By Daryl Yang | Image provided by Saksham Mehrotra
On 17 January 2018, a panel discussion on migrant workers in Singapore was held at Saga College’s Lecture Theatre 1.
Organised by Community Impact, or ComPact, a Yale-NUS student organisation dedicated to increasing the involvement of students in off-campus community service, the event featured two advocates from migrant workers’ organisations in Singapore as well as two academics, Yale-NUS Associate Professor of Social Sciences Anju Paul and Ms. Tamera Fillinger, an adjunct faculty with the Singapore Management University School of Law.
Assoc Prof Paul is an international migration scholar with a research focus on migration to, from, and within Asia while Ms Fillinger is actively involved with Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a non-profit organisation that advocates for the equitable treatment for migrant workers in Singapore.
The other two speakers were Mr Bernard Menon, Executive Director of Migrant Workers Centre (MWC) and Ms Desiree Leong, who serves as a legal volunteer with the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME).
During the discussion, Assoc Prof Paul noted how migration is the ‘fastest and most efficient method for an individual and their family out of poverty’. She also highlighted that international agencies, such as the International Labour Organisation, are working towards reducing the cost of migration.
“A lot of the work I do is comparative, where I study across nationalities, countries and categories of migrants to uncover best practices that can be adopted across countries,” she added. To illustrate her point, she gave examples of how government policies on migrant labour vary across regions, with Europe and North America offering much stronger protections for migrant workers than Asian and Middle Eastern countries.
Questions for the panellists ranged from whether the government has a duty to protect the rights of migrant workers who are not citizens, to the slow reform of labour policies in favour of workers’ welfare. Members of the audience and the panelists also discussed whether the government should cater to the welfare of migrant workers who are non-voting citizens. Some highlighted how there should be some form of fundamental protection of the basic rights of workers regardless of their nationality while other audience members argued that the government is ultimately accountable only to its voting citizens.
According to Jay Ong (Class of 2021), a member of ComPact, one of the student organisation’s goals is to connect the Yale-NUS community with the community outside of the college.
“By inviting non-governmental organisation (NGO) representatives to be part of the panel, we wanted to highlight various day to day difficulties that they face in tackling migrant worker issues. While this panel aims to introduce the student population to the wide-ranging efforts currently pursued for such issues, we at ComPact hope that our other initiatives will further spur students to be actively involved in community service, including contributing to these efforts,” he explained.
A takeaway that Ilya Katrinnada (Class of 2018), one of the participants, learnt from the event was the important role that these organisations play in supporting migrant workers.
“I found out from the discussion that in a mediation process between a migrant worker and his/her employer, the migrant worker is not allowed to have a lawyer represent him/her. Understandably then, the odds are heavily stacked against his/her favour. This is why the work that the NGOs do in preparing workers for their case is important,” she added.
On why he decided to organise this event, Jay shared that he had previously volunteered with TWC2 and wanted to involve ComPact and the larger Yale-NUS community in this cause. While such panels have been organised previously, Jay explained that this event aimed to provide attendees the chance to learn more about these issues before involving them in contributing to the community.
“Even if there is no tangible impact in the form of active engagement, it is still meaningful to create the opportunity for people to learn more about these issues. These NGOs offer many meaningful opportunities for students to get involved and learn more about migrant workers in our society,” he added.
A project in the works is a series of financial literacy courses for migrant workers that ComPact is currently working with TWC2 to organise. “We have also gathered a group of volunteers who would like to volunteer with TWC2 for at least one semester (starting from this semester). This will be on a rolling basis and will be a recurring activity,” Jay added.
Apart from initiatives with the migrant workers’ community, ComPact also organises programmes targeted at other groups.
“Beyond organising panels to raise awareness of social issues, ComPact will continue to organise volunteering opportunities throughout the semester such as the KidsRead programme aimed at inculcating reading habits among children from low-income families. In the coming semester, we are also looking to expand our regular volunteering programmes with external partners in the community ranging from secondary schools to migrant workers,” Jay shared.