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Why Donating Money for Foreign Workers’ Medical Bills is the Wrong Approach

I’m going to upset a lot of people here and come across as a heartless B*****d but here goes! There is a “heart warming” story out on Channel News Asia and Today concerning a Bangladeshi work pass employee who was discovered to have a brain tumour. The man was brought over from Bangladesh two months ago to work as a construction supervisor for Singaporean firm Archetype Pte Ltd., a group of six companies in the construction Industry. According to the story, Archetype’s medical insurance policy only provided the minimum medical cover for its foreign workers of $15,000. This has already been exhausted after Mr Shah’s three-day stay in intensive care. Archetype had not covered themselves with any extra critical care or serious illness plan for their employees.

A MOM spokesperson is reported as confirming that all employers are liable for their work pass holders’ medical care whether it is work related or not and presumably whether they have insurance for it or not..

I would not wish brain cancer on anyone and I have the deepest sympathy for the unfortunate Mr Shah and his fiancée back in Bangladesh. However there are several things that I find outrageous about this episode. I am going to go against the tide of public opinion here but I wonder why we are so naïve.

Why are companies allowed to bring over foreign workers without adequate insurance? MOM only requires employers of work permit holders to buy $15,000 of medical insurance. This is nothing if a worker suffers a serious illness or accident. MOM then allows companies to send the workers home where their condition allows it whereupon the companies have no further obligation for medical care.

Companies should be made to provide critical illness cover. Singaporeans are made to contribute to Medisave and Medishield to pay for their future medical expenses. The amounts contributed by Singaporeans are considerably in excess of Singaporeans’ current medical needs as evidenced by the huge surplus in Medisave and Medishield.

This means that Singaporeans’ wages have to be higher to compensate them for these additional costs. Foreign workers, already have much lower wage costs than Singaporean workers. Bangladeshi workers are probably the lowest paid in the world. Certainly Singaporean construction firms are finding Malaysians and Indonesians less exploitable and have now turned to Bangladeshis.

As I always say without a minimum wage employers can just keep turning to poorer and poorer countries. Real wages will continue to drop and Singaporeans will be continuously undercut.

By allowing companies to employ workers without adequate medical coverage, the PAP Government is just subsidising companies, many of which are foreign-owned, at the expense of Singaporean employees. If companies had to pay the same costs for a foreign employee as a Singaporean one then perhaps they would hire more Singaporeans.

Artificially subsidising the construction industry as I have described is also another way that the PAP Government boosts GDP growth by encouraging the excessive tearing down and construction of new buildings compared to other advanced countries. This contributes little to the welfare of citizens since most of those employed are foreigners. Certainly the constant upheaval and noise 7 days a week for SMRT projects is a cause of much stress. GDP calculations do not take account of the cost of traffic and public transport delays caused by the constant construction.

Why are Singaporeans, who are already disadvantaged by the subsidies given to these companies, being asked to contribute to help this company evade its legal and moral obligations and perpetuate a system that stacks the odds against them in the employment market? It is disappointing to see comments on Facebook like “The company deserves a medal”. Why?
The company and its directors and shareholders have not dug into their own pockets to help Mr Shah. They are expecting you to do so. Their profits however are not being shared with you but staying in their pockets. The crowd sourced campaign fund is in the company’s name not in that of the poor man himself or his family.

Archetype approached Jolovan Wham from HOME for help in raising money.  Jolovan is quoted as saying   “Mr Alam’s case raises the question of whether the medical coverage provided to work permit holders is comprehensive enough. This is definitely something we need to look into again. “ He is right but it is not just about protecting foreign workers. Eliminating unfair subsidies and bringing costs for foreign workers up to the level of local ones will save jobs for Singaporeans . Presently 18% of our population is comprised of foreign workers.
It appears that HOME are raising funds on their portal. It would have been more appropriate for HOME alone to run the donations campaign as a registered Charity. That is something I could buy into. Even if treating this as a hard luck case masks the rotten system at heart and the wrong people are being asked to contribute.

The employer has also set up an Indiegogo fund but I’m not even sure it is legal to use Indiegogo to raise funds when MOM puts a legal obligation on the employer to meet the costs. It smacks of scam. How can we be sure that the money raised is all going to Mr Shah’s treatment? Singapore hospitals are profit centres and presumably the same treatment in Singapore will be much more than in India or Bangladesh.

What is there to stop companies in future from trying to raise money from good-hearted and naïve Singaporeans to save themselves the costs of repatriation and so that they do not have to bear the cost of locating and employing another worker.

While I hope that Mr Shah receives the best treatment, Singaporeans should not be taken in by a system that exploits foreign workers and undercuts their own employment conditions.
Crowd source funding looks like a magic formula for whisking up money from thin air but it Is not the answer to everything. This is a classic example of how the excitement of a new media campaign has completely covered up the real issues.

  1. We need to stop subsidising employers to hire from overseas
  2. We need to preserve employment for Singaporeans.
  3. We need to make it more difficult for employers to exploit workers from poorer nations
  4. We need to keep reminding ourselves that our GDP growth is falsely inflated by subsidies for activities that do not contribute to our welfare.
  5. We need to understand that our abysmal productivity record stems from these abuses.


  1. What happened to the pre – employment medical checkups? Our doctor just certify him fit to work, maybe our Minister pay from their pocket for foreigners coming here and now having brain tumor sickness. When company makes millions of $$$, workers suffers silently with a small pay. while some njoy with huge pay and found making serious mistakes!


  2. Remembered a case somewhere where a Singaporean faced similar issue because of a work incident which exhausted the maximum claim from the company , and because it is work related he cannot claim medishield, leaving him to fend for himself.


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