Academic English

Foundation of Our Buildings: Human Rights

Singapore is amongst the most developed countries in the world, in fact, it is the 6th richest country in GDP today. However, when you look at the history of Singapore, it has had merely 52 years to transform from a little more than a fishing village to one of the leading economies in the world. Looking back at it now, the development deemed impossible with its small population, yet the phenomenal reality lies right in front us. Now the question is: How did that happen? 

One may argue that Singapore’s development comes from its hard-working population and the organised system lead by Lee Kuan Yew. However, there is a community who has never been recognised for their contribution to Singapore’s rapid growth and development. They are transient workers – the foundation of Singapore’s physical development.

The term transient workers, also known as migrant workers, is defined as someone who works away from their normal work base either for part or all of their work. This community makes up 20% of Singapore’s overall population today, which totals up to almost 1 million people. They are mostly from Bangladesh, India, China, Philippines and Indonesia, where they would pay up to an average of $5,000(SGD) agency fee in their home country to receive a job in Singapore. The jobs being low-wage and often in the fields of construction, domestic work, shipyards or manufacturing. They have played an essential part in Singapore’s development and Singapore would not be where it is right now without them.


Walking in the heart of Singapore such as Orchard; there would be no transient workers in sight. You would also rarely see them on MRTs. So, where did 20% of Singapore’s population go? The hurtful truth is that they do not dare to appear often in the public. 36 years old Indian migrant worker Mr. Jasvir Singh can relate closely to this with his experiences on the metro of Singapore. He felt shunned by the other passengers as people have expressed discomfort outwardly and moved when he sat next to them.

“There is nothing I can do about it. I cannot be angry at them, so I just feel sad. It makes me feel small.” Jasvir Singh said.

This community is not viewed equally by many people. There is no tolerance let alone acceptance. This is especially significant amongst local Singaporean elderlies who looks down upon the migrant workers as if they do not deserve to stay in Singapore. Transient workers from Bangladesh or India do not even feel comfortable wearing their cultural outfits; the Punjabi suit and topi cap, as they could be called terrorists.

They can’t dress as they wish, sit when they want, or merely go to any places they wanted. All of this is happening in one of the most developed countries in the world yet no action has been taken. In addition, they are not allowed to be married to a Singaporean citizen, which pushed the limit even more: What human rights do they really have in this community?

There are obvious isolation and bias in their working environments too. A Bangladeshi worker Mr. Jahangir Alam Babu claims that his pay is lower than his Singaporean colleagues of the same appointments and has overheard his colleagues complain about construction jobs going to foreign workers rather than locals. He has also been made fun of because of his nationality.

A working environment like such could affect one’s performance drastically. Especially construction workers, as they need to stay in their working space for at least 2 years to complete the current project they are working on. Most of them would stay in their employed companies for over 5 years as they often need to complete multiple projects. Staying in such negative atmosphere may cause the workers to develop mental barricades that opposes their colleagues which may lead to conflicts. However, issues like such did not alarm people, as some employers consider them as being ‘disposable’ and do not see the need to care for them.

Such experiences may also change their opinion on Singapore and evoke rage that may provoke them to act violently. A tragedy like such was found in 2013 at Little India when migrant workers rioted when a private bus has caused a death of an Indian construction worker.


“I think the working conditions for migrant workers in Singapore are getting worse,” Tan said. “There’s a lack of enforcement and employers take advantage of the enforcement authorities’ passive attitude,” he noted.

The lack of enforcement in Singapore has led to many inhumane employers who try to gain as much profit as they can from these workers. The most common problem being cutting down the promised wage or even not giving them any wage at all. This happens because there are no documented contracts that are agreed by both the employer and the employee that states clearly the amount of wage the worker is supposed to receive or overtime charges. Sometimes employees can be tricked and even threatened to sign the paper because of language barriers or other reasons.

What makes the situation worse is that the workers are trapped in this situation as they have no means to escape. They are often threatened by the employers to not confess to any officials, as their wage would not be paid otherwise. They cannot afford to terminate their work permit either. Once a work permit terminates, the employee must return to their home country before they can sign a work permit with another company. This would be absolutely unaffordable due to the high agency fee they would have to pay again to receive another job.



People on special passes cannot get a job

Special pass: A pass granted for the migrant worker to stay until their case has been solved when there is a legal case between the employee and the employer.

Workers would have no income which may provoke them to commit crimes such as thievery.

Workers can only be on one work permit with one company when working in Singapore

Workers cannot change employers without going back to their home country, so they would just endure what mistreatment as they cannot afford to pay the agency fee again.

There are no guidelines as to what rights migrant workers in Singapore must have.

Workers are not aware of the rights they hold, which refrains them from speaking out.


This issue that is present in our society should not simply be dismissed. People are often unaware and do not see the importance of such issues. Problems like this happen constantly around us, yet it is not noticed. People may even discriminate without knowing the consequences. Although no significant actions have been taken in the past to attempt to solve the issue, a recent non-government organisation, TWC2Transient Workers Count Too) has decided to not let the matter go.

Their major project, the Cuff Road project provides lunch every day for workers on a special pass. There are also volunteers who may consult them about what to do next with their cases pending in the court. TWC2 has also made a huge impact as to improving flaws in regulations regarding the protection of migrant worker’s rights. They work closely with the Ministry of Manpower to finalise and alter laws to help provide a safer and more comfortable working and living environment for the migrant workers in Singapore.

To know more about what TWC2 do, visit their site at

What makes those employers so unethical? How are they able to do such things? It all comes from the lack of public awareness. People don’t know about such mistreatments and some employers can easily get away with it. However, if attention is paid to these matters and issues, they would not dare to do anything that could raise public rage. In order to create a more harmonious living environment for all in Singapore, this issue cannot be delayed and needs to be attended to with importance.

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