New York Times
December 28, 2013
FRUSTRATION among Singapore’s unappreciated and underpaid migrant workers
has been building in recent years as their numbers have grown faster than the country can accommodate them. Tensions boiled over earlier this month, after a 33-year-old Indian migrant worker was killed by a bus in the Little India neighborhood. A crowd of fellow workers from South Asia gathered at the scene. Their anger quickly escalated, with some 400 people pelting
stones, attacking emergency responders and setting fire to vehicles. It was the worst riot to hit Singapore, one of the world’s most orderly countries, since 1969.
Singapore’s government has denied that its treatment of migrant workers has anything to do with the riot. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong characterized the riot as “an isolated incident caused by an unruly mob.” Hundreds of foreign workers were rounded up and questioned; 25 face charges punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment and caning. Two hundred migrant workers were issued advisories against any future disruptive conduct.
Singapore has one of the world’s highest standards of living, but its population is shrinking and aging. To fuel economic growth, transient imported labor has risen dramatically over recent years. The proportion of
non-Singaporeans in Singapore rose from 14 percent in 1990 to 36 percent in 2010. Many Singaporeans are alarmed by the rapid increase of low-paid migrant workers, which has widened social divides and strained the small country’s transportation and housing capacities.
Migrant laborers are paid as little as 2 Singapore dollars, US1.60, per hour. Few speak fluent English, the country’s working language, and most live in crowded dormitories away from residential areas. They typically are at the mercy of employers, owe high debt to hiring agents and have few means of expressing grievances. Last year, 200 Bangladeshi workers protested unpaid wages and Chinese bus drivers refused to report to work to protest salaries lower than their Singaporean and Malay counterparts.
The government hopes to increase the overall population from 5.4 million to 6.9 million by 2030. Because the birthrate of Singaporeans is below replacement levels and permanent residency is tightly controlled, the bulk of the increase will have to come from temporary migration, further skewing the ratio of transient workers to citizens. Many Singaporeans are lukewarm to the idea.
Casting the riot in Little India as an isolated law-and-order problem does not address Singapore’s larger demographic problem. If Singapore is to preserve its high standard of living, it must ensure that the millions of transient workers who contribute so much to the economy are not marginalized and abused.