It is well-known that many of the blue-collar industries in Singapore is filled with mainly foreign workers. These workers typically occupy the jobs within the construction and marine industries. As of June 2016, the total foreign workforce in the construction industry is at 326,700 (Ministry of Manpower Singapore, 2016). These workers hailing from South East Asian countries like Malaysia, Myanmar, China, India and Bangladesh (Ministry of Manpower Singapore, 2016) engage agents from their home country to act as middlemen to employers in Singapore. Agency fees can vary from SGD$1000 to as high as SGD$10,000, depending on the country of origin (Transient Workers Count Too, 2013). Once in Singapore, the workers are provided with a work permit which assigns them to a specific employer. In addition, the conditions of the work permit offer them little job mobility unless given permission by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) (Ministry of Manpower Singapore, 2015).

The dangerous conditions of their job often place them in precarious situations that may lead to injuries (major or minor). In 2015, with a construction workforce of 32600, there were a total of 157 and 2076 reported cases of major and minor injuries respectively (Ministry of Manpower Singapore , 2015). Therefore, it is mandatory for employers to purchase insurance for every work permit holder (Ministry of Manpower Singapore, 2016). If injured during work, the workers have the right to seek medical treatment with the cost borne by the employer. In some cases, during an injury, the employers would cancel the workers’ work permit and immediately try to repatriate them back to their home country before finding a replacement worker (Koh & Nicholas, 2015). Mainly due to the fear of repatriation, workers may hide their injuries so that they can continue to work in Singapore and earn enough to pay off their agency fees and to support their families back home This is possible under the Work Injury Compensation Act (Ministry of Manpower Singapore, 2015). The WICA process can last on average 3 to 6 months (Ministry of Manpower Singapore, 2015) but there are cases where it can prolong for up to 2 years (Transient Workers Count Too, 2015). During this period, the workers are given a temporary pass to remain in Singapore called the Special Pass (SP). Workers under this pass are allowed to stay in Singapore but are unable to work (Ministry of Manpower Singapore, 2016) unless given permission through the Temporary Job Scheme (Ministry of Manpower Singapore, 2014). Also within the conditions of the SP, the workers’ upkeep and maintenance is to be managed by their previous employers. This includes basic necessities such as food and housing (Ministry of Manpower Singapore, 2014).

A survey conducted in 2013 by a volunteer organisation – Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), determined that only 28% of injured workers were offered proper housing during their period of SP (Balakrishnan , Pelly, Fordyce, & Meyer, 2013). Nevertheless, those provided with housing often leave the accommodation due to reasons such as physical threats, inconvenience of location, or outright discomfort in staying in an accommodation provided by the people they are claiming against. Finding alternative accommodation poses a great financial burden to them especially without the opportunity to find a job to support their uncertain period of stay in Singapore. According to the survey, many resorted to borrowing money from friends or family back home. Another survey further concluded that the pressures of being in the state of limbo have had an effect on their mental health, citing housing as one of the causes (Koh & Nicholas, 2015).

Many end up fleeing to Little India to find help and a place to stay. Those staying in Little India account the convenience of the location to places of worship, hospitals and the MOM headquarter, assistance by non-governmental organisations in providing food and legal advice, and most importantly friends within the large migrant community there (Balakrishnan , Pelly, Fordyce, & Meyer, 2013). Taking a walk along the back lanes of Little India, one would be able to spot many ‘room for rent’ advertisements, plastered on the walls (Figure 1).


Figure 1. “Room For Rent” advertisements on a wall in Little India (Source: Author’s own, 2016)


These ‘rooms’ located mostly in the shophouses are assumed to be illegal. The owners of these spaces enforce high rent prices to the desperate limbo workers, much more than what they were used to when employed previously (Balakrishnan , Pelly, Fordyce, & Meyer, 2013). Due to the illegitimacy of these spaces, there is also little to no quality control on its living conditions. A site visit by TWC2 into such accommodations showed that workers are squeezed into rooms with no windows and poor living facilities (Figure 2). Figure 3 shows the plan of a typical illegal shophouse accommodation.

Figure 2. Shophouse accommodation living condition (Source: Transient Workers Count Too, 2014)

Figure 3. Typical Shophouse accommodation plan (Source: Transient Workers Count Too, 2014)

The exact locations of these illegal accommodations are indeterminate as they are situated sporadically within Little India but a key tell-tale sign is laundry being wrung out to dry (Figure 4). Tenants need to be careful not to expose the location of their living space as it would then be liable to raids and inspections by government officials, which may eventually remove them back into the streets (Transient Workers Count Too, 2014).

Figure 4. Suspected illegal accommodation with laundry wrung out to dry (Source: Ong, 2016)

Allowing these workers to continue to live in such conditions is a breach of their basic right to proper shelter; it is criminalising a simple act of finding a place to stay. Although the current policy states that the responsibility of maintaining the workers falls onto the previous employers, it ignores the likelihood of an already strained employer-employee relationship when it calls for the abused worker to return to his previously abusive employer for food and housing. There lies a possibility in providing legal and proper housing alternatives within or around Little India for such workers while monetizing the cost of the stay (borne by the previous employer). This may improve the convenience in monitoring the state of the limbo workers and reduce the opportunity for any further abuse by the previous employers.


Balakrishnan , B., Pelly, C., Fordyce, D., & Meyer, P. (2013). Migrant Worker Housing: A Survey of Men in TWC2’s Cuff Road Project. Singapore: Transient Workers Count Too.

Koh, C., & Nicholas, M. H. (2015). Vital Yet Vulnerable. Singapore: Lien Centre for Social Innovation.

Ministry of Manpower Singapore . (2015). Occupational Safety and Health Division Annual Report 2015. Singapore: Ministry of Manpower.

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