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Singapore's migrant workers fear financial ruin after virus ordeal

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - As Sharif Uddin contemplates leaving the cramped Singapore dormitory where he has spent weeks under coronavirus quarantine, fears about his future creep in.

FILE PHOTO: Migrant workers in essential services wearing safety vests cross a street at Orchard Road, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Singapore, May 27, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo

The 42-year-old Bangladeshi construction supervisor is one of thousands of low-income migrant workers trapped in packed bunk rooms that have been ravaged by the coronavirus, accounting for more than 90% of Singapore’s 38,000 infections.

As Singapore began easing its lockdown measures this month, migrants like Uddin started to think about returning to the outside world, and whether a job would be available for him to help pay off his debts as Singapore braces for its deepest ever recession.

“The fear of losing jobs is worrying everyone at the moment,” said Uddin, who sends the bulk of his wages to his family in Bangladesh and is still repaying loans taken to pay off his recruitment agent, like many of the South Asian migrant workers in Singapore.

For Singapore, the system of cheap, imported labour to do jobs in the construction, shipping, manufacturing and service industries works effectively. When times are good, it means jobs that locals usually shun can be filled, but when the economy is weak, it is easy to cut back on foreign workers.

That leaves migrant workers like Uddin vulnerable and at real risk of being forced to return to their home country where employment opportunities are scarce. In interviews with more than a dozen workers in Singapore, many said while they were still being paid, they feared they would lose their jobs when the quarantine is lifted.

Uddin said Singapore was his “dream city” when he first arrived in 2008, but like many migrants he found most of his toil went towards paying family expenses and creditors, meaning he saved very little.

He has worked on building Singapore’s subway, says he writes poetry and hopes to one day open a bookshop back in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka. But already on his fourth job, he is still many years away from saving the money he needs.

“The dreams of migrants ... don’t get fulfilled very soon. It takes really long to chase them,” Uddin said.

“As years pass – one year, two years, those initial big dreams and aspirations slowly start fading away.”

The Singapore government has waived foreign worker levies for companies to try and ensure migrants get paid while under quarantine and introduced measures to help laid off workers find new positions without having to first travel back to their home country, a core complaint of many labourers.

DEBT TRAPS

Lawrence Wong, the co-head of Singapore’s virus taskforce, told Reuters the government’s waiving of levies and other steps have helped alleviate “major concerns” of workers around job security, but added that layoffs were possible given the grim economic outlook.

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“The contractor may have a project today, but down the road will they still have projects? That depends on the economy. So many uncertain factors when it comes to job security,” said Wong, who is also the minister for national development.

He added that some workers may remain quarantined in their dormitories until August, or possibly beyond, as the government completes mass testing.

The pandemic has drawn attention to the stark inequalities in the modern city-state where more than 300,000 labourers from Bangladesh, India and China often live in rooms for 12 to 20 men, working jobs that pay as little as S$20 ($14.30) a day.

That is higher than they would make at home. But the median salary for Singaporean employees in 2019 was S$4,563 per month, according to the manpower ministry.

The bigger worry for many migrants like Uddin is the debts they have racked up securing jobs in Singapore.

Migrants will usually be charged S$7,000-10,000 in fees by a recruitment agent in their home country, equivalent to more than a year of their basic salary, according to rights groups. If they lose their job, this debt could haunt their families for years.

“If there were no recruitment fees, that would solve almost all of these problems,” said Deborah Fordyce, president of Singapore NGO Transient Workers Count Too.

“Recruitment costs are what keep them in debt.”

DREAMS SOUR

Wong, the minister, said the government will continue to work to improve migrants’ lives in Singapore, but tackling issues like fees is difficult because many agents operate in the workers’ home countries outside the city-state’s jurisdiction.

Singapore’s government has pledged to improve living conditions for migrant workers in the short-term and build new, higher-spec dormitories over the coming years.

Ali Nur Khan, a 25-year-old Bangladeshi construction worker, said when he first got a job in Singapore, he felt like he had “won the lottery”, but as the debts stacked up, and the low salary and basic living conditions hit home, his enthusiasm quickly faded. He said he has never called his family from his dormitory room because he is embarrassed.

“Singapore was my dream country. But it was like a nightmare when I saw the dirty, crowded living place,” he said.

Now, Khan said, “there is huge uncertainty. Nobody knows what is waiting for us”.

Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party, which is months away from an election it is likely to win comfortably, also has to balance the needs of migrants with those of locals who are looking for financial support during an economic crisis.

A 2019 U.N. study found that 60% of Singaporeans thought migrant workers should not receive the same pay and benefits as locals. There have been backlashes about rising numbers of foreign workers in the city-state, such as opposition to the building of dormitories near residential areas.

The percentage of foreign workers in Singapore’s total labour force has risen from 3% in the 1970s to 38% today, according to data from Migration Policy Institute and the government.

Some foreign labourers who come in search of a better life in Singapore leave feeling marginalised and disappointed, especially given the time they have sacrificed away from their families.

On his tenth birthday last year, Uddin said his son reminded him that they had only spent seven months of his life together.

“It hurts both of us the same way and I can’t do anything about it,” he said.

($1 = 1.3897 Singapore dollars)

Reporting by John Geddie, Joe Brock and Koustav Samanta; additional reporting by Ruma Paul in Dhaka and Aradhana Aravindan in Singapore; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan

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