In Singapore, Construction Sites are the ‘New Sweatshops’

Well, actually, not that new.

Jolovan Wham recently posted on Facebook the case of Shan Jian Xin Construction Pte Ltd. (SJX), in which their construction workers were made to sign a contract with clauses that violated local labour laws (for e.g. ‘The worker works fully for the whole year without rest’, ‘The employee is not entitled to wages while on MC’, etc.). When some SJX workers resigned due to a pay dispute and filed complaints with the Ministry of Manpower, the employer responded with a list of contestable deductions, effectively reducing their net pay to $76 (see image below).

SJX Construction

According to Wham:

Instead of prohibiting these deductions, the MOM officer told the workers the employer is penalizing them in this way for fear of their colleagues lodging similar complaints. The officer said if they are not satisfied with the employer’s decision, they should take their case to labour court, which in my experience may take a few months to resolve. Without any income such an option is not realistic.

What Wham described brought me back to events some seven years ago (see Yawning Bread’s account, here). [Meanwhile, latest update on the SJX case here]

In 2008-2009, I met with group after group of construction workers from China building our much-heralded casinos who were bound by contracts with illegal, unreasonable and contradictory terms. These contract terms denied the men overtime payments, rest days, annual leave and medical leave. Quite a few men also suffered workplace injuries which were unreported, and were sent to a doctor who gave them only two-day MCs regardless of the severity of their injuries – one had a portion of his index finger chopped off, and was left bleeding profusely for four hours because his supervisor said there was ‘no available car’. (Incidentally, I keep seeing ads of this notorious ‘two-day MC’ orthopedic surgeon popping up on my screen when I browse the Straits Times online.)

The construction workers also complained of withheld wages (at least three months), arbitrary and fluctuating wages under a non-transparent wage system, excessive work hours (one worker fractured his leg after coming off a 36-hour shift), illegal/contestable deductions and appalling living conditions (one of them commented: ‘Even back in China, workers don’t live as poorly as this’). When they filed complaints over withheld wages and unpaid overtime, mediations with authorities were protracted, and the workers continued to be held to these employment contracts, which were often signed in the following manner: after having paid thousands of dollars in agency fees – and having spent months undergoing skills training – the migrant worker will be presented an employment contract just before leaving for Singapore. This is done hurriedly, and if the workers object, they are told their agency fees will be forfeited and they won’t be able to board the plane for Singapore. So they sign – after which the employment contracts are taken away from them.

Many of the workers I met were hired by a subcontractor, Xuyi Building Engineering, and their employment contracts closely resemble SJX’s contract (see below). Equally similar are the ways salary slips and payment records are manipulated to ensure workers who file complaints don’t get their due wages, including inserting clauses for excessive deductions so workers who are exploited are not able to leave their jobs without hefty penalties. Just as disturbing is the apathy displayed by some MOM officers during mediations, in which workers are held to contracts with illegal and unreasonable terms, instead of employers being tasked to follow our (already weak) labour laws and reminded to ensure workers are hired under contractual terms that are fair. Absolutely frustrating is the institutional inertia displayed towards the unethical practices of such companies, which have been in place for years now, and which have been documented by several NGO reports [1], newspaper articles, and in closed-door sessions with the authorities. In fact, the company, Xuyi Building Engineering, is still operating, just under a different name.

When those who are concerned with labour rights violations continue to point out the inconsistencies in the ‘tough stance’ the MOM professes to adopt towards errant employers, and actual practices on the ground, we are often criticized for being harsh, or constantly complaining, or taking an ‘emotive’ stance. These complaints, however, are not based on conjecture, or our imagination – it is based on the daily, weekly, monthly witnessing by NGO case workers and volunteers, of case after case (after case) of migrant workers being cheated of their wages, living in abject conditions, working long, long shifts, and under hazardous work conditions [2]. Yes, it is true such conditions are not unique to Singapore, exploited migrant workers are a growing phenomenon in many industrialized countries. This, however, remains a poor excuse for inaction.  We do not live in a ‘weak state’, in which law enforcement is lax. This is a government who has shown its ‘zero tolerance’ approach to select ‘violations’. Also, unlike other countries in which migrant workers and other exploited workers are organizing to improve their wages and working conditions, in Singapore, any such moves are quickly quelled by the authorities, and our unions are either reluctant or unable to adequately represent migrant workers (and local workers too, it must be noted).

The SJX case, surfacing as it does now, after the authorities have started to adopt the rhetoric of ‘better workers’ rights and wellbeing’ – most notably after the SMRT bus strike – is disappointing and revealing. In trying to understand the contradictions between official rhetoric, labour migration policies and ‘on the ground’ practices, I have found the work of Joseph Carens and Stephen Castles useful [3]. Castles, for example, points out how it is important for assessments of policy failures to include a critical interrogation of official goals – fearful of opposition, policymakers may, after all, be hiding their true objectives. A recommended yardstick to determine hidden agendas is ‘the failure to use effective measures to achieve declared objectives – even when such measures are obvious and available’. As Carens notes:

It may sometimes be the case that the ineffectiveness of employer sanctions is intended, at least by some of those designing or implementing the policy, because the presence of the restrictive policy on the books satisfies one political constituency, while weak implementation satisfies another.

Castles also highlights the hypocrisy of official rules, with governments orchestrating widely publicized ‘crack-downs’ to quell public hostility towards migrant workers, while tacitly permitting irregularities to continue in order to meet employer demand.

Migrant workers are frequently referred to as ‘cheap labour’, but their precariousness is due to more than the low wages they are paid. There are a whole range of practices and mediating agents involved in ensuring that the low-paid migrant workforce remains disciplined, compliant and deportable. While many Singaporeans also experience a ‘rights deficit’ in various dimensions of their lives, ignoring the ways in which a significant social group in our midst is persistently bullied, underpaid and marginalized does nothing to alleviate our collective and intertwined oppression.

This SJX case – and all the other cases NGOs continue to encounter – only goes to show that in this country, where so much of what we cherish is swiftly demolished, and where we are told constantly to ‘embrace change’ (or die a slow, uneconomic death), some things, unfortunately, don’t change very much at all.

Here are the time cards of some construction workers who were building our casinos:


Note the 26 hour-shift on Days 8 and 9, followed by 13 hour-shifts over the next three days.

There is no rest day for the month.


Photographs of the shophouse dormitory where some of them lived:

cwd01a cwd05a

Contract clauses in their employment contract that violated local laws:

  • The denial of overtime pay, annual leave, medical leave and additional payments for work done on public holidays (Clauses 2.2; 3.1; 3.2);
  • The withholding of workers’ work permits and passports (Clause 2.13);
  • The withholding of salaries for three months (Clause 3.4);
  • A non-refundable $1000 deduction from workers’ salaries for Hai Xing’s ‘various expenditures, service and
    management expenses’ (Clause 4.4);
  • Denying the payment of outpatient treatment for workers who have suffered an industrial injury (Clause 6.2);
  • Refusal to pay workers salaries while on medical leave (Clause 6.10);
  • Deducting money from workers’ salaries for mandatory medical insurance (Clause 6.12).

Contract clauses that may not be deemed illegal but are nonetheless viewed as unreasonable and/or exploitative include:

  • Workers must not refuse ‘taking on work that is different from their own specialization’ – refusal to abide by such arrangements may result in punishment (Clause 2.5);
  • Workers who raise their voice to scold management staff or crack indecent jokes may be fined $100 (Clause 2.10);
  • Workers who make complaints to government departments in Singapore may be fined between $100-$300 for the administrative and transport fees required to sort out the problem (Clause 2.11; 6.2);
  • The employer has the unilateral right to make either upward or downward adjustments to the payment system (Clause 3.7);
  • In the event work is not available – due to lack of work projects or work stoppages – workers would be ‘subsidized’ at a rate of $6-$8 a day; deductions from workers’ salaries for food, accommodation and utilities will nonetheless remain constant (Clause 3.9);
  • Workers’ skills certificates are to be withheld by the employer during the period of employment (Clause 4.2);
  • Workers who do not fulfil their two-year contract for whatever reason shall compensate the employer by paying $200 a month for each remaining month not fulfilled. All other expenses already paid for by the worker will be forfeited (Clause 7.2).


[1] HOME, The Exploitation of Migrant Chinese Construction Workers in Singapore (Singapore: HOME, 2011); HOME and TWC2, Justice Delayed, Justice Denied: The Experiences of Migrant Workers in Singapore (Singapore: HOME and TWC2, 2010); Aris Chan, Hired on Sufferance: China’s Migrant Workers in Singapore (Hong Kong: China Labour Bulletin, February 2011).

[2] In Singapore, the industries that rely heavily on low-paid migrant workers, namely, construction, marine and manufacturing, are the industries with the highest incidences of worker fatalities and work injuries. While the overall worker fatality rate was 2.9 per 100,000 workers in 2009, the fatality rate in the construction sector was 8.1 per 100,000 workers; in the marine sector, it was 11.1 per 100,000 persons – this makes construction sites and shipyards the riskiest worksites in Singapore. In 2009, 63 percent of the 70 workers who lost their lives were from the construction and marine sectors; these two sectors also accounted for three quarters of permanent disability cases. The statistics have remained troubling – in 2012, of the 56 fatal workplace accidents, 26 were in the construction sector. It is just September, but according to today’s Straits Times (‘“Mighty Snap” as Crane Boom Collapses’, Oct 1, 2013), there have already been 15 workplace fatalities in the construction sector this year.

[3] Stephen Castles, ‘Forces Driving Global Migration’, Journal of Intercultural Studies 34, no.2 (2013): 131; Stephen Castles, ‘The Factors that Make and Unmake Migration Policies’, International Migration Review 38, no.3 (2004): 854; Joseph H. Carens, ‘The Rights of Irregular Migrants.’ Ethics & International Affairs 22, no.2 (Summer 2008): 185.