Jolovan Wham: Champion for the rights of the migrant Workers

Posted by Jolovan Wham under Features on 16 January 2012

Jolovan Wham delivers the acceptance and thank you speech at Think Centre's Human Rights Defender's Award Ceremony. Think Centre honoured the social worker for migrant rights with the human rights defender award.

Acceptance and thank you speech at Think Centre's Human Rights Defender's Award Ceremony

I would like to thank The Think Centre for giving me the human rights defender award. I am humbled to be honoured together with such illustrious figures, like the late JBJ and social worker, Ron Chandran Dudley. I would also like to thank Bridget, the President of HOME for being an inspiration, and also to all the volunteers, Singaporeans and migrant workers alike who have joined us in our efforts to make Singapore a better place for migrant workers.

When I first started this work, people often asked me why I chose to work with migrant workers. And for me, the answer is simple: we are all consumers of migrant labour. If all one million migrant workers went on strike today, our entire economy collapses.

Migrant domestic workers especially have always been a part of my life. I grew up with them in my household, mainly because my mother could never trust her children to do the housework by themselves.

I remember once when my mother decided to give our Indonesian domestic worker one day off a month, it provoked a strong reaction from her friends, and they scolded her for ‘spoiling the market' and warned her that our maid may soon ‘have a bangla boyfriend' ‘get pregnant' or develop ‘attitude' problems.

I was in primary school then and I remember thinking to myself that since I did not want to go to school every day, why would I expect our domestic worker to work for us every single day of the week?

This week, it was revealed that the number of foreign construction workers needed to build public housing is expected to rise from 18,000 last year to about 30,000 this year and that it could rise to 45,000 "within the next few years".

This is the magnitude of the role of migrant workers to Singapore's economy but the response of the government and the community to their concerns and needs is disproportionate to their contributions.

And the reason this continues to be the case is because we have a pro employer regime which views migrant workers only as commodities to propel the economy but pays scant regard to their dignity, their humanity and their human rights.

Did the government think about where workers would be housed when they liberalized their recruitment policies?

Did they think about their social and recreational needs, and where they would hang out?

Did they think about whether our social services could respond adequately to their problems?

Did they think it was right to allow domestic workers to work 7 days a week, 365 days a year without a single day off, without public holidays, without sick leave and annual leave?

When they decided to raise foreign worker levies, did they think about the impact it would have on the already low wages of migrant workers?

Contrary to what the government would have us believe, levies don't do anything to moderate the demand and inflow of foreign workers to the country. We've had this system for more than 20 years already, and the number of foreign workers have only increased, rather than decreased.

Billions of dollars are collected every year but nobody knows what happens to the money that is collected, except perhaps to buy ergonomic chairs for MOM officers to sit on and of course to boost ministerial salaries and bonuses. What is scandalous is that none of this money is set aside for the welfare of migrant workers.

Migrant workers should not have to jump out of high rise buildings because they want to escape from their employers.

They should not have to go home empty handed because their employers are not willing to pay their salaries.

They should not have to beg their employers to give them basic health care services

They should not have to pay thousands of dollars in recruitment fees or go for months without any salary just to pay a debt.

They should not have to live in bed bug infested quarters that are cramped, filthy and hazardous.

They should not have their movements restricted or their passports taken away from them.

We continue to live under a regime that views low waged migrant workers as a threat to our society. Our laws tell them that they are not allowed to ‘engage in illegal, immoral and undesirable activities, including breaking up Singaporean families.'

Judicial caning is inflicted on undocumented migrants for overstaying, when many of them could be victims of recruitment scams and trafficking.

Private companies that assault, wrongfully confine and forcefully repatriate workers, are allowed to exist because we are afraid of being overrun by ‘illegal' immigrants.

We hold employers responsible for making sure migrant workers leave Singapore by imposing a $5000 security bond.

Singapore has resorted to punitive measures to control migrant workers when oftentimes the root causes of these problems are abuse and exploitation.

What we need instead are progressive labour laws which are consistently, and pro actively enforced. Unfortunately, this is not what the current situation is like. For example, in 2010, even though the Ministry of Manpower received almost 4000 pay related complaints from foreign workers, it only prosecuted 4 employers for failure to pay salaries. This is less than 1 percent of the number of complaints that were lodged!

Despite the many flaws in the system, some progress has been made. After years of denial, they have finally acknowledged that human trafficking is a significant problem and established an inter ministry task force to deal with it. They are also studying a proposal to ensure a mandatory day off for migrant domestic workers.

The PAP prides itself for upholding the rule of law; it also likes to say it is a party that does what is right, not what is popular. Protecting the rights of workers is the right thing to do and they should not delay any longer.

The tension between local workers and migrant workers can only be resolved when there is parity between the two in terms of working conditions, pay and benefits. Local workers will always lose out as long as foreign workers are easy to exploit and remain vulnerable. It is not about local workers vs foreign workers. The struggle is for all workers to claim the rights that belong to them.

Thank you

Sources and Relevant Links:

Jolovan Wham Acceptance and thank you speech at Think Centre's Human Rights Defender's Award Ceremony 15 January 2012

theonlinecitizen Jolovan Wham: We do this for social justice 15 January 2012

Andrew Loh Think Centre honours social worker for migrant rights 15 January 2012

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