Pastoral Perspectives

Migrant Workers

From a distance, we noticed a hazy figure ambulating down the slope with crutches. From the street lights, we could see him hobbling on one leg, heaving himself down the incline one clumsy hop at a time. He was lacking finesse with his walking aid, fumbling with the unwieldy extensions of his arm with every step. He looked exhausted; it was a long walk down the slope from the hospital to the train station. As we drew nearer, my wife and I approached him to see if he required any assistance. We struck up a conversation, and from the little English he could speak we learnt that he was a construction worker from Bangladesh who arrived in Singapore not too long ago. Earlier in the day, he got into an accident which resulted in a fracture of his foot and was sent to the hospital for treatment. The affected foot was then casted and crutches were given to him to offload it. What surprised us was the fact that his “boss” left him at the hospital without transportation or help. He was not even given an allowance to hail a taxi. The only way for him to return home was by foot and MRT, an arduous journey for a person to manage alone with only one functional lower limb.

Such stories are not unheard of amongst the low-skilled foreign workers (both in construction and domestic help) here. Many construction workers quietly put up with errant employers who refuse them proper work injury compensation, withhold their salary, or exploit them, because having paid exorbitant fees to get here, their immediate goal is to recoup their losses quickly so as to remit money back home to their families. Getting injured at the workplace is their greatest fear, as they may have to face the possibility of a premature termination of their stint here. For foreign domestic helpers, horrid cases of their ill-treatment and physical abuse by their employers regularly surface in the media. Many domestic helpers are unsure of their rights here, and they seek help only after experiencing repeated abuses.

These low-skilled foreign workers are a vulnerable group in our society since they are in a position in which they can be easily taken advantage of: being aliens in a foreign land, lacking the fluency in local languages, and unaware of personal legal rights, but with a dire need to pay off debts and make money for their families back home. They also have to face discrimination by the wider society because of their low social status, and their subservient role to the interests of Singaporeans. However, we can see from the Bible that God is concerned about them, and requires His people to care for them.

In the injunctions of the Mosaic Law, there were provisions being made for a separate class of people living in Israel called the “sojourners” (ESV) or “ger” (Hebrew). Most of these sojourners likely provided low-skilled labour to Israel (1Chr22:2) and were among the vulnerable and needy groups in Israelite society (Lev19:10; 23:22; Dt10:18; 16:11, 14; 24:17). They were portrayed in the legal provisions as a minority group of people – along with the widows and the fatherless – likely to face discrimination and ill-treatment from the rest of society. This is not unlike the situation faced by the foreign workers in Singapore.

While the sojourners in Israel were subject to the same laws as the Israelites (Num15:15-16), special provisions were made for them in the legal statutes (Dt24:19-21), such as leaving portions of the harvest for them to glean, and forbidding any Israelite to ill-treat them. Such attention given to the sojourner in the Mosaic Law shows that God recognised the potential injustices these aliens might face in the land of Israel at the hand of the citizens. God also demanded the Israelites not to oppress or despise the sojourners but to love them because they were themselves once sojourners in the foreign land of Egypt (Ex23:9; Dt10:18-19; 23:7) who were rescued by Him. More importantly, these provisions show that he is a God of love who loves both the Israelite and the sojourner, and whose justice is impartial to both Jews and Gentiles. It is significant that as Judah faced her final foreign invasion, one of the charges laid by God against her, which incurred his wrath, was the ill-treatment of the sojourner (Ez22:7).

In the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, when challenged by a Jewish religious expert on who his neighbour was that he should show love to, Jesus told the famous parable of the good Samaritan. The Samaritans were a people group descended from Israelites who intermarried with pagans after the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians and the king of Assyria resettled pagans amongst the Israelites who remained in Samaria. They were considered to be pagan and ethnically distinct from the Jews and were despised by them, and the two groups had often come into conflict with each other during the first century.

In Jesus’ parable, a person, presumably a Jew, was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho, but ended up being beaten, robbed, and left for dead. As he laid dying on the road, his plight was callously ignored by fellow Jews who were supposedly pious. A Samaritan then saw him and went out of his way to help him, even nursing him back to health at his own expense. This seeming incredulous parable (at least to the Jews) was told so as to inform the audience that love for the other is not constrained by religion or ethnicity, but transcends both. Just as a Samaritan can show love to a Jew, so should a Jew show love to a Samaritan. It is only when we love and show mercy to the other, that we show ourselves to be a neighbour to the other, and thus the other becomes our neighbour. The recent news of two foreign construction workers risking their lives to rescue a toddler in danger of falling off a second storey apartment is a contemporary “good Samaritan” story set in a Singaporean context. This incident should be a rebuke to any of us asking “who is my neighbour” and yet hold prejudices toward foreign workers.

There are some things we can do to be a good neighbour to the foreign workers here. Those of us with domestic helpers can ensure that their daily needs are met, that they get regular rest days, and that they are paid on time. Some of us can consider volunteering at NGOs that reach out to construction workers, such as Healthserve or Migrant Workers’ Centre. Otherwise, simple acts of friendliness, like striking up a conversation with them where appropriate, can also go a long way.

As people of God, we should not ignore the plights of the foreign workers, dismissing them as issues to be solved by the government, but rather, relate to these people in a manner radically different from prevailing sentiments in society. They are not merely faceless people doing dirty work for us so that we do not have to sully our hands; they are also persons created in the image of God and precious to Him. We should therefore have compassion for them as our neighbour by seeking their welfare and sharing the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ with them.

Png Eng Keat (Intern)

July 19, 2015