Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Who Gets to Speak for Migrant Workers in Singapore?

Last month, the city-state canceled the work permit of a Bangladeshi laborer who had become an outspoken advocate of Singapore’s migrant worker population.

Who Gets to Speak for Migrant Workers in Singapore?

A foreign worker talks on the phone outside his room at the WestLite Toh Guan dormitory after it was declared an isolation area under the Infectious Diseases Act, following a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in several foreign worker dormitories in Singapore, Friday, April 10, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Yong Teck Lim

On June 22, Zakir Hossain, a Bangladeshi construction worker, announced in a Facebook post that his work permit had not been renewed, resulting in an unexpected return to his birth country after 19 years of living and working in Singapore. The decision came from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), the authority in charge of employment visas of all kinds in the city-state earlier in June. MOM later issued a statement explaining that its decision to terminate Hossain’s legal status in Singapore came after he made a series of posts that it considered “misleading, false, or deliberately provocative.”

This part of the statement referred to an incident that occurred in October of last year, when Hossain, under the pseudonym Amrakajona Zamir, penned several social media posts equating Singapore’s worker dormitories to “work camps.” Hossain’s posts gained attention after one in which he referred to migrant workers as “work slaves” in the wake of an incident that occurred at the workers’ dormitory of Westlite Jalan Tukang.

On October 13, Singapore Police Force personnel and MOM Forward Assurance and Support Teams were deployed to the site following reports of a lack of medical support and provision of food after several workers tested positive for COVID-19, during what was then perceived as the height of the pandemic in the city-state. Hossain’s post further alleged that riot police had also been spotted at the dormitory. The day before, an anonymous video had circulated on Weixin, China’s domestic version of WeChat, depicting police officers in riot gear near the dormitory.

At the time, MOM acknowledged that there had been delays in conveying the workers who had tested positive for COVID-19 to a quarantine-designated facility, which was required for migrant workers living in government dormitories at the time. In its statement following the termination of Hossain’s work permit, MOM clarified that while police forces had been deployed to Westlite Jalan Tukang, they never surrounded the dorm or engaged workers there, and that no soldiers or armoured vehicles were present on the site. MOM further questioned the veracity of Hossain’s claims, pointing out that while his post was signed “Workers from Westlite Jalan Tukang,” Hossain had never resided there himself. Claiming that Hossain’s October post containing “false statements,” MOM pointed those “could have incited migrant workers at Westlite Jalan Tukang […], inflamed their emotions and possibly caused incidents of public disorder.”

The latter part of MOM’s statement generated much controversy. Taking to Twitter, many Singaporeans drew attention to the last paragraph’s opening and closing lines, which respectively read, “The ability of a foreigner to work in Singapore is not an entitlement” and “[Hossain] has overstayed his welcome.” Both lines stood side-by-side with a repeated emphasis on Hossain’s past activism in Singapore, with MOM pointing the ministry had “renewed his work pass many times despite his activism and writing,” and that Hossain “has been allowed to work in Singapore for a long time, though he was a long-time activist.”

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During his time in Singapore, Hossain had undeniably become a prominent activist and leading voice of the city-state’s large population of migrant workers. He achieved widespread exposure when he won the 2014 inaugural edition of the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, which provides a platform for the transient workforce of Singapore, which encompasses construction and domestic workers, to write and share their literary work with a general audience. Hossain won the competition again the following year, with a poem expressing his longing for his wife and children in Bangladesh and detailing his migrant life in Singapore.

Through his words and activism, Hossain pointed to the many social challenges faced by migrant workers in Singapore, many of which were abruptly highlighted after the COVID-19 pandemic reached the city-state. Independent observers and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) pointed to shortcomings in workers’ dormitories with regards to the provision and quality of basic necessities, with reports of 12 to 20 workers sharing one room in some dormitories.

In March 2020, at a time when the pandemic had already spread to most countries around the globe, the Singapore-based organization Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) warned of potential virus clusters in workers’ dormitories. The subsequent circuit breaker announced by the Singapore government – which entailed a mix of stay-at-home orders, partial lockdowns, and restrictions on specific social activities – coincided with spikes of cases in migrant dormitories. In his Facebook post last month, Hossain stated that he had organized monthly distributions of food, mask, hand sanitizers, and basic necessities to migrant workers both in dormitories and on construction sites, even as he was hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms.

Government responses included increased access to mental health services for migrant workers, as well as new plans to expand the network of workers’ dormitories, which are currently concentrated in the outskirts of the city-state, far from the vibrant downtown area and popular tourist attractions. The decision was brought forward by the co-chair of the COVID-19 taskforce and current Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, who emphasized a need to better integrate Singapore’s foreign workforce with the city’s domestic population, and called out against a ‘not-in-my-backyard’ mindset. Nonetheless, the decision prompted a backlash from some Singaporeans, reflecting a complacency about the socio-geographic divide between locals and foreigners, a concern echoed in Hossain’s writings.

For the first year-and-a-half of the pandemic, migrant workers were largely confined to their dormitories and workplaces, mostly factories or construction sites. In September 2021, MOM launched a pilot program which allowed up to 500 fully vaccinated workers a week to go back into the community on days off and public holidays. In the following months, the government introduced an exit pass system, which migrants had to apply for in order to go out into the community.

While the large-scale easing of COVID-19-related restrictions in March of this year provided a breath of fresh air for the vast majority of the Singaporean population after nearly 2 years of circuit breaker measures, the exit pass system remained in place for transient workers wishing to venture outside their dormitories.

Exit passes were later discontinued on June 24, about ten days after the last few sets of restrictions were lifted in Singapore. Four of the city-state’s most popular areas – Chinatown, Little India, Jurong East, and Geylang Serai – still require a special pass for transient workers to visit. Applications under the new system, which can now be filed online via a mobile app and are approved almost instantaneously, are valid for the entire day only on Sundays and public holidays.

As the new online passes were rolled out, MOM launched a new gallery dedicated to the contribution of migrant workers to the development of Singapore. Minister of Manpower Tan See Leng stated that the Migrant Workers Gallery “symbolises our appreciation for our migrant workers’ contribution to Singapore, and recognises their resilience through the COVID-19 pandemic.” The gallery’s launch came exactly a week after MOM’s statement on Hossain’s departure from Singapore, providing a stark contrast between the art on display and the reality faced by one of the city-state’s most outspoken migrant worker advocates.

Earlier in June, MOM had released results of a study the ministry conducted on migrant workers satisfaction with their working conditions and employers, citing findings of high satisfaction across the board. Such findings are nonetheless undermined by stories like that of Hossain, and brings into question the extent to which migrant workers feel that they are free to speak up about their experiences without fear of repression.

The juxtaposition of the Migrant Workers Gallery’s launch with MOM’s statement and criticism of Hossain’s activism points to a clash between top-down and bottom-up narratives of social change in Singapore, with a clear preference for the former over the latter. A genuine acknowledgement of migrant workers’ contributions toward the infrastructural development of Singapore is incomplete without an open platform that guarantees grassroots migrant advocacy and activism. Without this, promoting a better integration of migrant workers into Singaporean society will remain a difficult task. For the city’s transient workforce, Hossain’s case serves as a reminder that not everyone gets to speak up for their rights in the Lion City.