SINGAPORE: Labour pains as COVID-19 challenges dependence on migrant workers


The COVID-19 pandemic is increasingly challenging the high dependency of many countries, including Singapore, on foreign imported labour. According to an International Monetary Fund estimate, in 2019 Singapore per capita income had reached USD63, 987, the fifth highest in the world and only surpassed by Macau in Asia. Over the past three decades Singapore has built a huge number of apartments for its citizens, offices and hotels for international companies and visitors, world-class infrastructure and maintained heavy industries - all largely dependent on imported or migrant labour.

According to Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower, in December 2019 the total foreign labour force in the country of around 5.07 million people, excluding more 260,000 foreign domestic workers, was 1,165,600 of whom almost 300,000 were engaged in the construction and industrial sectors. The vast majority of the latter group of workers are housed in more than 40 so-called ‘dormitories’ located in the industrial areas or on-site in factory compounds.

COVID-19 has swept through these densely packed communities at the rate up to 800 or 900 cases a day, while infections within the ‘settled’ population have declined to single figure numbers. As of late May more than 32,000 cases were recorded, albeit with the remarkably low number of 23 deaths. By contrast Hong Kong, with a population of around seven million, has recorded 1,066 cases and four deaths to date. The difference between the number of infections in the two wealthy economies reflects Singapore’s extensive use of regimented migrant labour and its total absence in Hong Kong.  

What appears evident is that the Singapore government’s policy, in line with most Gulf states, of isolating and containing its migrant workers, most of whom are from South Asia and Myanmar, reveals an attitude increasingly viewed as discriminatory both at home and overseas. Although such criticism is unlikely to trouble the government, the sheer number of migrant workers has since the pandemic begun to disturb the local community due to widespread perceptions that the network of dormitories may continue to serve as ‘reservoirs’ of COVID-19 infections, particularly if an anticipated ‘second wave’ - or indeed the next pandemic – emerges. For many low-income Singaporeans the migrant workers also represent a persistent economic threat through their ability to undercut wages.

An election due to be held in 2021 will result in political power in Singapore being handed on to a new generation of leaders, and the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is unlikely to wish to see the polls dominated by such emotive issue as migrants, health and income. Following similar popular opposition to the large number of migrants from China, the government actively encouraged to settle in Singapore to compensate for the country’s low birth rate, the authorities reversed their policy after the 2011 general election when PAP recorded the lowest share of vote since independence. The ‘nativist’ movement that helped create that outcome has since re-emerged and appears to gaining support. 

However, unlike simply restricting the number of immigrants from China any response to local concerns over the huge number of foreign workers will require a major reassessment of Singapore’s economic model that has long depended on almost constant infrastructure and housing construction.

The long term utility of some industries such as ship repairing and oil rig construction that consume a great deal of land on the 720 square kilometre island could, during what is certain to be period of weak demand, be quickly reassessed and either downsized or abandoned. Building techniques that emphasise the greater use of technology over labour can be also be quickly introduced, as they have been elsewhere. Any reduction in the numbers of migrant workers would also serve to deflate opposition to those who remain, while the loss of employment due to COVID-19 that may be lost forever will deepen the pool of local workers willing to take at least some of jobs formally reserved for migrant labour, albeit for higher pay.

The conversation over the shape of Singapore’s post-COVID economy and migrant worker policy has already begun. Given the past actions by the government when faced with crises or challenges to its ‘model’, decisions on the future shape and size of the foreign labour force are likely to be decisive and released once the pandemic is deemed under control.


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