Singapore last week passed a law which will go into effect next January, requiring employers of maids to give maids at least one day per week of leave. Currently leave is agreed between employer and employee, and it is quite common for maids to be given no days off per week and little or no annual leave. Some employers are concerned that the new law will see maids conspire together to request better conditions (!) or get pregnant, or find some other unproductive way of enjoying their excessive leisure. So how bad is life for Singaporean maids? Not as bad as for some Singaporean construction workers. Once again, employee protections are weak – it is possible for a constuction company to employee workers from Bangladesh through an agency, who keeps the employees salary for up to 3 years as an agency fee. If the employee gets injured that lengthens the time taken to repay the agency fee, assuming that the worker is able to work again. Typical salaries at the completion of the bond period might be in the order of A$5000 to A$8000 per year.
Of course Australians would not accept these kinds of working conditions for workers in Australia, but it does raise the issue of whether, as suggested by China’s Ambassador to Australia, Australia should accept 100,000 chinese (or other international) workers to help build the infrastructure that Australia is so in need of. Quite clearly working conditions in many parts of Asia are very poor, and even what would be considered as the most basic working conditions in Australia would be considered as extremely attractive to many millions of workers in Asia. One of the most robust debates I’ve had with my students over the years has been about income distributions – should we care about the distribution of incomes of global citizens, or the distribution of income across or within countries. Singapore’s policies might seem harsh, but there is no doubt that they reduce income inequality globally, at the same time as widening the distribution within Singapore.
So should Australia offer say 200,000 three year work visas for workers in low skill areas such as construction with protections such as a 40 hour working week, health cover and annual leave? This would be seen as extremely attractive in many parts of our region, even if salaries were in the range of $1000 or a month or so. And the impact on income distribution – I say that it is the distribution of income at the level of the global citizen that matters most, and on this front the distribution narrows. Of course this will come down to the hoary old debates about immigrants taking jobs (rubbish), or union arguments that these workers should be paid local wages (which will mean that it won’t happen). But it is not clear to me that Australia should continue to be an island so apart from the 4 billion people to our north.