A COVID-19 surge has exposed Singapore’s migrant-worker blind spot

More on Singapore, migrant workers and COVID-19:

As a former journalist working in the thick of things in Asia, my favourite assignment was an annual interview with the founder of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, for Forbes magazine.

A man with an unparalleled grasp of history, a steely gaze and incredible discipline, Mr. Lee knew that in a country such as Singapore – home to a multiracial society, and sitting on an island with almost no natural resources – incredible stamina would be needed to survive. He set in motion a series of policies that catapulted the former British colony into one of the world’s wealthiest enclaves in the span of a few decades. The country is now home to one of the globe’s busiest shipping-container ports and the tenth-largest foreign reserves.

Against all odds, Singapore has survived racial riots, several disease outbreaks, economic downturns and seasonal bouts of debilitating pollution haze from neighbouring countries. Its ability to respond quickly to external threats is credited to its small size, compliant citizenry and place among the world’s most wired nations.

So it came as little surprise that when COVID-19 began to take off, Singapore quickly set the gold standard in its public health response, with early and aggressive testing, meticulous contact tracing, quarantines and travel restrictions. Until recently, it managed to keep the number of positive cases to fewer than 200.

Mr. Lee would have been proud.

But a major blind spot threw the country off-course: it failed to consider the congested dormitories that house 180,000 migrant workers across the island, which became perfect vectors for disease transmission. That oversight has cost the city-state dearly. The number of positive coronavirus cases in the country has surpassed 24,000 – up from 16,000 cases just a week ago – representing, by far, the largest caseload in all of Southeast Asia.

These workers now account for almost 90 per cent of coronavirus cases in Singapore. All are now under quarantine, at a high cost to the country’s economy.

For a government that never leaves even the smallest detail to chance, the blind spot has been a political embarrassment. Singapore’s traditional rival and much larger neighbour, Malaysia, has many more migrant workers and has managed to keep its number of positive COVID-19 cases to fewer than 7,000. Malaysia also started implementing lockdowns earlier than Singapore did.

Strangely, precautions were not put into place even though Singapore’s migrant-worker dormitories have previously suffered outbreaks of measles, dengue fever, tuberculosis and the Zika virus.

The situation has also generated significant foreign-media coverage, exposing the workers’ low pay, congested and often unhygienic living conditions, hazardous working environments, and abuse by employers.

In fairness, many Western countries, including Canada, have also had their weak spots for viral transmission exposed in the fight against COVID-19, including long-term care homes, penitentiaries and meat-processing facilities.

Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, who is the elder Mr. Lee’s son, has introduced measures that will make the dormitories much more secure in the future. Unlike many other world leaders, he has been open in his communication with Singaporeans, stating that normalcy could be months away until a vaccine is developed.

In a memorable televised speech on April 21, Mr. Lee struck a compassionate tone in addressing the country’s migrant workers: “We will care for you, just like we care for Singaporeans.”

The good news is that the government, supported by “Singapore, Inc.” (a term coined to describe the country’s economic expansion strategy in the 20th century), is throwing all it can into the fight against this pandemic, including money, technology and targeted public health messaging. Even robots have been deployed to help maintain physical distancing in parks. Policies known as “circuit-breaker measures,” including stay-at-home orders, will remain in place until at least June.

In my countless interviews with Singapore, Inc.’s leaders in the past, I cannot recall one word ever uttered about the contribution of migrant workers, who come mainly from Bangladesh, India, Malaysia and China.

But as has happened in North America and elsewhere, ordinary citizens have developed a newfound appreciation for front-line labourers – charitablesupport funds for Singapore’s dormitory workers have been heavily supported.

In the longer term, Singapore will have to work hard to deal with a huge plunge in tourism, business travel, shipping and oil refining – all linchpins of its economy.

The country’s post-COVID-19 reset will need to include a look at its weaknesses, starting with the conditions experienced by migrant workers. These workers need to be recognized for who they are – as critical contributors to Singapore’s success story.

Source: A COVID-19 surge has exposed Singapore’s migrant-worker blind spot: Michael Bociurkiw

The persistence of history | Islam and Slavery – The Economist

Good and needed piece:

But while IS’s embrace of outright slavery has been singled out for censure, religious and political leaders have been more circumspect about other “slave-like” conditions prevalent across the region. IS’s targeting of an entire sect for kidnapping, killing and sex trafficking, and its bragging, are exceptional; forced labour for sexual and other forms of exploitation is not. From Morocco, where thousands of children work as petites bonnes, or maids, to the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan where girls are forced into prostitution, to the unsanctioned rape and abuse of domestics in the Gulf, aid workers say servitude is rife.

Scholars are sharply divided over how much cultural mores are to blame. Apologists say that, in a concession to the age, the Prophet Muhammad tolerated slavery, but—according to a prominent American theologian trained in Salifi seminaries, Yasir Qadhi—he did so grudgingly and advocated abolition. Repeatedly in the Koran the Prophet calls for the manumission of slaves and release of captives, seeking to alleviate the slave systems run by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Jewish Himyarite kings of Yemen. He freed one slave, a chief’s daughter, by marrying her, and chose Bilal, another slave he had freed, to recite the first call to prayer after his conquest of Mecca. His message was liberation from worldly oppression, says Mr Qadhi—enslavement to God, not man.

Other scholars insist, however, that IS’s treatment of Yazidis adheres to Islamic tradition. “They are in full compliance with Koranic understanding in its early stages,” says Professor Ehud Toledano, a leading authority on Islamic slavery at Tel Aviv University. Moreover, “what the Prophet has permitted, Muslims cannot forbid.” The Prophet’s calls to release slaves only spurred a search for fresh stock as the new empire spread, driven by commerce, from sub-Saharan Africa to the Persian Gulf.

… No labour practice has drawn more international criticism than the kafala system, which ties migrant workers to their employers. This is not slavery as IS imposes it; migrants come voluntarily, drawn by the huge wealth gap between their own countries and the Gulf. But the system “facilitates slavery”, says Nicholas McGeehan, who reports for Human Rights Watch on conditions in the desert camps where most such workers live. The Gulf’s 2.4m domestic servants are even more vulnerable. Most do not enjoy the least protection under labour laws. Housed and, in some cases, locked in under their employer’s roof, they are prey to sexual exploitation.

Again, these workers have come voluntarily; but disquieting echoes persist. Many Gulf nationals can be heard referring to their domestics as malikat (slaves). Since several Asian governments have suspended or banned their female nationals from domestic work in the Gulf out of concern for their welfare, recruitment agencies are turning to parts of Africa, such as Uganda, which once exported female slaves. Some domestic servants are abused with irons and red-hot bars: resonant, says Mr McGeehan, of slave-branding in the past.

….Gulf states insist they are dealing with the problem. In June Kuwait’s parliament granted domestic servants labour rights, the first Gulf state to do so. It is also the only Gulf state to have opened a refuge for female migrants. Qatar, fearful that reported abuses might upset its hosting of the World Cup in 2022, has promised to improve migrant housing. And earlier this year Mauritania’s government ordered preachers at Friday prayers to publicise a fatwa by the country’s leading clerics declaring: “Slavery has no legal foundation in sharia law.” Observers fear, though, that this is window-dressing. And Kuwait’s emir has yet to ratify the new labour-rights law.

Rather than stop the abuse, Gulf officials prefer to round on their critics, accusing them of Islamophobia just as their forebears did. Oman and Saudi Arabia have long been closed to Western human-rights groups investigating the treatment of migrants. Now the UAE and Qatar, under pressure after a wave of fatalities among workers building venues for the 2022 World Cup, are keeping them out, too.

Internal protests are even riskier. Over the past two years hundreds of migrant labourers building Abu Dhabi’s Guggenheim and Louvre museums have been detained, roughed up and deported, says Human Rights Watch, after strikes over unpaid wages. Aminetou Mint Moctar, a rare Mauritanian Arab on the board of SOS Esclaves, a local association campaigning for the rights of haratin, or descendants of black slaves, has received death threats.

Is it too much to hope that the Islamic clerics denouncing slavery might also condemn other instances of forced and abusive labour? Activists and Gulf migrants are doubtful. Even migrants’ own embassies can be strangely mute, not wanting criticism to curb the vital flow of remittances. When Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, visited the UAE this week, his nationals there complained that migrant rights were last on his list. Western governments generally have other priorities. One is simply to defeat IS, whose extreme revival of slavery owes at least something to the region’s persistent and pervasive tolerance of servitude.

The persistence of history | The Economist.