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SINGAPORE: Migrant Workers’ Families Face Uncertainty Ahead

Stanislaus Jude Chan

SINGAPORE, Feb 11 2010 (IPS) - Instead of spending weekends at shopping malls in this bustling city-state, Rod Luacan and his family now keep themselves busy with activities in church on Sundays.

A migrant worker at a construction site in Singapore. Credit: Stanislaus Jude Chan

A migrant worker at a construction site in Singapore. Credit: Stanislaus Jude Chan

Unfortunately, this is a story not of spiritual enlightenment, but the plight of migrant workers – and their families – in Singapore as they bear the brunt of the 2009 economic downturn.

“Sometimes we go to the mall,” said the 37-year-old Filipino mechanical engineer, who was retrenched four months ago from his job as a pressure- valve designer in a marine company. “But we spend weekends in church to help cut down on expenses. We do not have an expensive lifestyle.”

Armed with a Bachelor of Science degree from the Mapua Institute of Technology in the Philippines, an institution that is recognised here, Luacan moved to Singapore nine years ago with his wife. They now have two children, the youngest only eight months old.

“I was the youngest in the department, the last one to be hired. And during the retrenchment exercise, I was the first one to be kicked out, not because of the skill but because that’s the rule – last in, first out,” he lamented. “Until now, I’m still looking for a job. It’s been four months, and I’ve only had two interviews in this time. I think companies here give importance to the locals, but it’s the same in my country so I can understand that.”

Local employment here last year grew by 43,000 in spite of the economic recession. Foreign employment, however, fell by 4,200 in the same period. Some 1.05 million foreigners are employed in Singapore, making up more than 35 percent of the working population.

On top of fighting for limited employment opportunities with Singaporeans, skilled labour like Luacan also face intense competition from other migrant workers, some of whom are willing to settle for less than the market value.

“The market is spoilt,” he explained. Some foreigners, from Burma for example, are asking for a salary of 2,000 Singapore dollars (1,400 U.S. dollars) — or some 50 percent less than the salary Rod expects for his qualifications, skills and years of experience. “Maybe that’s a another problem why I still cannot get a job until now. But I’m still hopeful because Singapore is a very systematic country,” Luacan continued.

He belongs to a class known in Singapore as foreign talents – foreigners with professional qualifications and degrees working in the higher spectrum of the economy. Others, classified as foreign workers – the semi-skilled or unskilled workers who work mainly in the manufacturing, construction and domestic services sectors – face even greater challenges.

Thai national Chanarong Jaidee, who works in a shipyard in Singapore, has seen his income halved since the global recession torpedoed the shipping industry last year. Due to a shortage of ship repair jobs, the company Chanarong works for has had to employ a rotation system for manpower resources in order to cut costs and reduce labour inefficiency.

“Last time, I work almost every day. But I only work three to four days a week now. But there is no choice. The boss is very good, instead of asking us to go home, he tries to let us continue working sometimes and earn some money,” he said.

Now earning less than 800 Singapore dollars (565 U.S. dollars) a month, Chanarong struggles to continue to remit the same amount of money to his wife and three children living in Thailand, against the backdrop of the high cost of living in Singapore.

“We were saving for a new house, but that must wait now, until things become better again. My wife is also thinking of going back to work as a seamstress to help with the money. But it is very tiring, very tough for her, also to look after the children at the same time,” Chanarong explained.

With the recession affecting the primary breadwinners in the family, their spouses are stepping up to augment their income.

In the Luacan household, Rod’s wife now works as a part-time caregiver to support the family until he finds a job. “She is a registered nurse, but she is doing part-time work now. She cannot get a permanent job, so that there is no CPF (provident fund) deduction. At the moment, cash is more important than savings,” Luacan explained.

Foreigners who assume permanent resident status in Singapore are required by law to contribute part of their wages, between 5 and 20 percent, to the Central Provident Fund (CPF), the country’s social security savings scheme. And amid growing dissent among citizens over the influx of foreigners, permanent residents and migrant workers face tougher times ahead.

Permanent residents with children will be worse off from next year, because the Ministry of Education announced in January that it would slash subsidies for non-citizens studying in mainstream schools here.

Fees for permanent residents and international students will be increased in two stages over the next two years. School fees that are currently between 174 and 348 Singapore dollars (123 and 246 U.S. dollars) a year for residents will reach between 612 and 1,224 Singapore dollars (433 and 866 U.S. dollars) by 2012, depending on the level of education.

In January too, the Ministry of Health announced that it would be shaving off health subsidies to permanent residents by 10 percentage points to increase the distinction between citizens and foreigners residing here.

The city-state will also seek to cap the proportion of foreigners in the workforce at current levels.

“We cannot increase the number of foreign workers as liberally as we did over the last decade, or else we will run up against real physical and social limits,” said Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, chairing the economic strategies committee formed in May 2009 at the height of Singapore’s recession, in a report released early this month.

Already, the problems are mounting for migrant workers here. Credit Counselling Singapore (CCS), an organisation which provides counselling and helps debtors work out repayment plans, said new citizens and permanent residents are an emerging group struggling with credit card debt.

Many of those who have racked up large credit card debts, said the CCS, are professionals from various countries, including Malaysia, the Philippines and India, who earn 4,000 to 5,000 Singapore dollars a month. They run into debt because they have to support large families back home while having to pay rent and other expenses in Singapore.

(*This feature was produced by IPS Asia-Pacific under a series on the impact of the global economic crisis on children and young people, in partnership with UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific.)

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