The Wall Street Journal Asia Real Time team featured an extensive five-part series of investigative articles on foreign workers in Singapore, which I thought did a great job covering the underlying frustrations that kicked off the November 2012 labor “strikes”. For those interested in the WSJ articles, grab a good cup of coffee and hunker down for some reading:
- Part 1: The Chinese Migrants Who Shocked Singapore
- Part 2: Singapore Strike Chapter Two: Simmering Feud
- Part 3: Chinese Migrants in Singapore, Chapter Three: Confrontation
- Part 4: Chinese Migrants in Singapore, Chapter Four: Counterpunch
- Part 5: Chinese Migrants in Singapore, Chapter Five: The Gavel Falls
If you’ve ever lived in Singapore, you’ll know that it’s impossible to ignore the ubiquitous presence of foreign workers. As of June 2012, there were about 1.5 million non-residents out of 5.3 million people in Singapore, numbering over 28% of the overall population. Whether it be bus drivers, domestic helpers, healthcare workers, construction workers, or even sex workers, they have become an indispensable part of the economy since 2007 in sectors described by the three D’s: Dangerous, Dirty, and Demanding. What’s even more remarkable is the foreign labor growth that the government expects to maintain into 2030 (see chart below). The 2012 strike gave us a fresh perspective of labor relations vs brewing discontent on the influx of documented migrant workers in a country which hasn’t witnessed any protests since 1986.
Based on the numbers given in article #2, here’s a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation I did to get a better frame of reference for the monthly cost of living these foreign workers face:
- Basic monthly wages: S$1,000
- Accommodation: estimated 33% of monthly wages = S$330
- Monthly accommodation & utility bill subsidies: S$275
- Meals: (S$5 hawker food + S$3 drinks) x 3 meals a day x 30 days = S$720
- Misc. expenses: S$100 (ie. extra food, health care, phone calls, etc.)
- Other assumptions: Free transportation on SMRT buses & trains
- Total monthly income: S$1000 + S$275 = S$1275
- Total monthly expenditure: S$330 + S$720 + S$100 = S$1150
- Monthly net worth: S$1275 – S$1150 = S$125
Even considering that these foreign workers penny-pinched and shared their cramped quarters with seven others, monthly accommodations still racked up to ~S$330 on average. Subtracting this and other basic expenses from their monthly wages, I can’t even comprehend how anyone can manage to save a meager S$125/month (~RMB600) to remit back to their families, nor what positive impact it could have on their livelihood. If the utility subsidies may give you a relative sense of living standards in Singapore, then it is no surprise that these laborers are protesting in frustration. For comparison, my utility+TV+internet bill for a condo around Newton easily stood at about S$275/mo. I would also be unsurprised if overall living costs were even higher for these workers in reality.
For the most part, Singaporean citizens seem indignant that the grievances voiced by SMRT drivers over pay discrimination and mistreatment is being unfairly sensationalized by the foreign press, and that the actual fault for misrepresenting poor labor conditions reside with deceitful recruiters and middlemen in China. Intra-regional immigration in recent years have become a hot-button topic in local elections, and the public discontent over the strain placed on public goods and services have led to political pressure to tighten foreign labor supply. Chinese migrant workers, on the other hand, protested on account of feeling exploited and helpless in a land where they had little to no legal rights or recourse.
The WSJ series does a great job covering the particular event and the underlying causes, so I invite you to give them a read. Meanwhile, I intend to cover the most dominant issue in the next blog post, which is the growing wealth disparity and widening income inequality in Singapore.