types of cases the MWC sees are salary arrears cases and work injury claims.

In Singapore, building something is the most dangerous work you can do. The construction sector claimed 26 lives out of the 56 fatal injuries in the workplace last year. It is one of the three traditional "higher risk" sectors here, alongside marine and manufacturing - sectors where foreign labour is over-represented.

For some, the souring of the migrant worker dream comes after an injury. TWC2 runs a meal project for migrant workers who are unable to work because of injury or workplace investigations. Last year, that project had an average of 56 injured men each month who had been waiting more than one year for compensation, it said.

At some point, a comparison of Singapore to other countries becomes inevitable. This is problematic because of the undocumented nature of migrant workers elsewhere and the need not to compare apples with oranges, or Singapore with Dubai.

"In most of the Western economies, their migrant workers are different because they're skilled labour," says D Parthasarathy, a visiting professor with NUS's South Asian Studies Programme.

There is also the question of whether a comparison misses the point. TWC2's Alex Au reckons that the principles at work should be basic ones of fair play and justice. "It you promise someone a certain salary, it's very hard to justify any other way why you don't pay him that salary," he says.

These issues are compounded by the kind of discomfort that cannot be expressed in concrete terms.

"I don't believe that the root causes are anything specific like unhappiness with the government or with Singapore," says Banyan Tree executive chairman Ho Kwon Ping.

"It has to do with being cooped up and frustrated with nothing to do, to go, and feeling unwelcome wherever you try to go to."

Singapore - as with any other country that imports labour - depends on migrant workers being willing to disrupt their own lives so that business-as-usual can take place here.

"They are living in very unnatural kinds of situations because they're mostly male, living with other men. They're not living as part of families or households like us. That can impose a lot of stress on people," says Prof Parthasarathy.

On a practical level, better integration involves making sure that migrant workers understand the social norms and constraints of Singapore, experts say. Usually, the gist of socialising a migrant worker is the message: You are in a different country now, and things are different.

But increasing globalisation will bring more of these hard realities to Singapore, and Singaporeans.

"Singaporeans have, at some point, to wake up to the fact that we're not going to be able to pretend that we're a wonderful, tidy First World country," Prof Chong says.

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