After unprecedented levels of economic growth, the COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of what makes us human. Yet – it is in danger of becoming a reminder of how rapid increases in demand can dehumanise some of the most vulnerable in society – migrant workers.
Migrant workers, the new trading commodity in Singapore
The circuit breaker provisions that were issued in March this year has placed Singapore’s 300,000 migrant population into a state-enforced forced lock down. Spread mostly across the city-state’s 43 ‘mega-dormitories’ – where rooms sleep up to 20 with no air conditioning – workers are continuing to be left in a perpetual state of vulnerability and precarity.
Although mature labour legislation exists within Singapore, the gaps within its enforcement and coverage have been amplified by the current COVID-19 situation.
At its worst, there have been reports that migrant workers have been physically locked in to their dormitories as a measure to stop the spread of the virus. Even under a best case scenario, workers remain heavily dependent on their employers for the provision of basic needs such as accommodation and access to healthcare. Trapped under these conditions, workers are loath to complain about their current living conditions for fear of retributive action.
The government’s reaction to the second spike of cases within these dormitories and the language used when recording cases is symptomatic of what many have seen as a fundamental weakness in how Singapore administers responsibility for managing migrant workers. For example, The Ministry of Health has purposefully delineated cases based on whether they are present in the ‘community’ or in the dormitories, a clear inference that migrant workers are not to be seen as part of the ‘community’.
The disproportionate effect that the coronavirus is having on migrant workers in Singapore has its roots in a system of labour acquisition that is driven by deregulation and globalisation. Workers – who are predominantly from South Asia – are treated in a way that deliberately fosters dependence on actors that disempower and dehumanise them through a quest for their own gain.
Through this system, labour has been taken from something that is inherently ‘human’ and turned into a commodity that can be bought, sold, and traded. Workers often arrive in Singapore under the weight of hefty debts incurred through illicit cash payments made to recruitment agents and brokers along their recruitment journey.
The psychological pressure of working under a bonded regime is now further compounded by the dire living conditions that workers have to bear.
Dormitories such as Punggol S11 are a blunt contrast to the glittering skyline of Singapore’s central business district that only serves to elucidate the divide between Singapore and its migrant workforce.
Malaysia’s PPE ‘Heroes’
Malaysia is the world’s leading producer of surgical gloves – fulfilling roughly 67% of global demand before the crisis began. The demand has since sky-rocketed (increasing profits by 40% or even 100% in some cases) – meaning that glove factories have been given special permission to remain open at full capacity. The difficulty will be achieving this safely and ethically – considering the workers’ mental and physical health.
Impactt’s recent experience visiting five glove factories has revealed conditions where it is difficult to social distance – and reports confirm that this is only getting trickier.
Many workers live in unhygienic accommodation, with bed sharing, poor ventilation and a lack of running water. With increasing overtime from a surge in demand – hygiene will likely deteriorate further still.
Reports also note that one producer is inviting workers to work in a ‘Heroes for COVID’ scheme. This aims to meet the demand surge – but requires workers to work voluntarily on their days off, for a sum lower than both overtime and even their regular working wage. These migrant workers are almost universally subjected to heavy recruitment fees – which can take years to pay off.
Buyers have a responsibility to support the factories and their workers
The epicenter of this virus is now in the global west – but there is a real risk of western lives being protected at the cost of the lives of migrant workers. Buyers should engage responsibly with suppliers both now, and following the crisis, to protect the lives and livelihoods of some of the world’s most vulnerable workers. Despite the urgency of new procurement – supplier factories must be reminded of their ethical obligations towards their workers. Supplier codes of conduct and ethical procurement standards cannot simply be relaxed – as these are intended ultimately to save livelihoods, and indeed to save lives themselves.
Following the crisis, buyers should also review supplier performance with a particular focus on independent worker interviewing. Where factories were able to operate ethically, business incentives can be offered for continued contracts to honour these good practices. And where unethical behaviours are uncovered – buyers should not cut-and-run. They must support these factories to remediate practices, collaborating with stakeholders in private, public and charity sectors.
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