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Foreign workers: Economic and social issues

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 2313 words Published: 10th Apr 2017

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In Singapore, foreign workers are assets to the workforce because they take up low-skilled jobs which Singaporeans are reluctant to do (National Population and Talent Division, 2013, p. 22). However, foreign workers are ill-treated and their issues include underpayment and undesirable dormitory standards (Chia & Zaccheus, 2012). In this essay, besides examining foreign workers’ issues, I will discuss my interest and assumptions about them.

Interest and Assumptions

I am interested in foreign workers because their public and unruly display of resentment in the recent Little India riot suggests an urgent need to address their issues so that such violent behaviours and their consequences could be prevented in the future. Therefore, foreign workers are selected to have their issues examined in this essay.

Naturally, I have two assumptions about foreign workers which are suggested to be true by evidence. The first assumption is most foreign workers belong to the low social class and that is true because their monthly wages ranging from $700 to $1200 (Tan & Mokhtar, 2013, para. 15-16) is lower than the $1500 to $5000 range earned by the middle class in Singapore. The next assumption is foreign workers are isolated in Singapore due to the anti-foreigner sentiment. As International Labour Organisation (2013) has surveyed, nearly 60% of Singaporeans perceived foreign workers as threats to Singapore’s culture instead of valued members in the society. Moreover, the growing anti-foreigner sentiment is shown by the strong protests carried out in 2013 to discourage further intake of foreign workers (Goh & Mokhtar, 2013). Therefore, foreign workers are highly likely to feel isolated due to the escalating anti-foreigner sentiment.

Importance of Addressing the Issues

As mentioned earlier, it is important to address foreign workers’ issues to reduce their resentment and prevent their violent behaviours because these behaviours can lead to severe economic and social consequences as shown in the Little India riot in 2013.

As a result of the riot, livelihood of 134 businesses in Little India was threatened as they experienced 50% reduction in customers (Lim, 2013, para. 2) and some had 90% loss in revenue (Au, 2013, para. 7). Moreover, the riot disrupted social harmony by intensifying the tension between foreign workers and Singaporeans. After the riot, Singaporeans’ criticism towards the foreign workers was so overwhelming that Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth had to step forward to remind Singaporeans to “keep xenophobia and racial remarks out of the conversation” (Heng, 2013, para. 16). Therefore, as such unruly behaviours threaten social harmony and adversely impact the local economy, it is important to avoid them by reducing foreign workers’ resentment through addressing their issues effectively. To do so, we need to first examine foreign workers’ needs using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory.

Foreign Workers’ Needs and Support

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory classifies needs into basic needs like physiological and safety needs, psychological needs like love and esteem needs and higher level needs like cognitive and self-actualisation needs (Maslow, 1987). Based on the theory, the foreign workers’ physiological needs to get sufficient sleep are not met because their overcrowded and unhygienic dormitories affect their quality of sleep (Chia & Zaccheus, 2012, para. 3). Besides, the foreign workers’ safety needs to have the security of jobs are not fulfilled because “65% of injured and salary-claim workers had been threatened by their employers with premature repatriation” (as cited in Kaur, 2014, p. 9). Furthermore, foreign workers’ esteem needs to be respected by others are not met due to xenophobia in the society (Heng, 2013, para. 16).

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Currently, various forms of support are available for foreign workers: to address their physiological needs to live in conducive conditions, the scheme of accrediting dormitories was established in 2012 to ensure satisfactory dormitory environments (Grosse & Khamid, 2012); to fulfil their safety needs to have the security of jobs, the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act [EFMA] and the help service by Migrant Workers’ Centre [MWC] are in place to stop unreasonable employment practices (Ministry of Manpower, 2013; Migrant Workers’ Centre, 2014); to meet their love needs to have more friends, National Trades Union Congress [NTUC] organises social activities for foreign workers and its advocacy efforts has led to many revisions in the EFMA to better protect foreign workers (National Trades Union Congress, 2010, para. 2-3). Next, to examine the support for foreign workers, Bronfenbrenner’s ecology system theory will be used.

Bronfenbrenner’s ecology system theory suggests that individuals’ interactions with their communities and the society can be classified into in five environmental systems: microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem and chronosystem (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). In the foreign workers’ context, their microsystem consists of the people whom they interact with the most like their colleagues and roommates; their mesosystem consists of the interactions between the microsystems that they are involved in; their exosystem includes service providers like NTUC and MWC which directly impact the microsystems; and their macrosystem includes law and policies like the EFMA and the scheme of accrediting dormitories which are greatly influenced by the government and the society.

After examining, it is clear that the current support mainly addresses the workers’ basic needs and much of the efforts comes from the authorities. Hence, my proposed idea aims to fulfil the workers’ psychological needs by involving the public.

Proposed Idea

“Love Across Distance” is an annual event that requires its volunteers to help foreign workers of different nationalities send their photographs and love messages back home and publish the their life stories on Facebook. The recipients of love messages and the types of stories published each year will vary according to the occasion that the event focuses on; if the event focuses on Valentine’s Day, the foreign workers’ valentines will be the recipients of love messages and the stories published will be their love stories. Because the event focuses on a different occasion each year, as years go by, different aspects of foreign workers’ lives will be shared with Singaporeans online to deepen their understanding of foreign workers.

For example, weeks before Valentine’s Day, the volunteers will find foreign workers and take polaroids of them holding the flowers which symbolise romance in their culture. Then, the foreign workers will write down their love messages which will be mailed together with their polaroids. Next, the volunteers will ask them questions like “How did you meet your valentine?”, “What do you like the most about her?” and “Is there anything you wish to do for her after working in Singapore?” to find out their love stories. Lastly, permission will be gained to publish the stories online and the foreign workers’ privacy will be protected if they prefer not to have their identities revealed online.

The mailing of love messages is to make the foreign workers feel important by involving them in celebrating the joyous occasions. The online sharing of their life stories such as love stories is to arouse Singaporeans’ interest in foreign workers and to increase their awareness that foreign workers are also humans who love and have aspirations for their beloved; hence, they deserve respect and less discrimination. Therefore, this event aims to reduce the barrier between Singaporeans and foreign workers by deepening Singaporeans’ understanding of foreign workers and by diverting their attention from the foreign workers’ unruly behaviours to their hopes and aspirations. This event hopes to reduce stereotypical views towards foreign workers and encourage Singaporeans to create a more inclusive society that makes foreign workers feel at home.


In conclusion, to maintain Singapore’s social and industrial harmony, it is crucial to address the foreign workers’ basic and psychological needs so that their resentments and unruly behaviours could be prevented. Besides, more efforts are needed from Singaporeans to create an inclusive society which makes the foreign workers feel valued regardless of their social status. It is when Singaporeans and foreign workers unite as one, Singapore can progress socially and economically with peace and stability in today’s competitive world.

(1312 words)


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Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. United States of America: Harvard University Press.

Chia, Y. M., & Zaccheus, M. (2012, December 10). Hard life, but foreign workers labour on.

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Goh, C. L., & Mokhtar, M. (2013, February 16). Large turnout at speakers’ corner for protest against Population White Paper. The Straits Times. Retrieved from http://www.stra itstimes.com/breaking-news/singapore/story/large-turnout-speakers-corner-protest- against-population-white-paper-2

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International Labour Organisation. (2013). Public attitudes to migrant workers. Migration works. Retrieved from http://migrationworks.org/wp-content/uploads/ILO-study-on- public- attitudes-to-migrant-workers.pdf

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Ministry of Manpower. (2013). Amendments to the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act. Retrieved from http://www.mom.gov.sg/foreign-manpower/amendments-to-the- efma/Pages/default.aspx

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