Late last month 171 Chinese national bus drivers who were employed by the Singapore Government controlled bus and underground railway company SMRT took industrial action by staging a two day walkout. The bus drivers claimed that they were being underpaid relative to other foreign workers doing the same job, and the poorly sanitized conditions of their accommodation.

This is reportedly the first strike in Singapore since 1986.

The SMRT management took it upon themselves to immediately revoke the work permits of 29 of the drivers causing their immediate deportation last Sunday. Five drivers were charged under Singapore law that prohibits any industrial action like a strike without giving 14 days prior notice. One was additionally charged with inciting people to strike by posting comments on a Chinese social network site and received a 6 month jail sentence after pleading guilty.

The SMRT case is not a surprising incident for those who know how the foreign labour industry works. This dispute is only indicative and symbolic of a much larger chronic problem. The pay and conditions of foreign workers throughout the region has been poor to say the least.

In this specific SMRT case, even the local Singapore media criticized the poor handling of the dispute by their CEO Desmond Kuek, who in an interview with The Business Times admitted SMRT had been too profit focused and that company attitudes needed to change. This highlights a much wider mean and sadistic streak within company management around the region towards foreign workers generally.

To date, foreign worker supply has generally been plentiful and workers are seen as a resource where the maximum should be extracted out of them for the minimum expenditure possible. This is extremely common within local companies, while some, but not all foreign owned companies do provide better conditions, viewing a good labour force as an asset rather than a resource to be exploited.

There are so many stories of harsh treatment, poor management, abuse, and the provision of generally poor conditions provided to workers. Most foreign workers have already paid manpower agents up to USD 10,000, mostly borrowed for the privilege of working abroad. In some cases conditions are no better than what a dog would be given and there are many cases of workers being cheated out of their salaries by greedy and unscrupulous employers.

Just within the last few days the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur warned its nationals not to work as maids in Malaysia due to the abuses many have endured over the years with very few rights of recourse. In fact under Malaysian immigration law, any mistakes of misuse of workers outside of their visa conditions renders the workers liable, rather than the employers for punishment. There are cases where foreign workers have been jailed and received the rotan due to the misdeeds of their employers.

The trauma facing many foreign workers doesn’t start with the employers, but with the recruitment agents who extract as much as they can from the workers. Many deposits are taken from villagers in Isaan (North-east Thailand), Laos, and Cambodia with the promise of foreign work that never comes. Some labour recruitment agents even issue false documents and visas to foreign workers, as happened in Nepal a few years ago where a recruitment agent sent workers to Malaysia on false visas. The culprits couldn’t be caught and prosecuted as they were “operating outside the jurisdiction of Malaysian authorities”. However the workers themselves were arrested for possessing forged visas. Very few of these labour recruiting agents who flaunt the law are ever prosecuted.

One of the problems is that the labour recruitment business is so lucrative and generally outside the taxation system that it has attracted officers of government agencies and even members of parliament to be involved. Just recently labour activist Abdul Aziz Ismail accused the Malaysian Attorney-General’s Chambers of colluding with the Bangladesh High Commission in aiding foreign labour recruitment agencies. In addition a former Minister Mohd Radzi Sheikh Ahmad and the sitting MP for Kangar is listed in the Companies Commission of Malaysia (CCM) records as a company director of SNT Universal Corporation Sdn. Bhd. that has been accused of exploiting Bangladeshi workers. The former inspector-general of the Royal Malaysian Police Force has also criticized the way the government handles foreign labour as little more than human trafficking.

This brings up the next issue of old authoritarian hangovers in the practices and processes of handling foreign workers. Foreign workers travelling to Malaysia, Singapore, and now Thailand specifically come to work for an employer on a short term basis and return home after a specific contracted period. Until very recently most workers were poorly educated and subservient to their employers, just wanting to make as much money as possible and return home. Foreign labour was seen as a necessity of nation building, particularly when the Asian economies were rapidly growing with construction and manufacturing. Foreign labour also took up the jobs that locals didn’t want and thus performed a specific service, enabling national growth and development.

Governments have viewed foreign workers as “cheap labour” in their country for the greater good. This can be seen as a neo-Confucian nature of the Singapore Government in doing things for the greater good while forgetting about individual rights. Foreign workers are at the bottom of a feudal pecking order, the lowest in society to do what others don’t want to do. Consequently governments have given them very few rights, as there until recently has been little pressure to do so.

In Thailand where there are estimated to be over 2 million foreign workers, mainly unskilled workers from Burma and Cambodia, some provincial officials will not even allow them to celebrate certain cultural activities. They are looked down upon by locals and treated poorly by their employers.

The embassies of supplier countries seem to be involved in the supply chain and the issue has not been highlighted to human rights forums internationally, although Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of human Rights Watch (HRW) criticizes Singapore for defying basic human rights for criminalizing migrant workers actions of taking industrial action. He further criticizes Singapore for discriminating between different races when it comes to workers pay and conditions. Foreign workers have few, if any reasonable legal rights in any of the countries within the region, and often suffer the penalties dished out from mistakes their employers and recruiters make.

Finally the demographics of the workers themselves are rapidly changing. Foreign workers today are much more educated than their counterparts of just a few years ago. They are more likely to come from further afield than traditional sources like Indonesia and Thailand. Many now come from China where local work opportunities are also plentiful offering salaries not too far below what is offered in Malaysia and Singapore. Workers are much more highly educated, technology savvy with the ability to communicate to their peers in the host country and to home, and are much more aggressive about their rights than those before them.

These demographic changes require a much more professional approach on the part of employing companies. Employing companies must realize that their bargaining power over foreign workers will weaken in the future. Attracting future employees will be more akin to attracting expat professionals where benefits and facilities will be very important issues in attracting workers with many other options to consider. Local firms will have to run recruitment campaigns highlighting the benefits they offer to attract and keep foreign workers in the competitive environment within the not too distant future. Many workers travelling overseas for employment carry with them “Gen Y” aspirations and behavioral patterns which employers don’t seem equipped to be able to handle. They expect respect rather than scorn and exploitation. This signals big changes to foreign labour supply.

Consequently, Malaysia and Singapore have drastically lost attractiveness as places to work over the last couple of years. Foreign workers in the past were open to easy exploitation and “bullying” but not today. Employers in the region will soon have to compete for workers and this will require a change in mindset and adopt new management practices. There needs to be a paradigm shift from seeing foreign workers as resources to seeing them as assets. Governments will have to reassess their harsh authoritarian policies and understand that unskilled and semi-skilled workers are vital to the operation of the economy. Foreign workers must be warmly welcomed rather than harshly treated if economies are going to be able to operate smoothly without interruption.

Foreign labour practices are an embarrassment to the region. A callous exploitation of people. It also shows that local firms still have very immature management, particularly in the HR area and have a long way to go until local companies can be claimed to be run as well as those in developed countries. The foreign labour issue makes a mockery of any CSR in the region and if not attended to in the near future may become a deep impediment to the regions competitive advantage in international trade.

What is even more alarming is the tacit approval to the foreign labour situation by citizens of the region to the suppression of workers’ rights and dignity. The general community attitude is one lacking any compassion, showing that a “modern day caste system” is certainly alive and well in the region.

The foreign worker issue shows the world the ugly side of Asia as a region of deep exploitation. There are so many lies and crooks within the foreign labour recruitment industry. Yet this group that has been of great advantage to governments who have left these third parties do all the dirty work. This issue is rarely brought up at international forums, and all parties seem to prefer to sweep these injustices under the carpet. South-east Asian governments are very hesitant to regulate and control this sector ethically. Worker exploitation is not just an issue in the sweat-shops of China that has received much publicity, but also an issue across South-east Asia as well.

The SMRT strike has brought these matters of foreign worker mistreatment and unhappiness out into the public arena. The days of cheap “slave like” labour will soon go in the region. Further cases of worker exploitation surfacing in the press will drastically affect the reputations of governments, officials, and firms involved in these rackets. The recruitment industry which is heavily centered in Thailand is very poorly regulated with many scams by unscrupulous operators going on.

South-east Asian governments and employers must learn that nothing is forever and move from the 19th to the 21st century.