Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Foreign worker exploitation in Singapore

Reading Time: 3 minutes


By an Australian oil industry worker

I knew before I went to Singapore to do work on a rig in a shipyard that foreign workers were exploited but the actual experience was eye opening. By comparison the standards we worked under were positively regal compared to the Indian and Bangladeshi foreign workers.

The Indian and Bangladeshi workers don’t see their families for two years. They work five and a half to six days a week, 12 hours a day, and receive the princely sum of about $400-600 (Singapore dollars) a month for their sweat. Time is so short for these workers you can see hundreds of them sleeping on the lawn or under the job in the pre-dawn hour before the lift home. The project managers were appalled when the Australian workers demanded to go home after a month. They are too used to exploiting the workforce for the entire project without a break.

About a quarter are employed directly by the shipyard. The rest are employed through contractors. The shipyard employees arrive by bus but the contractors get a lift in the back of a truck. At the end of a shift you can see perhaps a hundred workers running toward their truck in order to get a decent position on the back. Literally thousands of such trucks ply the roads of Singapore each day.

The shipyard has lots of signs talking about safety everywhere and apparently it has improved compared to previous years. But every year workers die there. Just a few months ago a scaffolder fell to his death because his harness was not secured.
These scaffolders do the most dangerous work of all. Seeing a scaffolder standing on a pipe, 10 stories high, tied up with a wire rope, makes one shiver.

Personal Protective Equipment is prominent in the advertising but no one wears ears plugs despite the noise and hardly anyone wears gloves unless they’re welding. If you put your gloves down somewhere for any length of time they are sure to go missing. The workers don’t even wear them themselves but sell them on for a few more dollars.

Despite having to put up with these horrible conditions these workers are decent, pleasant, hard working people. The experience demonstrated once again the adage “rich and dirty, poor and clean”.

These global shipping and oil industry corporations are creaming off super profits by exploiting workers from low wage countries. Singapore is built on the sweat of cheap foreign labour.

We need to end this super exploitation. Only by nationalising these huge corporations and placing them under democratic workers control can we make these workplaces more human. If the shipbuilding has to be done in Singapore, foreign workers should be allowed to bring their families with them and be provided with education, social facilities and all the freedoms needed for a family.

Alternatively there should be regular flights home for these workers. The company union needs to be replaced with a genuine democratic and fighting union that has a direct input into the management of the company. Safety would be paramount and the correct equipment would be brought in to make the workplace safe. No one would feel the need to risk their life for work and no one would receive poverty level wages for it.


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