Singapore: Handling of riot aftermath exposes national laws and practices that violate international standards

On the night of 8 December 2013, an unfortunate fatal accident sparked off a spontaneous outbreak of rioting by migrant workers in Singapore. At least 28 persons involved in the act had been incriminated and are currently facing trial in the local courts of justice. Another 57 workers were deported, 200 issued with police advisories, and allegations of police violence have been raised by a number of those in custody. These developments in the past week expose a recurring weakness in the local administration of justice falling short of international standards. Think Centre expresses grave concerns regarding the apparent discordant gap of Singapore laws and practices in violation of international standards in the treatment and handling of migrant workers.

Commitment to International Labour Standards

International standards governing the management of migrant workers facing expulsion are defined under the various conventions and recommendations of the International Labour Organisation and the United Nations. In particular we refer to ILO Recommendation 151 and Convention 143 and the UN Convention on the Protection of Rights for All Migrant workers and Members of Their Families (UN CMW).

Under clause 33 of ILO Recommendation 151 and Article 9 of Convention 143, migrant workers are entitled to the right of appeal regarding any expulsion orders. Further to which, article 22 of the UN CMW spells out clearly that migrant workers shall not be subjected to collective expulsion and in any case of expulsion, it has to be examined and decided individually. It also provides for a process for appeal against any executive or administrative decision unless a final decision has been reached by a judicial authority. Singapore has failed to ratify both ILO Convention 143 and the UN CMW.

However, Singapore did accept or at least did not oppose to committing to the Core Labour Standards adopted in the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and in the 2008 Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization. It also bears reminding that the government is also committed to the 2007 ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion on the Rights of Migrant Workers to facilitate the access to justice for migrant workers.

These are international standards which should be respected and incorporated into the local framework on the management of labour and migrant workers’ rights. This should be the prerequisite to enter into the Free Trade Agreement with the European Union and the upcoming 2015 ASEAN Economic Community integration. Without such a comprehensive and coherent labour framework, local workers and migrant workers will be pitted against one another in a competitive labour market and both groups will suffer from the lack of adequate social and labour rights protections.

Analysis of where local legislations fall short of international standards

Under the current Employment of Foreign Manpower Act’s (EFMA) Fourth Schedule, Part VI, clause number 8 says that “foreign employee shall not be involved in any illegal, immoral or undesirable activities, including breaking up families in Singapore”. However, there is no specific reference as to what would be the action taken under the law if a holder of a work permit ‘transgresses’ this particular clause. If the 57 workers deported were indeed involved in illegal or undesirable activities, it would be reasonable to assume that the illegality of their involvement in the Little India Riot should have been established under the relevant laws. Which in this case should, at the minimum, invoke clauses 36, and 37 of the Public Order Act (POA) and clause 20 of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance Act). But based on existing public reports and accounts, there appear to be no explicit instances of the 57 workers being produced in a court of law confirming their culpability. Instead, we have a situation whereby the workers are pronounced to be deported through executive fiat, and are accordingly to be treated under the Immigration Act (Cap 133).

The Immigration Act’s Part III, clause 14 part 4(c) kicks in once a work permit has been revoked. As it has been shown, it is unclear under what specific legal grounds the 57 work permits were revoked on. Further examination of part 6 of clause 14 does allow for a person whose permit has been cancelled to appeal to the Minister, whose decision is final. Thus there appears to be an avenue for the workers to appeal against the executive decision. However again, even if an appeal is lodged, clause 33 subsection 4 prevents the appeal from performing as a stay on the expulsion order; and subsection 5 automatically invalidates any existing valid work permit.

The operation of the Immigration Act manifestly falls short of international standards. It’s clause 33, subsection 4, directly contravenes the ILO Recommendation 151’s clause 33 which states that any appeal by the worker “should stay the execution of the expulsion order, subject to the duly substantiated requirements of national security or public order”. Even if national security or public order is cited as the reasons, they should be clearly substantiated. However in this case it is clearly counteracted by the Immigration Act’s clause 33’s subsection 6 which allow the authorities leeway to not disclose the actual reasons for the deportation order. Yet, the recent justification of the deportation order based on the authorities’ assessment successfully demonstrated the failure to clarify the legal, national security or public order grounds.

Thus in the case of the Little India riot, it is not clear if any of these 57 workers were involved in any capacity, nor is there clarity on the due process. Their deportation which begun on 19 December 2013 may also result in less corroborating evidence or testimonies as to the actual cause of the riot. Moreover, what benefit was it for any individual to provide accurate recollection of the incident for the Committee of Inquiry when it was certain that they would be deported. Also, while the riot is clearly not a case of labour dispute or strike, the system’s treatment of the workers is uncannily similar to last year’s Chinese bus drivers’ strike case.

With regard to the allegations surfacing about police brutality during the interrogation process, TC refers back to the recommendation it endorsed in a joint civil society statement issued earlier in May this year. We strongly reiterate that to better address and put to rest the issues raised on the treatment of accused persons in custody and those under investigation, we urge the government to provide and improve training programmes on human rights for the judiciary and law enforcement personnel as recommended to Singapore during its first Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The MHA should actively consider reviewing their procedures to implement audio and video recorded interrogation and enhancing all investigation processes to respect, protect and uphold human rights.

It’s time for Singapore to respect, to protect, and to fulfil human rights without reservations

In the final analysis, there is a huge gap between Singapore’s local laws and practices in comparison with internationally accepted standards. Singapore’s reliance on migrant labour cannot be sustained in a system which treats all human labour as a commodity to leverage towards its productivity goals. And when administrative expediency is prized over the substantive rule of law, we will see that the results are unfair and unjust working conditions for all workers. In this regard, Think Centre strongly urges that until Singapore rectifies its current deficient social and labour framework, Free Trade Agreements that affect the labour flow and its management should be delayed. Singapore can do this by first fully ratify the ILO’s core labour instruments that protect the rights of all workers, and further complement it by signing on in 2015 the expected ASEAN Instrument on the rights and protection of migrant workers that raises the level of protection and promotion of migrant workers’ rights to international standards.

The ongoing EU-Singapore FTA process should be conducted in compliance with the European Union’s external trade requirement as stated in Article 21 of the Treaty on European Union. As such, the EU-Singapore FTA must be within the human rights framework requiring a “political clause” with scope for Civil Society and Trade Unions to monitor the implementation of basic human rights, and fundamental principles and rights at work. Singapore must recognise and respect that even the World Trade Organisation’s framework calls for human rights and labour standards to be embedded in any free trade agreement. Today, human rights are seen as universally applicable legal norms. It is time for Singapore to respect, to protect, and to fulfil human rights without reservations.