Tackling Singapore's foreign worker crisis amid COVID-19

Wednesday Dec 09,2020 | Social Innovation



By Dr Dalvin Sidhu


Imagine leaving your loved ones behind to work in a foreign land, after emptying your entire family’s life savings for a loan in hopes of a better life. You pay a hefty sum of money to an agent in exchange for a job. Upon arrival, you live in a dormitory with hundreds of others just like you—in debt, earning a low wage, and working long shifts doing hard labour. 

This is the story of many migrant workers in Singapore. From the perfectly laid out MRT tracks that help more than three million commuters get to their destinations on time every day, to ensuring marine shipyard operations continue to run smoothly, migrant workers have formed the backbone of Singapore’s economy for decades. Yet, their plight remained behind closed doors until recent months, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit our shores and began spreading like wildfire in foreign worker dormitories.

Addressing the crisis of migrant workers, my colleagues and I co-authored a report titled Crisis and Connection: Unpacking Singapore's Migrant Worker Issues. Here, we attempt to navigate the complexities of the many issues confronting migrant workers in Singapore by reviewing available literature, and discuss how design thinking can be applied to mitigate the issues and struggles they face.


Surfacing dark secrets

When the news first broke about the alarming statistics of new COVID-19 cases daily in the dormitories, there were some who blamed the foreign workers, highlighting poor hygiene. The discriminating comments shed light on the living conditions in these dormitories, and quickly escalated to highlight a range of other welfare issues.

The reality is that a lot of psychological distress looms over these dormitories. For starters, migrant workers make the decision to take on precarious work—uncertain, unpredictable and risky jobs which they pay a huge sum of money to get, while bearing these risks with very limited social benefits and statutory entitlements. Coupled with low wages and living at the mercies of supervisors, most prefer to keep a low profile, simply doing as they are told.

When it comes to healthcare, many don’t seek help until it’s too late because medical subsidies don’t apply to foreign workers. Even seeing a general practitioner at a polyclinic is a highly unaffordable option. As an alternative, they do their best to hide their medical conditions for fear of being repatriated. Having taken on a loan to pay for a job opportunity in Singapore, the risk of being sent home would only puts them in a worse state than before. They’ve purchased a one-way ticket and the only way to survive is to move forward.




The “Wicked” problem

These inequalities have always existed, but the pandemic has added a layer of burden to migrant workers. Quarantined to designated spaces with restrictions placed on movement and interaction, suicide rates soared in August 2020, four months after the first dormitory lockdowns in April. 

Prolonged isolation and the fear of potentially losing their jobs, coupled with the burden of an existing large debt have made it challenging to even hope. But who is there to blame? The misalignment of the many stakeholders involved in the welfare of migrant workers creates a “wicked” problem, similar to issues like climate change, poverty and corruption. The hardships faced by migrant workers are complex, diverse and interconnected.

Simply put, wicked problems cannot be tied to any one stakeholder. They belong to everyone. That includes bystanders who know of their plight but choose not to do anything. By condoning discrimination or even having discriminating thoughts about migrant workers, we are a part of this wicked problem.


Tackling problems with design thinking

On the upside, COVID-19 has shone a light on a community that has so often been in the shadows. As the media began to highlight the foreign worker crisis, the vulnerability of migrant workers has become impossible to ignore.

We began to see cash donations, web campaigns, even thank-you notes written by schoolchildren flooding in to recognise migrant workers for the essential work they do. Most importantly, they are given a space in society again. Through design thinking (moving away from a problem mindset to having a vision of a better future), the Singaporean society rallied around migrant workers, tackling the wicked problem head on.

On a deeper level, design thinking involves a fundamental change of perspective. The concept of "us" and "them" needs to be replaced by a "we", to demonstrate a collective effort in a problem-solving ecosystem.




Of course, there's much to be done. The pandemic has opened doors for the Singaporean government to reevaluate processes and look into areas like upskilling and fairer wages. At the same time, the rest of society now has a glimpse of a different side of the country, as we continue to do our part to be more inclusive.

Through this report, my co-authors and I hope that we can put a dent into the first-world narrative and consciousness we hear about so much. Learn about the faces behind the shiny architectural icons that define Singapore. Hear the accounts of migrant workers that have been documented, and listen to their stories. At the very least, we hope to equip more people with the knowledge to build a more compassionate nation.


Images via rawpixel.


Dr Dalvin Sidhu is a Programme Manager (Research) at the Lien Centre for Social Innovation.