Gambling by proxy

The Straits Times (Singapore’s main English language newspaper), published a very disturbing article this week about employers who send foreign workers with cash to gamble on the employer’s behalf at one of Singapore’s two casino resorts. If they win, they can keep some of the money. If they lose a little, the employer takes the loss, but “if they [lose] too much money, their pay would be docked.”

The exploitation should be obvious to anyone familiar with the foreign labor environment in Singapore. “Foreign workers” is a catch all term for foreigners at the lower end of the job market: these men and women work in a variety of industries for monthly wages often measured in hundreds of dollars, plus room and board. Live-in maids typically have a small room adjacent to the kitchen of their employer.  For men, rooming is often hostel living or, for construction sites, on-site temporary dormitories. Everything in their lives depends on their continued employment and good relations with their employer. Many of them remit most of their monthly salaries to families back home in India, China, the Philippines or Bangladesh, who depend on them to build a better life.

Why send foreigners to gamble? Because by law, Singaporeans and permanent residents need to pay S$100 to enter the casinos. In addition, Singaporeans can bar themselves and close family members from entering the casinos at all if they have a gambling habit, and some of the employers named in the article are on the list. Honestly, what kind of gambling problem does it take for someone to get the thrill by sending someone else to do it? Even Christopher Hitchens gave up smokes when he got sick; as far as I know he’s not paying others to take a drag on his behalf.

The government response has been focused exactly where it should be, on the employers. From the  followup article on government reaction:

‘I think it is gravely wrong to make use of the vulnerable foreign workers, who are in a very difficult position,’ said Mr Christopher de Souza, deputy chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Manpower.

Damn right. But this sorry spectacle comes at a time of rising discontent among Singaporeans unhappy with the number of foreigners in Singapore. Immigration policy is blamed for taking jobs from Singaporeans (hard to see, given 3% unemployment) depressing Singaporean wages (quite possibly), inflating housing prices (quite probably), and overcrowding public transit (almost surely). Unhappiness with policy spills over into resentment towards foreigners themselves, with all the expected ugliness, xenophobia and racism dragged in its wake.

So, incredibly, some members of the public have suggested that the solution to this latest exploitation is to ban low income foreign workers from the casinos. By law. This is a such a shockingly ill thought suggestion it leaves me a bit numb, even after living here almost seven years.  “It is now illegal for you to be exploited; if it happens, you will be arrested”. Employers, the real culprits, would face no consequences, and be free to recruit gambling proxies from other vulnerable populations, including people on social visit passes.

It amazes me that some people think a law that bars people from a legal activity because they are poor and foreigners would be a good idea. Let’s consider two issues in the recent elections: immigration policy and income inequality. Anti-foreigner sentiment is, for all practical purposes, an issue of the opposition, including its ugly side.  I’ve not yet heard an opposition leader address this problem candidly, but they will need to, and soon. Income inequality — now a worldwide issue thanks to OWS and its brethren — wasn’t as great an issue in Singapore’s elections overall, but sharpened when focused on specific areas like ministerial pay and housing.  But even at its most stark, the myriad disadvantages of the poor people are practical, not encoded in law. A law that barred people from a legal activity because they were poor should not please Singaporeans, even if they drew some satisfaction that it applied only to foreigners.

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