Foreign Workers’ Plight

We’ve heard countless stories about foreign workers so much so that we tend to become indifferent towards them whenever they appear in the news. The sad truth is, as Singaporeans, although we know the plight of these foreign workers, there isn’t much that is done to change it.

But sometimes, all it takes is a different perspective.

NCA’s Awareness Night

Yesterday (Feb 16), non-profit organisation Netherlands Charity Association (NCA) of Singapore held an Awareness Night, aimed at giving expats a closer look at poverty in Singapore.

The event featured a line-up of speakers that spoke about various topics concerning Singapore. For instance, Yusof Ishak Institute’s Mustafa Izzuddin spoke about minority representation in Singapore while Breadline Group’s Richard Lim highlighted the contributions of his organisation.


But it was Asian Research Institute’s Dr Brenda Seoh’s speech that resonated with us. The NUS faculty member spoke about the troubles faced by foreign workers in Singapore. In short, here are some takeaways about foreign workers we picked up from her speech:

1. Foreigners make up about 30% of Singapore’s workforce

Singapore is highly dependent on low-wage migrant workers that make a large part of the workforce. In fact, 1 in 5 households in Singapore employs a migrant domestic worker.


According to a study in June 2016, 27% of Singapore’s workforce are work permit holders. Holders who are domestic or construction workers typically have contracts that last for only 1 or 2 years, which creates a sense of desperation.

“It’s a regime of temporary migration where transience is the hallmark”, said Dr Seoh.

2. Foreign workers have to pay thousands to work here

Even before stepping into Singapore, foreign workers would already had to pay massive amounts.

According to Dr Seoh, workers in Bangladesh have to pay an average of S$6,340 for training and job placement services before entering Singapore. This causes up to 80% of construction workers having to borrow money in order to repay their debts. As such, these workers become rather compliant, which leads us to our next point.

3. Debt creates desperation

“Migrant indebtedness exacerbates unequal bargaining power”, Dr Seoh states. As these migrant workers are desperate to repay their debts and start earning profit for their families back home, they would easily obey their bosses, even while they know they’re being unfairly treated.

In fact, her study showed that one-third of foreign worker respondents had illegal deductions made from their salaries.


Foreign construction workers experience deductions made on their salaries like the one above, without any explanation. But because of their compliancy, bosses continue to take advantage of their lack of power.

4. Mental and physical health not regularly monitored

According to Dr Seoh, a study by HOME suggested that 1/4 of migrant domestic workers have poor mental health. This is because of the lack of privacy that some of them experience due to the small living spaces of some employers or the poor treatment they face.

Let’s not forget the construction workers. The injuries that many migrant construction workers face are often not properly taken care of by these workers’ companies.

Here’s the story of Bangladesh worker Shabdar Ali that was shown at the event:

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There seems to be a discrepancy between regulations given and the actual implementation of them, as such cases are not uncommon.

Silver linings for migrant workers

Luckily, there are silver linings that prove there is some improvement at least. For instance, after much campaigning, a weekly day off was finally made mandatory by the Ministry of Manpower in 2013.

It’s heartening to know that there are many people genuinely concerned about the foreign workers in our country. The fact that expats held such an important event to learn more about Singaporeans in need is worthy of much appreciation, as some Singaporeans themselves are ignorant for situations happening in our own backyard.

With this, we would like to thank the Netherlands Charity Association for their initiative. And we look forward to attending their future events!

Here are more articles about foreign workers in Singapore:
7 Times Foreign Workers Have Come To The Aid Of Everyday Singaporeans
What Foreign Workers In Singapore Really Think About You
What These Migrant Workers Have To Say About Singapore Will Tug At Your Heartstrings

Featured image from Vimeo