Why NSFs Are Treated ‘Differently’ Than Migrant Workers for COVID-19 Restrictions

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During the Parliament Session on 15 February, Member of Parliament (MP) of the Nee Soon GRC, Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang, raised concerns about the working conditions of low-wage migrant workers on an adjourning motion.

Mr Ng started off his speech by talking about the extraordinary sacrifices that these migrant workers have made to work abroad in order to financially support their families, at the expense of the precious time that they could have otherwise spent on their loved ones.

As an MP who personally witnessed the longing and heartache that the migrant workers faced while watching a group of foreign cleaners video call their families from the Nee Soon Town Council, only able to view their growing children’s milestone through a phone screen and thousands of miles away, he deeply empathises with their situation.

Therefore, Mr Ng believes that migrant workers deserve to be treated with fairness and dignity like anyone else in Singapore, but the truth of the matter is that that hasn’t been the case for many migrant workers.

Consequently, Mr Ng raises three main problems that he has noticed that the migrant workers have constantly been plagued with, whilst offering possible solutions to each.

COVID-19 Related Movement Restrictions

During the onset of COVID-19 in Singapore, there have been clustered outbursts of cases in the migrant workers’ dormitories, which rose and fell in succession, until more safety measures and movement restrictions were put in place.

While those measures have been necessary, Mr Ng notes that in two weeks’ time, it will mark the two-year anniversary of when these movement restrictions started, and this physical confinement is already starting to take a mental toll on the migrant workers.

In the words of one of the Bangladeshi workers that Mr Ng conversed with, named Zaqir, he said: “It’s like we’re inside a cage.”

Zaqir continues to describe the mental torture of only being allowed to only be in the dorm or go to work. And that’s all their lives have summed up to thus far.

Certainly, the introduction of recreational centres (RCs) have helped, but only by a little. The migrant workers still yearn to meet their friends who live in other areas of Singapore, but they are unable to do so.

“This is a captive’s life,” remarked Shariff, another migrant worker from the dormitories.

Sadly enough, they’re not wrong when they are constantly restricted to their dormitories and workplaces, with walled-up, segregated bunk rooms, and their movements are constantly being monitored.

Image: Shutterstock / kandl stock (Dormitories in Punggol)

It’s almost no different from prison life where prisoners are restricted to their cells and occasional visits to recreational places like exercise corners or cafeterias, with community service hours to complete and rehabilitation sessions slipped in between.

Mr Ng: Movement Restrictions Are Not Grounded on Risk Management Principles

After recounting the current livelihood that the migrant workers have, Mr Ng goes on to posit that migrant workers actually have a very low risk for putting Singapore’s healthcare system under strain.

This stems from a few reasons:

  1. Migrant workers are exceedingly healthy; 99.9% of infected migrant workers last year either experienced no or mild symptoms.
  2. Due to the fast and rostered testing routine, migrant workers are tested for COVID-19 once every seven days, which is more frequent than the vast majority of Singaporeans.
  3. Their places of residence have been audited and enforced with health controls and have been configured to implement safe living measures. Larger dorms undergo infection prevention and health controls once per week.
  4. Migrant workers must complete mandatory COVID-19 education programmes as well.
  5. 98% of migrant workers are fully vaccinated, while only 97% of Singapore’s overall population are fully vaccinated.

In summary, migrant workers are healthy, vaccinated, audited and tested regularly. They face the highest number of safety protocols, and not much more could be asked from them.


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Easing of Restrictions and Expansion of Current Programmes

In fact, Mr Ng openly acknowledges that their communal living spaces carry a heightened level of risk.

Thus, he proposes that vaccinated and boosted migrant workers should be allowed to enter the general community as long as they continue to comply with their intensive regimes of safe practices and frequent testing.

Plus, to ensure that they understand the existing safety measures that the general public abides by, like mask-wearing and group size restrictions, migrant workers have to complete quizzes on their FMFW MOM applications before they are granted access.

Breaches of the safety measures will be met with a gradual scaling of penalties like restricted access to the communities.

Towards the current programme that allows 3,000 migrant workers to visit the community on weekdays and 6,000 migrant workers on the weekends and public holidays, Mr Ng states that the programme is limited and the “drip-drip offerings of tiny community visits does not help the vast majority of workers”.

Statistically speaking, allowing 3,000 to 6,000 migrant workers to have community visits out of 300,000 migrant workers is only covering 2% of an entire group of people, which is hardly adequate.


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Comparisons to National Servicemen

Rhetorically, Mr Ng asks the parliament: “Would it be acceptable to bar National Servicemen (NSF) from booking out for their entire two years in national service, in the spirit of protecting them? Why do we treat migrant workers differently?”

Without even needing any verbal answers, it’s obvious that there would be protests from the NSF and their family members if such measures were implemented, since booking out is one of the things that the NSF look forward to at the end of the week.

It also allows the NSF to continue being a part of the community.

However, Mr Ng is correct in comparing the two categories of people: both migrant workers and the NSF live, shower, and work in communal settings. But NSF are allowed into the community with appropriate safety management measures like taking regular tests and being separated into smaller groups, whilst the migrant workers are all but isolated to several places.

In rebuttal, the Senior Minister of State (SMS) in the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), Dr Koh Poon Koon refutes that they key difference between the two is that NSF members can be quarantined at home if they contract COVID-19, while migrant workers stay in dormitories and pose a higher risk of transmitting the virus at large.


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Dr Koh agrees that social and recreational activities are important to the well-being of the migrant workers, as is social networking, but the MOM is equally responsible for safeguarding their health and reducing any possible disruptions to their lives and work.

In light of how COVID-19 is still circulating, and the recent surge in Omicron cases, the movement restrictions can’t be lifted too quickly, or they might “risk a re-ignition which will unwind all the gains that they have so painstakingly made in the last two years”.

Moreover, the MOM has been working with recreational centres, Non-Profit Organisations (NGOs), and community parties to introduce more programmes and make the recreational centre visits more engaging.

He further highlights that migrant workers are allowed to visit these recreational activities everyday now, and social activities are allowed within the dormitories, though there are group-size restrictions imposed.

The MOM does eventually intend to relax the quota on the number of migrant workers that can visit the community once the COVID-19 situation improves further.


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Dr Ng: Kickbacks Forced on Migrant Workers

Before getting into the argument proper, kickbacks are illicit payments made to someone in return for facilitating a transaction or appointment.

The current situation for most migrant workers is that they are being forced to pay kickbacks to their employers.

In layman’s terms, in order to travel and come to Singapore to work in the first place, these migrant workers are usually in debt for various reasons like travelling costs, the appointment of work, accommodation and work permit fees.

Understandably, some dues need to be paid for the facilitation, but some employers can go too far and extort more money out of the employees by threatening them to either pay more or be fired.

From one of the migrant workers’ account, he said: “When I came to Singapore in 2016, I paid $14,000, then in 2018, I paid $1,500 for my work permit. Now they said if I don’t give them $3000, they will fire me. I am a really poor man; I have no money to give them. In this situation, I feel really helpless and depressed. I’m an honest and hardworking man.”


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The MOM reports that there were 960 cases of kickback offences a year, with an average of 102 employers being taken to task.

For Singapore, a country that is founded and built on zero tolerance for no corruption, the collecting of forced kickbacks—a criminal act—is as damaging as corruption cases to Singapore’s rule of law.

To put things into context, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) received 239 reports of corruption in 2020.

The MOM receiving 960 kickback reports—and this is not counting the cases that go unreported—means that the numbers are four times more than the cases of corruption in Singapore.

The worst part is, the migrant workers are often fearful of the repercussions of losing their jobs or future job prospects if they report their employers so they choose to suffer in silence.


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“I could see their hands trembling as they spoke,” Mr Ng added, after saying that he could feel their terror as the migrant workers divulged to him about their plights.

If it was a Singaporean in their shoes, wherein their bosses were abusing them and stealing from their salary, their first reaction would be “I quit”, and then search for greener pastures.

But migrant workers don’t necessarily have such a luxury.

Higher Penalties for the Forced Kickbacks

For the same reasons, Mr Ng suggests that the current maximum sentence for forced kickbacks under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA) should be raised from a 2-year imprisonment and a fine of up to $30,000 to five years in prison and a fine of $100,000.

In doing so, it would match the maximum penalty for bribery cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act.


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Furthermore, Mr Ng proposes to create a permanent scheme from the pre-existing but temporary Retention Scheme, which was introduced by MOM and the Singapore Construction Association Limited (SCAL) last year.

What the Retention Scheme presently does is provide migrant workers a 30-day window to find a new employer with the assistance of SCAL. It aids the migrant workers in escaping from abusive employees, and it also helps to retain skilled migrant workers and reduce COVID-related labour shortages by shifting manpower around when necessary.

 Mr Ng opines that the Retention Scheme should be made permanent and extended to all sectors beyond manufacturing and maritime, with added salary controls to ensure that workers will not face decreased salaries. It will also prevent any bidding wars between employers and Singaporean employers should disregard the possibility of price inflation.

Opposition to Sentence Changes and Salary Controls

In response, Dr Koh stated that a heavier sentencing for forced kickbacks under the EFMA is not necessary because accused persons can be charged on a per worker basis.”

Dr Koh elaborates, “For instance, in 2018, an employer was sentenced to fines totalling up to $120,000 for ten charges, for collecting kickbacks from migrant workers. The penalty is higher than the $100,00 penalty suggested by the member.”


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Moreover, Dr Koh supplements that courts typically give out substantial charges to offenders that range anywhere from $7,000 to $12,000, and short imprisonment terms. In addition to those fines and imprisonment sentences, “the courts are also obligated to order the offender to pay the sum that is equal to the sum or benefit that the offender has inducted or received”.

In view of the current state of law, Dr Koh believes that the current penalties are strict enough.

Besides the reactive measure in the court of law, the MOM has also been taking preventative measures where they are making use of analytics to identify and detect unusual patterns in hiring practises, and the Ministry has actively enforced the law against employers, licensed agents, or employment agreements that collect kickbacks from migrant workers.

As for the salary controls, Dr Koh contended that they should not be adding rigidity to the negotiation of salaries between the employer and employee.

Rather, the deciding factors of a worker’s salary should be the skills and experiences that they can offer, as well as the prevailing conditions of the markets, among many other things.


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At the end of the subject, Dr Koh states that migrant workers should not hesitate to step forward if they are being abused or they are facing illegal kickbacks.

Mandatory Rest for Migrant Workers

Lastly, one of the points that both Mr Ng and Dr Koh agree on is that migrant workers should be given a day of mandatory rest every month.

This policy has recently come into effect for foreign domestic workers who live and work in their employer’s homes.

Mr Ng puts forward that the same should apply for migrant workers as whole.

“It’s not just a matter of consistency, it’s a matter of safety,” Mr Ng asserts.


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The statistics from the first half of 2021 have shown a higher level of injuries and fatalities compared to 2019 and 2020, which Mr Ng attributes to work burnout and workers that have been pushed to their limits.

The stifling physical confinement doesn’t help their mental states either. 

As a result of these working conditions, it is inevitable that workers become sloppier,

While Mr Ng concedes that the errant individuals could have contributed to the figures, he states that employers and the government have to accept the biological fact that a worker’s body will eventually hit a limit.

Every human being requires rest.


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Dr Koh: Current Stipulations of MOM Work Policies

Of course, when it comes to human rights and the necessity of a proper work-life balance, there is no point of contention here.

Dr Koh reiterates that all employees, including migrant workers, are protected under the MOM’s stipulated regulations of how many hours they can work per week and per day, as well as the maximum number of overtime hours per month.

Employers are also required to grant all employees at least one rest day per week with pay, unless there are prior agreements for employees to work on the rest day.

Even then, the employer is required to give monetary compensation in those circumstances, at twice the rate of the worker’s regular pay.

“As a safe cut, employers cannot compel their employees to work on their rest days, unless under exceptional circumstances. Migrant workers who are forced to do so, should approach MOM for assistance and we will investigate.”


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Final Words

Undoubtedly, there is an underlying agreement that the current status quo will change for better for migrant workers, although there are some points that the government won’t relent on, like the flexibility accorded to employers where the salaries are concerned.

Mr Ng is then justified in wanting to guarantee a minimum wage for the migrant workers who have the lowest wages in Singapore, out of the wish that they won’t be taken advantage of as they switch between jobs or land on a job in Singapore.

 Furthermore, when Dr Koh regurgitates that migrant workers can always feel free to approach MOM if they face any trouble, it feels like he’s speaking from a privileged position and doesn’t fully understand that these migrant workers are under financial duress, and the risk of losing their jobs comes at far higher stakes that they can’t afford to take.

Although it’s unknown how long it will take before migrant workers will be given the leisure of being among the community whenever they please instead of being restricted to fixed places, hopefully it will improve for them soon.

After all, if Singapore seeks to be inclusive, there is no reason to isolate already vaccinated individuals, who are being regularly tested and perfectly capable of following safety measures, which they are already following in their workplaces and dormitories.

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Featured Image: Shutterstock / Dr David Sing


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