Stew the canard, cook the migrant worker

The best moves in brand building and public relations are those where the audience is not even aware that they are being manipulated. It is the role of critical journalism to call it like it is, and draw people’s attention to it.

I suspect something like the former is going on with the sudden spurt of news stories about foreign workers and gambling. In this essay I am going to attempt to dissect the anatomy of it.

The issue burst into the headlines on Friday, 4 November 2011, when the Straits Times reported that some employers of foreign workers sent their employees to bet in casinos on their behalf.

Five bosses – some with exclusion orders against them – told The Straits Times that they have been handing workers cash, notebooks and mobile phones, then dispatching them to the casino.

They claimed to know several other employers doing the same thing.

The ‘proxy gamblers’, dressed mostly in company polo T-shirts and jeans, get a cut of the winnings, but if they lose too much, their pay is docked.

This arrangement allows employers who are barred due to their own excessive gambling a vicarious way to indulge their habit.

The others say it is a way to maximise their chances of winning at the slot machines or roulette tables.

— Straits Times, 4 November 2011, Bosses send foreign workers to gamble, by Elizabeth Soh.

The article goes on to describe how employers ferry the men to the casinos in their own flashy cars so that suspicions are not aroused, the workers are given seed money each day amounting to $500 – 800,  and the men’s bags are checked when they are picked up again at 10 p.m. after an entire day in the betting hall to ensure they have not hidden any winnings.

One employer told the newspaper:

Like many other investors, businessman Edmund Ng believes that ‘money grows money’.

But Mr Ng, 59, says his ‘investments’ are the foreign employees he sends to gamble on his behalf at the Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) casino.

The father of three described the process as ‘creative’ and ‘multiplying my chances’ of making money.

— Straits Times, 4 November 2011, ‘I’m giving my men a chance to get rich’

It does not sound as if he sees anything wrong about it.

The workers are said to have willingly agreed to do it, but I suspect closer interrogation may reveal a more complicated story. For example, many workers complain that while they may officially be employees of such-and-such a company, in fact the company has no work. The company loans the workers out to other companies on a day-by-day basis. (Yes, it does raise the question  how it is that companies with no projects can obtain Work Permits and bring in workers they don’t totally need).

Now, imagine this scenario: The boss tells his workers, ‘Tomorrow, I have no site to send you to, so I won’t be paying you since you guys are daily-rated.’ Then he offers the workers a choice, ‘But if you go to the casino and win, you will get 10 percent of the winnings. I will give you the money to go.’

How many workers will then say No?

(By the way, the men are not supposed to be daily rated. The Ministry of Manpower’s rules speak of a basic monthly salary, which any reasonable person would assume has to be paid whether or not an employer uses his workers productively. But, hey, that’s just another ministry rule that employers have blithely ignored for years and years with no penalty. The ministry prides itself as “employer-friendly”.)

Gambling counsellors were aghast when they heard about this practice of employers. They felt that the bosses were putting their workers in temptation’s way.

‘When they go into casinos it’s not just the gambling – the whole atmosphere, they might be enjoying it and want to go back to forget about their problems and the hardship they are facing,’ said consultant psychiatrist Tan Hwee Sim.

Straits Times, 4 November 2011, Bosses send foreign workers to gamble, by Elizabeth Soh.

There was also something else I noticed in the story which showed how corrupting the whole thing has become.

Mr Leong, who is barred, said that he spends equal amounts betting on horse races, soccer games, and buying lottery tickets. He and his fellow sub-contractors avoid suspicion by getting their workers covered with medical certificates for the days spent at the casino.

‘If the manpower officials question me, I will just say my worker is ill and sneaked off to gamble – what can they say?’ said Mr Leong, whose company handles minor renovation work such as laminating floors and painting.

Straits Times, 4 November 2011, Bosses send foreign workers to gamble, by Elizabeth Soh.

Does it not sound to you that the medical certificates are either fake or obtained dishonestly? Now, the medical profession is also being tainted.

* * * * *

The follow-up story on Day 2 couldn’t have pleased the employers who had spoken so freely to the Straits Times.

Responding to a report in The Straits Times yesterday, Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin said it was appalling and unacceptable for bosses to use their workers as proxy gamblers.

In a joint statement last night, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Ministry of Community Development, Youth, and Sports (MCYS) said the authorities met both casino operators yesterday, and they had agreed to step up checks at their premises. MOM is also checking if the contractors involved may have committed any offences.

The two ministries said they took a serious view of employers who use their workers as proxy gamblers.

— Straits Times, 5 November 2011, Bosses slammed for sending foreign workers to casinos, by Elizabeth Soh.

I am sure it is an offence. It’s called ‘illegal deployment’. Just as an employer of a domestic worker is not allowed to make her cut pineapples and wash water-melons at his fruit stall, a contractor is not allowed to use his workers as proxy gamblers.

* * * * *

By Monday however, the counter-offensive had begun. Employers and employment agents started to declare their concern over foreign workers’ welfare. They waxed lyrical about what they were doing to protect them from the big bad casino wolf.

More employers and recruitment agents are encouraging their foreign workers to apply for voluntary exclusion from the casinos before they arrive in Singapore, or as soon as they set foot here.

Some employers are even making it a hiring requirement.

These employers say foreign workers need to be ‘protected’ from the ills of gambling, since they do not have to pay the $100 casino entry levy which could otherwise act as a deterrent.

[snip]

Dr Ho Nyok Yong, president of the Singapore Contractors Association, said many of his member firms encourage casino exclusion.

‘Employers should take a paternalistic role towards the foreign workers,’ he said. ‘We should tell them that this is not a place to go… there are a lot of other places to go for entertainment.’

— Straits Times, 7 November 2011, More foreign workers urged to sign up for casino ban, by Amanda Tan

I find these protestations of concern rather hollow. This especially when tens of thousands of workers are housed in substandard accommodation. The two photos below (they are actually photos of photos) show you what I mean. The upper one has men cramped into an oven-hot shipping container. The lower one has three-tiered bunks with the lowest tier really the floor. Contractors’ concern would be more believable if their record of maltreatment in all other areas — salary arears, injury neglect, shocking accommodation — is not as deplorable as it has been.

You should see the counter-offensive for what it is — an attempt to shift the focus from errant employers to “irresponsible” workers. This diversionary tactic changes the conversation from the misdeeds of employers to the canard of how foreign workers are unable to control themselves.

But this duck (‘canard’ is French for duck) doesn’t fly. As John Gee, immediate past president of migrant workers’ welfare organisation, Transient Workers Count Too, told Yawning Bread, “In all my years working with foreign workers — and we handle 2,000 cases of destitute and abandoned workers a year — I have never come across a single case of a worker who became destitute from gambling.”

Someone else who also has long experience with foreign workers said likewise to the Straits Times:

Said Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director of migrant worker rights group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home): ‘Why is there an assumption that all migrant workers will be gamblers? What is the extent of the problem such that we need to get them to sign it when they are still in their home countries?

Straits Times, 7 November 2011, More foreign workers urged to sign up for casino ban, by Amanda Tan

Let me be blunt: This is a non-problem that someone is trying to make into an issue. In the process, more negative stereotypes of foreign workers are created, while the real culprits (employers addicted to gambling and putting workers in harm’s way) escape attention. In the process, the autonomy of foreign workers to decide for themselves whether they want to check out casinos, is circumscribed. We treat them like children without willpower. We justify to ourselves our “right” to control them.

I know of someone who has an even more interesting theory. With no evidence, it is impossible for me to say how true this is, but I’ve had enough experience in the background machinations of public relations to tell you, it’s quite a plausible theory. This someone thinks the underlying agenda is to “cleanse” the integrated resorts of foreign workers. Too many of them visiting would take their brands down-market. These workers don’t spend a lot of money in there, so the resorts don’t fully welcome them. Unfortunately, the operators cannot explicitly bar them from entering otherwise they’d be accused of racial or class discrimination, creating a controversy that would hurt their international brand image.

How timely it is, then, that others might do the banning for them. If the public can be made to believe that foreign workers are gambling addicts, regulatory measures that prohibit workers from visiting the integrated resorts would gain traction. The public may even believe they are doing the workers a service by banning them.

Indeed, the key question (other than contractors using their workers to gamble) is why is there such news froth over a non-existent problem? What better explanation for working ourselves up into a lather over an invisible throng of gambling-addict foreign workers?

17 Responses to “Stew the canard, cook the migrant worker”


  1. 1 liew kai khiun 9 November 2011 at 19:53

    Meanwhile i am waiting for the figures of the real problems. We know in recent parlimentary reports that more than 20,000 singaporeans and PRs have applied for self exclusion, What is not made to the public are figures on the frequency of visits to the two casinos by Singaporeans and PRs on an average day. I think that is the real problem

  2. 2 Why only mention foreign worker? 9 November 2011 at 21:01

    When the casinos first opened more than a year ago, the papers had pictures of the crowds lining up to enter the casinos. And quite a number of them in the crowd looked like foreign workers.

    So since day 1, it seems foreign workers already like to go to the casinos, maybe not so much as to gamble but rather to enjoy the aircon, free drinks and to watch. Or maybe to really gamble? Or as “proxy” gamblers?

    And is it that these “proxy” gamblers had actually existed since day 1 and only now has this situation come to light in the media?

    Anyway, what’s the big fuss about ? Since then, is there any reported cases of suicide by foreign workers due to gambling losses, proxy or otherwise?

    In fact it is the locals that reported suicides and other social problems due to gambling happened. And why nobody make it an issue like what they did for the foreign worker who gamble?

  3. 3 Anonymous 10 November 2011 at 00:58

    It is a well coordinated choreography between the Straits Times, the government and the IRs. I am already suspecting something fishy when the news come out. Let’s not be manipulated by the media. The focus should be on the employers.

  4. 4 jax 10 November 2011 at 02:29

    i go with “someone’s” thery – this is just a build-up to getting foreign workers of a certain class banned from the casinos.

  5. 5 Chanel 10 November 2011 at 11:19

    I am always amused whenever our ministers and other government officials say “we take a serious view of….” this and that. This is especially hilarious when it comes from a police spokesman. Which law and policy of this land is merely a joke not to be taken seriously??

  6. 6 jem 10 November 2011 at 11:58

    I didn’t read the article (don’t have a subscription), but was anything said about how this problem is only happening because our government agreed to have 2 casinos built, against general sentiment, in the first place? I’m guessing no?

    Since blame is being shifted around, surely that is one not-so-innocent party.

  7. 7 tk 10 November 2011 at 14:23

    wag that dog, baby!

  8. 8 Anonymous 10 November 2011 at 17:32

    The original newspaper article put the sub-contractors in a bad light. This does not look good for the big time developers and main contractors if the authorities decide to take drastic action. So whose interests are the media serving now?

  9. 9 Alan Wong 10 November 2011 at 18:05

    In the first place, if it is that easy to win money at casinos as what these bosses seems to want us to believe as if the odds are against the casinos, then there is really no reason for anyone to work at all.

    The other odd thing about this story is how much can these bosses deduct from these ‘gambling’ workers if they lose all their gambling capital of S$500 to S$800? And what is really there to prevent these ‘gambling’ workers to report losses instead of winnings ?

    I am more inclined to believe that the whole report has been manipulated for some unknown agenda.

  10. 10 Chow 10 November 2011 at 20:42

    I must say that I’m a little skeptical over the possibility that the IRs and the Straits Times are in collusion over this to bar foreign workers because I do recall that there were articles some time ago that did already state that many construction companies are barring their employees from entering the casinos. No doubt it is deplorable that the ST didn’t follow up on these employers (how did try even get them to talk in the first place?) but it could be lazy journalism at work. They got a ‘scoop’ of sorts when they found out some employers were doing this and then the Ministry got involved but maybe not too much to their liking and they finally found not much more was forthcoming so they reverted to recycling old news. Maybe, but it’s anybody’s guess. Time will tell, especially when indignant ghost writers start penning letters supporting the barring of ALL foreign workers not earning above a certain amount.

  11. 11 George 10 November 2011 at 22:03

    Alex,

    Is it mentioned anywhere in any report the origin of the FWs? While I don’t know much about whether workers from Bangladesh, India and other SE asian countries likes to gamble, I am 100% sure, the biggest group of FWs here, the Mainland Chinese, are more than likely to fancy a roll or two of the roulette dice and are probably more savvy about playing the various games of chance in a casino. Though I hasten to add that NOT all Chinese are addicted to gambling, many would readily take to it as compared to say Bangladeshis who are also forbidden by their religion to indulge in gambling.

    From the very beginning, many Singaporeans have voiced their concern that while locals have to pay a entry fee to casinos, all foreigners, including FWs are not required to do so. IMO, the reason may be two fold – the govt was highly desirous to see the casino take off to a flying start and therefore cannot afford to bar the potential gamblers present in the MILLIONS of FWs AND FTs present here. I am sure many would recall, the ‘number’ game, the headcount, played (pun intended!) at the beginning which the govt officials and casino managements would parade for all to see as a ‘measure’ of their success!

    You mentioned the corrupting influence above, in fact, I have for the longest of time believe that no indices of corruption as adopted by international agencies to measure corruption in countries would ever be able to measure the very real corruption, very insidious, very subtle forms of corruption that is rampant in Singapore – the corruption of the mind which has permeates every level of officialdom and the pecking order in businesses. Anti-corruption agencies have yet to invent a way to measure the manifestations of this sort of corruption, a good example of which is the ‘guan-xi’ factor and the more familiar ‘old boys’ system. The corruption of morale values and power which these represent when improperly used have far reaching consequences and they tend to run deep and consequentially extremely difficult to exposed and removed esp. when they contaminate the very top strata of officialdom and enterprises.

  12. 12 George 10 November 2011 at 22:14

    Now that they have achieved their purpose and the casinos are already on track and ‘stabilized’, the authorities and the casino managements has decided to pull the rug from under the FWs who had helped them to achieved the numbers. The FTs would probably continue to be allowed into the casinos because their have better means and are of a ‘higher’ class when compared to countrymen who depend on their brawn for a living.

  13. 13 Saycheese 11 November 2011 at 05:55

    Don’t be taken in by the con that there is proxy gambling. Gambling odds are biased in the casinos’ favour and the more frequent and the more workers those supposedly errant employers send to the casinos, the more money those employers are going to lose. People visit the casinos because there is the thrill and I don’t see how those bosses get their kick when someone else gamble on their behalf out of sight. I suspect that the government feels that the tax revenue can be higher when higher valued gamblers are playing if only these workers are not there lowering the casinos’ image and occupying the limited gambling space.

  14. 14 Linetic 11 November 2011 at 08:58

    Agree with theory of manipulation! Stories about gambling coincides with stories about foreign workers making life uncomfortable for scantily clad tourists on the beaches at Sentosa!

    Seems like someone is leading a campaign to keep one group of foreign talent out of playgrounds of another group.

  15. 15 Jolovan 11 November 2011 at 13:10

    Good piece Alex. This all-out effort to get foreign workers to sign exclusion orders is like a moral panic, when there is no evidence to suggest that gambling is a significant problem among migrant workers.The mainstream media has also failed to challenge this notion but has instead reinforced the idea that foreign workers need to be managed and controlled, lest they cause social disorder and mayhem. I told the reporter who interviewed me for this story that migrant workers face so many problems, and gambling is the least of them. I questioned why the interest in this issue is receiving so much coverage. She did not report all this of course.

  16. 16 John Riemann Soong 20 November 2011 at 05:07

    Alex, this piece from the news is even worse

    http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1166441/1/.html

    only in Singapore, would running away from your abusive employer be a crime.

    As a foreign worker in Singapore, other companies are prohibited from hiring you, that way you have no way out and employer can constantly threaten you with deportation; you won’t speak up about bad working conditions or constantly-docked pay.

    When you’re “caught” — wow, it’s just like the moment a slaveowner catches his runaway slave. The only difference is that the punishment is deportation, rather than 300 lashes.

  17. 17 greyscalefuzz 27 January 2012 at 11:29

    We’re starting to become like Dubai – keeping our FWs out of sight, out of mind…


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