The Trafficking Research Project (TTRP) expresses concern about the government’s response to the riot that occurred in Little India, Singapore, on 8 December 2013. Notably, such social unrest is the first of its kind in four decades. As such, TTRP advocates that the time is ripe for a national reconsideration of both the immediate cause of the violence as well as the deep-seated inequality that shapes the treatment of migrant workers in Singapore.
The government’s response to the riot includes a targeted police presence in places migrants congregate (including dormitories) and a temporary ban on alcohol in Little India. A focus on criminal justice coupled with limited community outreach has likely frustrated both law enforcement attempts at information gathering as well as affected migrant workers, who have been encouraged to stay inside dormitories on their day off. Despite a call against xenophobic comments, official statements, such as those made by Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, perpetuate an “us” versus “them” rhetoric. Moreover, statements claiming a lack of evidence linking the riot to labor conditions may not take into account any systemic distrust in government authorities by migrant workers.
These short-term reactions will inadequately address long-term solutions to inequality breeding migrant worker discontent. Policies aiming to foster social inclusion and cohesion need to look beyond an emphasis on migrants as either an economic necessity or security threat and rather on rights-based protections, dignity and equality that should be afforded to all. Government responses to the riot may not necessitate a focus on human trafficking, but trafficking indicators often affect the lives and livelihoods of low-wage migrant workers in Singapore, such as exploitative recruitment practices, employer abuse and withholding wages, coupled with threats of deportation. Such indicators are included within a broader denial of migrant worker rights echoed in discriminatory practices (such as the exclusion of foreign domestic workers from the Employment Act and resulting lack of protection for rights related to working hours and employment termination).
TTRP argues that the government is presented with a chance to improve protections for migrant workers related to conditions of work and life in Singapore. Expertise on these issues exists within a number of well-respected NGOs. Subsequently, any robust inquiry into the riots and its short/long term effects would benefit from collaboration with local service providers. Drawing on this expertise to inform subsequent policymaking, for instance, on changes to legislation governing work permits, may dissuade further social unrest. Providing protections for migrant workers and working with directly affected groups increases trust between public authorities and marginalized communities. It may also generate positive public engagement with migrant worker groups. Since 2012, the Singapore Government has committed to taking a more robust and targeted approach to human trafficking, including commitments to collaboration with anti-trafficking partners. Mirroring this commitment, TTRP advocates a collaborative approach with local migrant worker NGOs, such as TWC2 and HOME, to address the causes of Sunday’s violence.