Sustainable Livelihoods Behind Street Vending in Thailand

By Kalinga Seneviratne

KHAOSAN, Bangkok (IDN) – When people talk about sustainable development there is rarely any mention of the many street vendors who make a living on streets in Thailand, as across the rest of Asia.

Even attempts to stop them doing business – like the unsuccessful year-long attempt by the governor of Bangkok to clean the city’s streets of street vendors – passes unnoticed in the media. Continue reading “Sustainable Livelihoods Behind Street Vending in Thailand”


ASEAN Chairman Duterte Pushes For Migrant Protection Treaty

This article is part of IDN’s media project jointly with Global Cooperation Council and DEVNET Japan.

By Kalinga Seneviratne

Bangkok, 26 Feb 2017 (IDN): Philippine’s President Rodrigo Duterte has signaled his intention to push harder for the adoption of a binding regional treaty to protect the human rights of migrant workers during his chairmanship of ASEAN (Association of South east Asian Nations) this year.

Though he is strongly supported by Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, yet human rights advocates in the region fear that ASEAN’s “consensus” based decision making process may hinder these attempts because Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand may not agree to a binding treaty to protect migrant workers in their countries. Continue reading “ASEAN Chairman Duterte Pushes For Migrant Protection Treaty”

Singapore: Can the Maid Have Boyfriends?

By Kalinga Seneviratne

SINGAPORE, Mar 20 2012 (IPS) – A routine announcement by the government of this city-state entitling foreign, female domestic workers to a day off each week has sent their affluent employers into a tizzy.


Filipina maids catch a moment together while taking their employers’ children and the dogs out.

What if the hired help finds a boyfriend and gets pregnant? That was the thought uppermost in the minds of Singaporeans, a third of whom are used to the idea of young women from impoverished Asian countries cleaning, fetching and caring for them, unquestioningly.


“I had a Filipina maid who found a Bangladeshi boyfriend and got pregnant. I had to send her back home after just seven months and pay for her airfare,” complains Elsie Wong, a businesswoman. “I almost lost my 4,000 dollar bond,” Wong told IPS.

Singapore’s foreign domestic worker (FDW) contracts stipulate that once the hired help gets pregnant she must be deported, with the employer paying her airfare.

Wong was spared having to forfeit the security bond since the ministry of manpower (MOM) has clarified that since January 2010 the employer’s liability has been limited.

“The ministry does not forfeit employer’s security bonds if FDWs violate their own work permit conditions, for instance, if they moonlight or get pregnant,” said Farah Abdul Rahim, director of corporate relations at the MOM, in a letter to the Straits Times, responding to employers’ concerns.

“If you allow your teenage children to have boyfriends or girlfriends, how can you demand that an adult in your employ should not?” argues John Gee, former president of ‘TWC2’, a voluntary agency that has campaigned since 2003 for a weekly day off for FDWs.

“This is totally unacceptable and this is an attitude that has to change,” says Gee. Starting Jan. 1, 2013 Singaporean employers will either conform to the new law or be liable to pay a fine of 4,000 dollars or spend six months in jail.

“Maids are human beings too. They need a day off like other workers,” says Papias Banados, who has worked in Singapore for over 10 years as a FDW and recently wrote a book of short stories on OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker) experience titled ‘The Path of Remittance’.

“There are many OFWs working here in restaurants, offices and as sales assistants and they get a day off. They have boyfriends and parties. So, why should a maid be treated differently?”

Employers and recruitment agents also argue that giving a weekly day off will inconvenience families with small children, invalids or elders.

Singapore, ranked third in Forbes annual richest country list released last month, has a per capita income of nearly 56,700 dollars and employs some 206,000 FDWs in a population of four million.

Most of these women come from impoverished families in the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar (or Burma) and Cambodia. They often work seven days a week and between 10 to 16 hours a day, earning between 250 to 400 dollars a month.

Social workers and rights groups have campaigned for over 10 years to get the Singapore government to legislate for a compulsory day off per week for these domestic workers.

Singapore is among a handful of Asian countries that do not have law providing a day off for domestic workers and these include Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Bridget Tan, president of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), notes that Singapore is now a step closer towards full recognition of domestic workers’ rights on par with other foreign workers.

“The lack of adequate protection has made live-in domestic work a highly stressful occupation and many women in such situations find it difficult to cope with the social isolation and demands of the jobs” she argues.

She pointed to the case of an underage Indonesian maid, Vitria Depsi Wahyuno, murdering her elderly employer because she was unable to cope with the latter’s demands and verbal abuse. Wahyuno was sentenced to ten years in jail for the crime on Mar. 7.

“The mandatory day off decision is significant,” says Moe Thuzar, lead researcher at the ASEAN Studies Centre at the National University of Singapore. “It recognises the importance of the domestic worker’s physical, mental and emotional well-being.”

But, Tan warns, the role of recruitment agents needs more scrutiny, especially because the new law allows employers to pay the equivalent of a day’s wage in lieu of a day off, which would come to about 15 dollars.

“The bargaining power of a migrant worker is weak because many of them are indebted to the recruitment agents from the moment they arrive in Singapore.”

“Employers also have the unilateral right to cancel a work permit and terminate her employment without justification,” she notes. “As a result, workers who wish to claim their right to a weekly day off may end up losing their jobs instead.”

Of late, Singapore has been facing a severe shortage of FDWs because many Indonesians and Filipinos, who form the bulk of the FDWs here, now prefer to go to Taiwan and Hong Kong where the wages are higher and working conditions better.

Gee thinks the cost of placement needs to be regulated, pay levels raised and a system of part-time domestic work introduced to encourage locals.

“It could be attractive to locals who cannot take on full-time jobs and also to employers would not have to provide accommodation and may find it cheaper to pay a daily worker to come in, say for two hours a day,” Gee said.

Singapore: Migrant Workers Demand Justice

By Kalinga Seneviratne


SINGAPORE, 12 Feb 2012 (IPS) – When a group of about 100 mostly Bangladeshi migrant workers went on strike at a construction site over unpaid wages this month, it created ripples in this affluent and orderly island republic.

The manpower ministry (MoM) quickly stepped in and ordered the concerned private construction company to pay its striking workers back wages owing since November 2011. The strike was over eight hours after it started on the morning of Feb.6.

“MoM does not condone employers who fail to pay salaries on time, or fail to upkeep and maintain the foreign workers they have brought in,” said an official statement.

The strike brought home the fact that a quarter of Singapore’s four million people are low-paid migrant workers from other Asian countries, doing heavy construction jobs that its own affluent citizens will not do.

But, social activists say there is widespread exploitation by unscrupulous recruitment agents who circumvent rules stipulated by MoM and take advantage of impoverished workers from Asian countries like Bangladesh, India, China and Burma.

Last year MoM promised “sufficient deterrence” to ensure that laws are respected by agents. But, Singapore does not have a minimum wage policy and employers may easily terminate contracts when workers demand fair wages.

Government figures suggest that the country already has 240,000 construction workers and will need tens of thousands more to execute planned housing programmes alone.

Jolovan Wham, executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, lays part of the blame on rapacious recruitment agencies that charge hefty fees from the workers back home and then take no responsibility for them once they land in Singapore.

Bangladeshi workers at a Singapore construction site. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne/IPS

“They pay such huge sums of money,” said Wham. “The agents must help the workers when they face problems at the workplace, but they don’t do that.”

Many workers from Bangladesh, India, China and, lately, Burma are known to have paid amounts ranging from 2,400 to 4,800 dollars to agents in their home countries to secure jobs in this city state.

Construction workers earn about 480 dollars a month while skilled workers like electricians and welders get thrice that amount. But, agents and employers deduct money from their monthly pay against ‘compulsory savings’, uniforms, food and accommodation.

Rafiqul (not his real name) came from Bangladesh to work here as a construction worker about two years ago. He paid an agent back home 3,200 dollars to get a job here that paid him 475 dollars a month.

Three months ago when Rafiqul’s work permit was cancelled and he was given a ticket to go back home, he found that his employer would not hand over accumulated compulsory savings worth 1,902 dollars.

“Now he says that I have to pay for the dormitory. This was never said to me before,” he said angrily.

Rafiqul complained to the MoM which extended his work permit to enable him to take his employer to court.

Saravan, an electrician from India, handed 4,756 dollars to an agent in Chennai for a job in a school that pays 1,426 dollars a month.

After working for six months the job stopped in December and he is yet to receive three months worth of pay.

“Agents use shell companies that exist only by name. Agents in Bangladesh coordinate with agents here to set up jobs. They are mostly swindlers and conmen as far as I can see,” says Debbie Fordyce, a volunteer with Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a non-government organisation.

Shafik, a Bangladeshi worker who approached TWC2 for help, has worked here for five years and now wants to go back home. During this period, the agent deducted 79 dollars each month as savings.

When Shafik asked for his money, now amounting to 4,756 dollars, the agent refused to oblige.

“I had already given him 6,341 dollars when I came here to work, I don’t want to give him anymore,” he told IPS. But, Fordyce says that he will find it hard to get this money back because the law says any dues from employers must be claimed within a year.

Another issue that rights groups want the MoM to sort out is that of forcible repatriations of workers injured in the workplace.

After Abdul (not his real name) met with an accident, his boss cancelled his work permit and called in a ‘repatriation company’. He was threatened, and when he complained to the MoM and police, beaten up.

Repatriation companies are engaged by employers to get rid of troublesome or inconvenient migrant workers.

When rights groups asked the MoM to crack down on repatriation companies because many of them employ local thugs, it was pointed out that while some 16,000 workers were repatriated last year there were only seven formal complaints.

“When people are forcibly repatriated there is hardly any room for them to go and make a complaint,” explained Wham. “Though repatriation companies are legal their activities are illegal. You cannot confine someone against his will, it’s an offence here.”

Fordyce said that TWC2 sees about 200 workers a month and all have invariably been cheated by one agent or another. Most of the workers have lost large sums of money to agents, collected on one pretext or another.

Singapore: First Strike in Quarter Century Exposes Treatment of Migrant Labour

By Kalinga SeneviratneBusSINGAPORE, Dec 20 2012 (IPS) – The first workers strike in 26 years in this affluent Southeast Asian city-state has triggered some soul-searching about the treatment of migrant labour and the low wages they are paid.

There are some 1.3 million foreign workers in a population of four million people in this small island state, which was recently ranked as the world’s richest country, with a per capita income of 56,532 dollars a year, by the World Wealth Report 2012 by Knight Frank and Citi Private Bank.

But most of the foreign workers – in fact some 931,000 of them according to figures as of June 2012 – are low-paid unskilled labour from neighbouring Asian countries, who earn nowhere near that figure.

The 171 bus drivers from China who went on strike by taking medical leave at the same time on Nov. 26 and Nov. 27 were earning about 980 dollars a month. They were complaining about receiving lower pay than Malaysian and Singaporean drivers, inadequate rest days and poor dormitory accommodation.

The government, well known for its pro-business policies and tough attitudes towards labour protests, acted swiftly by charging five of the drivers for breaking local “no-strike” laws and cancelling the work permits of and deporting 29 of the drivers who went on strike.

Since then, one of them has been sentenced to six weeks in jail, while four others are out on bail and appeared in court Wednesday for a pre-trial conference.

“We cannot let these Chinese workers take the rap for asking only for fair employment. And we cannot agree to their punishment when all the processes that exist in our name denied them the basic right to have their grievances heard,” wrote Vincent Wijeysinghe, an opposition Singapore Democratic Party member and a labour rights activist, in a blog posting which went viral here.

Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin said in the immediate aftermath of the strike that “by taking matters into their own hands, the drivers have clearly crossed the line.”

He declared the strike illegal, because public transport is an essential service where an employer needs to give 14 days’ notice of the intent to go on strike. Under this argument, the strikers’ ring leaders were arrested and charged for breaking Singaporean laws.

Economics lecturer Walter Edgar Theseira of Nanyang Technological University argued in an interview with Yahoo Singapore that the strike and its aftermath had demonstrated “potentially serious vulnerabilities” that arise from Singapore’s significant reliance on low-cost foreign labour.

He also added that rather than provide high enough salaries to lure Singaporean workers to unskilled jobs, they offer just enough wages to attract people from countries like China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Philippines, thus creating labour conditions almost similar to the conditions in those countries.

John Gee, president of the migrant workers rights group Transient Workers Count Too, told IPS in an interview that the dispute between the Chinese migrant bus drivers and the partly government-owned SMRT bus company has been going on for at least six months. “Though workers may have broken the law, it needs to be taken into account that they may have been provoked,” he added.

Two main issues have come to the limelight as a result of the strike. One is the different wages paid to workers from different countries who do the same type of work, and the other is the hefty job placement fees that agents charge the workers for finding them jobs in Singapore.

A number of drivers told a Straits Times reporter that they paid more than 25,000 yuan (4,000 dollars) to Chinese agents to secure a job in Singapore.

Businesswoman Elsie Kwok defended the Singaporean employers’ policy of discriminating on the basis of nationality in their pay scales. “I have employed many girls from the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar and China as sales assistants. There are differences in their knowledge levels and attitude to the job. So it’s fair to pay some lower than the others,” she told IPS.

Gee disagrees. “Government has always said that they leave determination of salaries to market forces. Employers always argue on these grounds (to discriminate on pay scales). But it has to do with national stereotypes,” he argued.

When IPS asked the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) about the fairness of such wage disparities, a spokeswoman said: “Migrant labour should be paid fair and reasonable wages according to the work they do which commensurate their relevant skills and experience level. A more sustainable way is to enhance the quality of foreign labour so that this can better meet both supply and demand as well as cause our businesses to remain competitive.”

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam warned this month that Singapore was facing a “permanently tight labour market” and business must look to increase productivity to boost business growth. Singapore’s jobless rate at 1.9 percent is one of the lowest in the world.

In an interview with IPS, Wijeysinghe argued that the NTUC, because of its close association with the government, “appears to advocate more for government and corporations than for workers.”

He also said that although the government had recently pushed through legislation to put a cap on the placement fees agents could charge workers, the problem could not be solved without bilateral initiatives, and the “government has systematically refused to work bilaterally, blaming the agency system in sender countries.”

Many labour rights advocates here argue that it is the hefty placement fees charged by the agency system, where agents in both sender and receiver countries are involved, that creates apathy among migrant workers when it comes to discrimination and unfair treatment.

“When workers are sent back home prematurely, we have found many cases where they return worse off than they were before (because of these fees paid to agents),” Gee said. “A regional compact which is enforceable is needed on fees and charges,” he argued, adding that migrant workers also needed to be unionised in independent unions.

“If they (Chinese bus drivers) were unionised, the union worker could go to the boss and discuss complaints without naming the worker – so he couldn’t be sent home,” he said. Under Singapore law, an employer can unilaterally cancel a work permit and send the worker home within 48 hours.