December - Labour: Singapore can do better

The year ended with a bang, quite literally, as Singapore witnessed its first riot in over 40 years, bringing the issue of foreign workers conditions in the city-state to the forefront again. Amid reports that not many in Singapore are giving a weekly rest day to their maids, the traditional sources to bring maids in the city-state such as the Philippines and Indonesia dried up, which lead to maid recruitment agencies turning to new sources including Myanmar and Cambodia. For construction workers too, new countries such as Sri Lanka were being explored. In a positive development, about 7,500 Marina Bay Sands employees were offered union membership in October after two-year-long lengthy negotiations. 

Little India Riot

A Committee of Inquiry (COI) has been appointed by the home affairs ministry to establish the factors and circumstances that led to the riot in Little India on December 8. It will also look into how the riot unfolded and how well the authorities responded. Moreover, the COI will also “consider whether current measures to manage such incidents in areas where foreign workers congregate such as Little India are adequate, and recommend any further measures to improve their management and reduce the risk of such incidents”.


It all started when Sakthivel Kumaravelu, a 33-year-old construction worker from Tamil Nadu, India, was run over by a private bus. A crowd of around 400 gathered and a riot ensued. 25 vehicles were damaged, and over 40 officers sustained injuries.

Investigations started the next day, followed all through the month of December and are still on. Around 25 arrests were made, 53 workers were repatriated back to India and 200 more were issued formal police advisories. Restriction orders on the sale and consumption of alcohol in the Little India area were also put in place, though much to the dismay of businesses there.   

Day-off for maids

The year started with a good news for the over 2,00,000 maids [or foreign domestic workers] in Singapore. It was a directive by the Ministry of Manpower for a weekly rest day to be given to maids in Singapore from January 1, 2013. But as the year went by, it seemed that the situation hadn't improved by much. Clarissa Oon, in her commentary in the Strait Times noted that checks “with six maid agencies in January showed that 70 percent of their 400 or so new customers employing maids were not likely to give them rest days at all until they had proven themselves to be trustworthy”. John Gee, immediate past president of the advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too quoted similar figures in his article published in July. 

From Myanmar and Cambodia

In another development, Manila-based Association of Licensed Recruitment Agencies decided to stop sending Filipino domestic workers to Singapore from September 2 this year in a dispute over who is to pay the placement fees for the maids – employer or the maid. This led to maid recruitment agencies in Singapore turning to new sources of domestic workers such as Myanmar and Cambodia.

But how far this will succeed is not clear, as parallel news reports of a rising numbers of maids from Myanmar running away from their Singapore employers surfaced in April.

In September, the pilot programme by the Ministry of Manpower for six selected employment agencies to bring in 400 maids from Cambodia, was also reported progressing very slowly due to problems in recruiting women back home.

From Sri Lanka

Meanwhile, in August, the first batch of construction workers from Sri Lanka arrived in Singapore. These workers were trained in a Building and Construction Authority (BCA) approved training centre in Colombo. As majority of over 300,000 construction workers in Singapore are from China and India [who are preferring to stay home due to booming economies], BCA is exploring new sources such as Sri Lanka to ease the shortfall. 

 New sports hub in construction to be ready by 2015 for hosting the 28th SEA Games 

New sports hub in construction to be ready by 2015 for hosting the 28th SEA Games