April 21, 2020

Low-skilled migrants after COVID-19: Singapore futures?

by Steven Vertovec

This post originally appeared as an online exclusive for COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.

With growing xenophobia and stigmatization of migrants and refugees as presumed carriers of coronavirus, what might the future hold for low-skilled migrants?

Comparative research across 26 countries by the International Migration Policy and Law Analysis (IMPALA) consortium suggests a number of trends in migrant regulation since the 1990s. Their research identifies, broadly across all observed countries, a set of growing restrictions or ‘stringency’ around low-skilled migrants along with a lessening of restrictions or stringency around highly skilled migrants. The United States appears as both the most restrictive in its treatment of low-skilled workers and the least restrictive concerning highly skilled migrants. Indeed, the post-Brexit  UK government  is seeking to stop most low-skilled worker migration completely (worryingly, at a time when the country is relying on such workers most).

Currently during the COVID-19 pandemic, some countries such as the USA and  Germany  have taken steps to relax some restrictions on low-skilled migrants, especially agricultural workers. After the pandemic subsides, however, we might well expect several policies to get even more restricted. In order to move out of a massive global recession, economic sectors employing low-skilled workers will certainly need and get them: yet much public opinion, likely still swayed by the upsurge of racism and xenophobia that has accompanied the pandemic, will need reassurance that low-skilled migrants are supplying labour but are otherwise secluded and controlled. Like the various scenarios that economists suggest might emerge in the global economy, the future of global migration can be approached through various scenarios.

One such scenario in many places, I suggest, might be a proliferation of ‘Singapore futures’ for low-skilled migrants.

Although in a way vying with Dubai and other Arab states, Singapore already has one of the strictest regimes for low-skilled migrants worldwide. It is a city-nation-state entirely dependent on migrants. In 2019, out of Singapore’s total population of 5.7 million, some 1.4 million (24.5%) were foreign workers. Of those, no less than 981,000 were present under the Work Permit scheme for low- or semi-skilled workers. This differs from Singapore’s far less restrictive ‘Employment pass’ scheme for professionals and mid-skilled workers. Migrant  men, largely from India, Bangladesh, China and Myanmar, make up a dominant part of the low- and semi-skilled workforce in construction, shipyards and factories. Migrant women, predominantly from the Philippines, comprise the majority of the domestic workforce, for which 255,800 Foreign Domestic Work permits were issued in 2019. As  Jaclyn Neo  observes, “Singapore’s work permit regime envisages the workers to be transient. Their recruitment, mobility, and working conditions are heavily regulated to ensure this transiency.”

The conditions under which these migrants in Singapore work are notably constraining:

  • Low-skilled workers can only enter Singapore if they have a job offer from a stated employer. Most workers are hired through recruitment agencies;
  • Work permits for migrants earning S$2500 or less per month are wholly short-term (usually one or two-year duration);
  • Time spent in Singapore under a Work Permit does not count toward fulfilling requirements for permanent residency or citizenship;
  • Workers must leave the country within seven days of the termination of their contract;
  • Workers are not allowed to change jobs except with explicit consent of their current employer (which can be withheld without reason);
  • Employers can unilaterally cancel work permits, which means the automatic repatriation of the worker to his or her home country. Evidence shows that premature repatriation is often held by employers as a threat over workers;
  • Workers are not allowed to bring their families to Singapore;
  • Workers are generally not allowed to marry locals (or special permission needs to be obtained from the Ministry of Manpower);
  • If a worker becomes pregnant, her Work Permit is cancelled and she must be repatriated (even if the father is a Singaporean);
  • All workers must pass a medical examination for infectious diseases in order to obtain a Work Permit;
  • Employers of migrant workers are required to post a S$5000 bond for each worker;
  • Low-wage migrant workers are mandated to live in state-approved, employer-run and purpose-built dormitories on the outskirts of the city;
  • Dormitories, and employer-provided transport between these and workplaces, mean that there is little interaction with the general Singaporean population.

Restricting most low-skilled workers to dormitories not only inhibits interaction with locals, but also allows authorities to separate, segregate, contain and control the migrants and their mobility. In 2012, policymakers even discussed housing migrant workers on nearby offshore islands instead of on the main island of Singapore. And in cases of disease outbreak, the workers can be sealed off from the rest of the population. Indeed, currently 20,000 low-skilled migrant workers have been quarantined in dormitories in Singapore. Human rights advocates have voiced their concerns that such restrictions could be a recipe for a health disaster, especially since worker dormitories often house 12-20 men per room. Meanwhile, female domestic workers must remain with their employers on their days off.

Post-COVID-19, in many countries, the global trends already underway toward further restricting low-skilled migrant workers might move increasingly toward the Singaporean model, especially in terms of ‘ensured transiency’, physically controlled containment, limitations on interaction with locals, and if need be, modalities for simple and quick expulsion. These kinds of requirements serve to restrict migrants’ physical and economic mobility and autonomy, while exposing them to potential exploitation (especially for migrants who may have incurred debt in order to travel and/or obtain a job abroad). Such measures, however, might be increasingly attractive to policymakers, as they ensure clear and quick economic benefits at low cost to employers while the public can be assured that the (increasingly, post-COVID-19, stigmatized?) low-skilled migrants are safely separated from the national population, controlled and confined.

After COVID-19, many people around the world will be looking desperately for rapid economic recuperation and might wish a ‘Singapore future’ for their own nation-state in terms of emulating a well-ordered and prosperous society. For low-skilled migrants, a ‘Singapore future’ would not be so desirable.

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