An Attempt to Excavate the Causes of Construction Workers’ Poor Mental Health
By Caresse Chin
On 4th August 2020, Reuters -- an international news organization -- published an article regarding a slew of suicides among migrant workers with the pandemic (or more specifically, the overly restrictive preventive measures) posing as the trigger for their decision (Geddie & Aravindan, 2020).
Channel News Asia swiftly responded in a tit-for-tat the next day with a follow-up article that refuted their claims by citing the Ministry of Manpower (MOM)’s statement that there was no sudden rise in suicide numbers and the spate of incidents was not a cause for concern (Phua, 2020).
Faced with such contradictory sources, one can’t help but wonder if the pandemic was indeed detrimental to the migrant workers’ mental health and if so, to what extent. Fast forward to the present, our community has seen a succession of (differentiated) policies implemented across the local community and within the migrant worker community, or more specifically, the migrant workers living in dormitories to regulate the spread.
Packed in narrow living quarters with dozens of other workers, the dormitories were a hotspot for the spread of the coronavirus. Draconian control measures were implemented to prevent “spill-over” cases outside of the dormitories (Song, 2021). For the first 17 months of
he pandemic, around 500,000 migrant workers were mainly restricted to their dormitories. In September 2021, a pilot programme was implemented to allow a maximum of 500 fully vaccinated workers to visit a small, contained area in Little India, a common destination frequented by migrant workers, each week (Song, 2021; Young, 2022). This programme soon transitioned into the Exit Pass system, otherwise known as the Popular Places Pass system on 14 June 2022 (Young, 2022). This allowed a greater number of workers to leave their dormitories to any location in the community upon approval. 10 days later, only access to 4 popular spots continued to require applications under the system. But these applications were, as the Ministry of Manpower declared, “approved almost instantaneously” (Young, 2022).
From the circuit breaker to the eventual lifting of lockdown restrictions in August 2020 (Ministry of Manpower (MOM), 2023), residents were finally given a respite with COVID-19 restrictions mostly eased by April 2022 (Goh, 2022). Yet, until June 2022, migrant workers’ movements were still strictly regulated. This alludes to the government’s strategic utilization of the rapid spread within dormitories to entrench the segregation of workers from the wider community.
Nonetheless, the pandemic was able to shed light on the poor living conditions of workers in dormitories, (temporarily) capturing the attention of the international media and the people. The subsequent mental health issues faced by workers constrained to their living quarters were also investigated following widespread news of workers attempting suicides after being confined for 1.5 years (Telling, 2022).
Herein lies the problem, the pandemic isn’t the only cause of the construction workers’ poor mental health. It may have been a catalyst, but it is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg. The media may have moved on to the next disastrous news, but the mental health issues faced by the workers remain a reality, and not enough recognition is given.
Many construction workers in Singapore come from patriarchal and conservative societies such as China, India, and Bangladesh. Buddhism (Religion in China, 2004), Islam (Bangladeshi Culture, n.d.) and Hinduism (Religion, n.d.) are subscribed to by the majority of the population respectively. Since religion plays a fundamental role in their home countries, conservative beliefs of patriarchal societies such as gender stereotypes continue to be upheld.
One stereotype is for men to be the breadwinner of the family.
Men are supposed to follow the path society has laid out for them based on what they perceive as the correct path. In this vein, men are supposed to earn money to support their families.
Unable to find adequate-paying jobs in their home country, many are encouraged to cross the Pacific Ocean and find work in a developed and cosmopolitan city like Singapore. This kick-starts construction workers’ journey to an unfamiliar land far from their families.
Additionally, men in traditional societies are conditioned to be stoic and strong by hiding their pain and emotions. Singapore’s sunny weather may be appealing but toiling under the scorching hot sun for more than 8 hours whilst doing backbreaking work is bound to take a toll on anyone.
Singapore boasts a magnificent skyscraper landscape but the workers constructing these buildings risk their lives should inadequate safety precautions be in place. A few weeks ago, a construction worker fell from a height as there had been lapses in the safety practices of the company he was working under (Ang, 2023).
The condition of the workplace for construction workers is far from ideal but workers work through their pain and suffering because revealing their emotions is a sign of weakness and is not as per society’s expectations. These pressures are often embedded in these workers’ upbringing and hence, enduring exploitative conditions is normalized and perceived as the right thing to do (Keogh, 2015)
Workers are conditioned into rationalising their emotions and fostering the illusion that they should face their struggles alone instead of relying on their close ones, hence creating an emotional distance. Combined with the physical distance from their families, the perceived and actual loneliness makes the workers more vulnerable to mental issues (Zhou, et al., 2020). Research has shown that workers are likely to display more “psychotic, mood, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic disorders” because of the “geographical and cultural distances from the original country” (Mucci, et al., 2020)
Naturally, one would start to see their mental stability fraying at the edges. Worse still, one might not even realise the abuse one is putting oneself through by carrying all these thoughts silently.
State & Society’s Role
Another factor we should be considering is the relationships between the workers and the state and society of Singapore.
Many policies have indirectly led to the deterioration of construction workers’ mental health, one of which is land planning.
Dormitories are mostly sequestered at far-flung corners of Singapore where the public seldom frequent such as Jurong and Tuas. This may be a result of its supposed “unsightliness” which obscures or ruins the otherwise carefully sculpted modern landscape.
Or perhaps it is the (un)intentional isolation of migrant workers from the citizens and permanent residents due to xenophobic and discriminatory sentiments. One well-known case is the Serangoon Gardens petition in 2008 which gained much controversy as it highlighted an intrinsic discomfort some felt toward migrant workers (Ng, 2020).
As expected, ex-Minister of Manpower Josephine Teo came out to clarify the rationale behind the locations of migrant worker dormitories. She stated that the dormitories were meant to promote communal living as the government believed that one enjoys being around others similar to oneself. Dormitories were not in any way intended for spatial marginalization (Ng, 2020).
Physical exclusion and separation are sources of stressors on the construction workers’ mental health as they are unable to assimilate into the community that they work in. Connection with others socially is a “fundamental human need—crucial to both well-being and survival." (Novotney, 2019). In physically separating the workers from the rest of society, the unnecessary isolation creates a high prevalence of anxiety and anger as the workers – the “out-group” – compare themselves with residents of the country -- the “in-group” (Understanding the Effects of Social Isolation on Mental Health, 2020). Hence, constantly being treated as a “second-class citizen” where their sole function is to work for the country but not be treated as one of their own will undeniably deteriorate their mental health.
Beyond physical isolation, there is also a social barrier that enforces the “in-group” and “out-group” mentality. While construction workers are labelled as “foreign workers”, higher-waged foreign manpower in the Professional, Management, and Executive (PME) roles are known as “foreign talent” (Tan, 2021). This clear demarcation moulds society’s perception of construction workers – that they should only be performing dirty, dangerous, and demeaning jobs.
Moreover, the perception that construction workers are violent and dangerous will continue to be fed as the media persistently crafts the workers’ narrative based on the havoc in their own countries or the rare anomaly such as the Little India Riots. Linked to the “negativity bias”, people are naturally drawn to more disastrous news and hence media outlets tend to sensationalise such news. According to research done by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2020, it was shown that most people had “limited knowledge about migrant workers; [held] many negative attitudes towards them; and [were] unwilling to engage in behaviour that would support migrants” (International Labour Organisation, 2020). Nonetheless, Singapore fared better than her Southeast Asian neighbours in terms of public attitude towards foreign workers.
By ostracizing the workers and not having the opportunity of getting to understand them better due to the geographical and social distance, this problematic mindset manifests itself into an emotional distance where we are unable to connect and clear misconceptions we have about them.
This is detrimental to workers’ mental health as they feel alone with no support system. Combining this with the burdens they already carry from their own society’s expectations to be a source of income and a strong man, one can only imagine the pain that they experience, the strain on their mental stability and the strength they require to push through every day.
The state’s effort (or lack thereof) in addressing the underlying causes of construction workers’ mental health has made them more vulnerable and susceptible to mental illnesses. Current measures have largely taken a wait-and-see approach in the forms of taskforce and counsellors after coming under the public’s eye.
The Way Forward
Mental health is an invisible illness that has tangible impacts on one’s life. What Singapore’s policymakers and society at large is doing now is woefully inadequate. As we step into the new normal post COVID-19 and develop to become a stronger nation, we mustn’t forget about the unsung heroes behind the very buildings we live in.
Beyond construction workers, other migrant workers hoping to make a living in Singapore face similar marginalisation and discrimination but unique to their own contexts. For example, the problems faced by female foreign domestic workers (FDWs) are a completely different ball game as they are of a different gender and because these FDWs live within the same household as their employers. With no separation between their personal lives and their workplace, it is difficult to set boundaries. Moving forward, more analysis should be done to investigate the drivers of other migrant workers’ rising mental health issues.
While this discussion has largely been based on Singapore’s context, the problems faced by migrant workers worldwide are, by and large, similar in that they are often treated as second-class citizens and do not have equal access to many resources, let alone mental health resources.
Who will listen to their voices?
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