Side Views

Lure in better workers — Richard Hartung

JAN 9 — In a developed country like Singapore, most people take clean water, ventilation and enough space for granted. Not so, it seems, for foreign workers, even in Singapore.

The good news is that new guidelines written by the Dormitory Association of Singapore, the Migrant Workers Centre and government agencies say employers need to provide workers with a convenient supply of potable water, 4-5.5 sq m of living space, adequate ventilation and other basic requirements.

The startling thing is that providing such basic necessities even needed to be spelt out at all. The guidelines are at least a start, since regulations that are in place may seem even less specific.

For foreign domestic workers, employers are required to provide a separate room or sufficient space for sleep as well as basic needs such as food, a bed with a mattress, a blanket, towels, toiletries and a fan in places with poor ventilation.

For other foreign workers, the requirement is only that employers “ensure that the foreign worker’s welfare and interests are well looked after”.

As a comparison, the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights says workers should have adequate housing and clothing, and be free from hunger.

Perhaps it was assumed that common sense would prevail and workers here would receive food, drinkable water, enough space to sleep in a clean room and more.

While it is surprising that guidelines were lacking and workers may not have had these basic necessities, even these proposed standards may meet resistance. If Singapore is to thrive, however, there are also business reasons to do more in order to make Singapore an attractive place for all workers, not just high-end ones.

Global business is increasingly competitive. Even in relatively mundane work, such as construction or cleaning, increasing productivity is crucial for competing effectively. A cleaner who can identify a problem and send a photo, for example, is far better than one who can only sweep.

To gain a competitive advantage, Singapore needs to bring in workers who have the ability to excel and then retain them once they are trained. If Singapore gains a reputation as a place where low-wage workers do not have adequate necessities to meet basic human needs, more capable workers may simply go somewhere else.

Low-wage workers who have an innate ability to thrive and who do come to Singapore may leave as soon as their contracts are up if they find the conditions unsuitable.

To attract and retain high-quality foreign workers who will contribute to Singapore and raise productivity, it seems like adequate housing and food and water, along with other basic necessities, would be preferable to simply a bare minimum.

Beyond those basic necessities, it is also worth considering what would make Singapore a location of choice for low-wage, high-potential workers who might select other destinations.

While employers are understandably unlikely to provide foreign workers with higher-cost amenities equivalent to university hostel-level or even Housing and Development Board-level housing, relooking at what more to provide for workers may be vital to improving not just the workers’ well-being but Singapore’s competitiveness.

A starting point could be the UN General Assembly, which decided in 1985 that migrant workers should have “health protection, medical care, social security, social services, education, rest and leisure”.

Since those requirements are a bit vague, a starting place could be to look at the minimum we might expect for ourselves even in a difficult location.

Workers from Singapore who go to work in remote locations in emerging markets do not expect movie theatres and fine dining. They may well expect, however, that they would have a day off every week, access to medical care and options to learn more or to socialise with friends.

Foreign workers coming to Singapore might hope for or expect something similar, or more.

Yes, it may well cost something additional initially to offer more than what is provided today. Yet doing more could well be the key to attracting and retaining top workers, raising productivity and ensuring a competitive edge in the years to come. — Today

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.

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