MOM minister backs COI's findings on riot

'Systemic dissatisfaction' with employment, living conditions not the underlying cause

[SINGAPORE] The underlying cause of last December's Little India riot was not "systemic dissatisfaction" with their employment and living conditions among foreign workers in Singapore.

This was a fact established by the Committee of Inquiry (COI) in its recent report on the incident, Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin said in Parliament yesterday, as he also shared the interim findings of a new survey of foreign workers that backed the COI's findings.

Nine in 10 foreign workers are satisfied with working here and plan to continue working in Singapore even after their current stint is up, according to the survey commissioned by Mr Tan's ministry and the Migrant Workers Centre.

More than 80 per cent of a group of 930 foreign workers polled - mostly from Bangladesh, China and India - also indicated they would recommend Singapore to their friends and families as a good place to work in.

The study, which began in March and is expected to be completed by this month or in August, will eventually involve a total of 4,000 workers.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) released the interim results from its surveys of about 930 work permit holders from the marine, construction and process sectors yesterday.

Overall, the satisfaction levels of these foreign workers remain high and comparable to the results of the previous survey conducted in 2011.

The majority of foreign workers, when asked why they would recommend Singapore to others, cited the good salaries and standards of their working conditions and living environment.

Those who felt that Singapore was not a suitable place to work in cited expensive employment agency fees and low pay as their top reasons.

In addition to the survey findings, Mr Tan also noted that over 70 per cent of foreign workers renew their contracts after the first two years in Singapore.

"Taken together, these pieces of evidence suggest that the majority of foreigners continue to consider Singapore as an attractive place to work," he explained. "Ultimately, what the workers themselves say and do, matters."

Mr Tan said that the COI has rightly pointed out that the riot - the first in Singapore in 40 years - was a unique event, perpetuated by people who were "not representative of the majority of responsible and law-abiding" foreign workers here. "The COI's findings have made clear that negative generalisations about the foreign workforce have no place in our society," he said.

He added that MOM would do more to improve the accommodation and recreation facilities for foreign workers, and help to educate them on issues such as their rights and protection.

But even as Singapore does more to better manage foreign workers, the growth in their numbers cannot go unabated, the minister pointed out.

He shared how the government has, since 2010, begun to moderate the growth rates to "more sustainable" levels, with a greater emphasis on improving productivity.

"We have also taken deliberate and progressive steps to raise the quality profile of our foreign workforce and help businesses reduce their reliance on low-cost foreign labour," he said, describing it as a "painful but necessary" adjustment the Republic was making in the ongoing restructuring of the economy.

Foreign workforce growth, excluding construction and domestic workers, has fallen in the last three years. It grew by 2.3 per cent in 2013, down from 9.4 per cent in 2011.

"We will continue to build in the coming years, but in a more manpower-lean manner, with many construction productivity measures being introduced," said Mr Tan.

In a separate speech, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean announced that the government had accepted all eight recommendations set out by the COI in its report last week.

On the subject of alcohol, which the committee had listed as a key contributing factor to the riot, Mr Teo said that legislation would be introduced within the next six months, before the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Act expires next March.

He also said that the police would be recruiting more officers to tackle large-scale public order incidents. The Special Operations Command (SOC), for instance, will get 300 new officers, doubling the size of its deployable frontline troopers. "We will commence the build-up immediately, and progressively build up (the SOC's) capabilities over the next two to three years," he added.

For an infographic summarizing the COI report, click here.

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