Singapore’s Migrant Labour System Explained and COVID-19’s Impact

In 2017, Raudhah Hirschmann of Statista reported an approximation of 1.37 million migrant workers (only 370,000 being considered as “high-skilled workers”) living in the densely populated city-state of 5.7 million people. Despite making up such a high population, the community is riddled with complaints of unfair wages, salary disputes, unsafe living and working conditions, and little job security/mobility. Even though the poor treatment of workers in Singapore has carried on for decades, little enforceable legislation has been passed to amend any of these issues, and most workers now rely on local NGOs to submit their complaints.

In light of COVID-19, closely packed worker dormitories are now a home for the virus with news of more than 200 infections daily, while the rest of the community in Singapore only struggles with single-digit cases. Once an appraised nation for its swift reaction to the virus, Singapore struggles with international criticism of its poor treatment and living standards for workers who travel to the city-state to make a better living.  

Despite current criticism for the foreign labour system of Singapore, the use of hiring low-cost labour has been a key part of the nation’s history and economy. In fact it began as a colonial concept introduced in the 1800s called Kangani system, which drew upon indentured service and debt-bondage from mainly Tamilian workers all around South-east Asia. 

However, the initial Singaporean use of the formal policy is dated to the 1980s. During this time it became apparent that the domestic population could not keep up with the demand for labour, and to avoid raising wages, foreign workers mainly from neighbouring countries, China, and South Asia, began to be admitted under strict conditions. Hence, cheap foreign labour could act as a buffer when the demand for labour was higher than the domestic supply. 

Today, rather than facing domestic labour shortages due to a small population, Singapore faces a highly educated population in which many strive for white-collar jobs. Singapore’s continued work permit regime gives businesses and individuals the opportunity to utilize cheap foreign manpower. Thus, the demand for foreign labour continues. 

Though the employment of transient workers is clearly one of the largest factors responsible for Singapore’s economic success, there have been no changes in discriminatory or restrictive legislation referring to guest workers. Most employers also do not provide adequate accommodation, seeing as dormitories often include small rooms with no ventilation, housing ten to twelve workers in each one. Employers are also not required to pay for basic amenities and essentials needed. Water found in some dormitories is pungent and sometimes does not even meet the standard of potability. The dorms are most certainly the cause of the rising infections among the worker community throughout COVID. These living conditions workers are subjected to are mostly a product of false advertising in the recruitment process where workers are given vague details of their accommodation or payment before signing a contract to arrive in Singapore.

While working at TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too), an NGO in Singapore, I also discovered that since the workers’ right to stay in Singapore is based on their employment contract. Therefore, if they were to complain of unpaid salaries, living and/or working conditions, their contract could immediately be terminated and they could be sent back with no compensation. In fact, in a 2013 survey, researchers at the Singapore Management University (SMU) found that 65% of injured and salary-claim workers surveyed reported having been threatened by their employers with premature repatriation and job insecurity. 

While others may argue that Singapore’s judicial system allows for migrant workers to make salary, injury, or housing claims in Employment Claims Tribunals, these processes can take up to months, often surpassing the deadlines of their work-permit pass post-employment. To stay for such claims, workers can choose to apply for a Special Pass instead of being deported, but these passes strictly forbid working in any means, hence restricting their income for an extended period of time while they attempt to fight their case against employers and companies who often have financial resources to afford adequate legal representation. 

Finally, laws and planning of this system have intended that transient workers face little interaction with other Singaporeans. Years working under a work permit are not considered as time spent in the country, therefore, prohibiting pathways to residency or citizenship in the city-state. Additionally, allowing social activities such as marriage and relationships between foreign workers and citizens are up to the discretion of the Ministry of Manpower. Political campaigns which blame transient workers for local unemployment spreads anti-immigrant sentiment. Excluding a community of South Indian, Bangladeshi, and other migrants from the rest of Singapore have only enhanced cultural barriers between citizens and workers, normalising prejudice and indifference to these labour injustices. This is evident from a 2012 ILO survey by Max Tunom which stated that “Most respondents were of the view that authorized migrant workers cannot expect the same pay and working conditions as nationals for carrying out the same job”, and “37% of Singaporeans” agreed migrant workers are often exploited.


Though Singapore was one of the first to take action in flattening the cases of coronavirus, the city-state is now subject to criticism for its poor care for migrant workers. Many feel that one positive impact of the virus is the attention it has brought to South Asian transient workers, highlighting the injustice they have faced from a negligent and irresponsible government. But will the attention of the COVID crisis be enough to make a difference? 

Perhaps this is the momentum needed to enact and pass fairer legislation for guest workers. After the immense backlash, Singapore has decided to pass better living standards after COVID such as enforcing a maximum number of inhabitants per room and including built-in amenities such as food-marts and recreation facilities. They have also begun the construction of 11 new dormitories to accommodate the large population of workers, which is much needed to be “more resilient to public health risks”, quoted by Health Minister Lawrence Wong from the SCMP and a virtual health conference. 

Some may view recent changes in legislation as admirable, none of the reforms reported by the Health ministry and Ministry of Manpower have made any impact on the core problem workers still face today, barriers to social mobility and labour injustice. Vice-President of TWC2 Alex Au gave a talk on the first day of TWC2 titled: The Dorms are Not the Issue. In this he shows that the most amount of issues workers complained about Pre-COVID and even during the pandemic are unpaid salary claims, recruitment fees and agency debts, and unreasonable salary deductions. 

While the attention given to dormitories are essential to raising the living standard of migrant workers, more work needs to be done to bridge the economic and legal inequalities between transient workers and the Singaporean community. Without much needed reform, the modern foreign labour system evidently mirrors its cruel colonial predecessor, the Kangani trade. 

By Arjun Singh Gill - First Year Law Student at LSE

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