Faced with low wages and poor working conditions, Singapore's migrant workers are beginning to get restless. Last year, a fierce riot broke out in the suburb of Little India, after an Indian worker died in a road accident. The riot was as violent as it was rare (the last riot took place in 1969) and provoked intense scrutiny into how migrant workers are treated in the country.
Although Singapore's prime minister Lee Hsien Loong dismissed the riot as an "isolated incident arising from unlawful actions of an unruly mob", others saw it as an expression of long-simmering discontent. An editorial in The New York Times argued that migrant workers were "underappreciated and underpaid", and attributed the riot to systematic problems with migrant living conditions.
The riot was not caused solely by migrant working conditions. Other factors included alcohol and anger at the way the police responded in the early stages.
According to Jolovan Wham of Home, an organisation that supports migrant workers in Singapore, "it has been observable, particularly over the past couple of years, that riots tend to occur among marginalised groups. This is a characteristic for many large-scale riots around the world."
"Regardless of the causes of the riot", Wham adds, "it is a good opportunity for us to reflect and re-think our attitudes, policies, and laws which affect migrant workers."
Singapore offers no minimum wage for its migrant population, and little in the way of legislative protection. Union representation is extremely limited, and organised public demonstrations – unless you are a Singaporean citizen – are banned.
And if you get injured on the job, chances are you'll need to fight for compensation, battling recalcitrant employers who delay payouts beyond reasonable waiting times or resist altogether – by denying that accidents took place on site, by taking you to a "company" doctor who downgrades the seriousness of injuries, or by forcibly repatriating you.
According to Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), most cases take between three and six months to be resolved, while other cases have been stalled for over a year. Some workers have been waiting more than two years for compensation – and are still waiting.
Moreover, workers receive no economic support from the government while their cases are being assessed, and although they are entitled to medical leave, their employers don't always pay up.
Debbie Fordyce, an executive committee member of TWC2, says most cases she sees are salary disputes, compensation claims and medical problems. The organisation registers between 180 to 200 new cases each month, and at any one time is helping to resolve around 500 cases.
Fordyce points out, however, that there is no way of knowing the number of individuals who who suffer similar problems but do not complain.
According to Wham, "The employer's unilateral right to cancel their work permits is a disincentive to file complaints. As a result the number of complaints lodged is not really indicative of the volume of issues being faced out there by workers."
Fordyce adds that this also makes workers vulnerable to long-term exploitation. "Recently I met four men from a landscaping company who told me how pleased they were with their job, their boss, their living arrangements … only to later admit that they hadn't been paid for 15 months. They didn't want to complain, afraid that if they did, they'd lose everything."
Migrant workers often arrive in Singapore with serious debts, from training and recruitment fees incurred in their own countries. First-time Bangladeshi migrants accumulate an average debt of $7,256 (£4,316) according to a 2012 report by TWC2. With a starting wage of $18 (£11) a day, it takes nearly a year and a half just to recover their initial costs.
These debts compel migrants to work long hours and to accept conditions that would otherwise be insupportable. John Gee, a prominent human rights activist in Singapore, says: "Most migrants welcome overtime work, and it is very normal for men in the construction sector to work a lot of overtime. The legal maximum is an extra four hours a day, but we see many signs of this being exceeded."
He adds: "One accident on a building site in January was reported in the early hours of the morning: what were men doing working so late into the night?"
Such questions require urgent attention, and cannot go unanswered in a country of Singapore's wealth. The country has the world's highest proportion of millionaires per capita. According to WealthInsight, nearly one in 20 Singaporeans will be millionaires by 2017. But these first world indicators – although it is an open question whether a society of elite millionaires is a sign of progress – continue to exist alongside third world conditions.
As Gee says: "When assessing educational standards or economic performance, Singapore compares itself to the best countries in the world. So why does it change its standards when it comes to human rights?"