Singapore looks clean and prosperous, but most of the scut work in the city-state is performed by poorly paid foreign workers. Photographer: Nicky Loh/Bloomberg
Singapore looks clean and prosperous, but most of the scut work in the city-state is performed by poorly paid foreign workers. Photographer: Nicky Loh/Bloomberg

From all appearances, Singapore seems to have dealt with the nation’s first riot since 1969 with its usual efficiency. The streets of Little India -- where an Indian migrant worker was killed by a bus on Sunday night, sparking two hours of mayhem -- have been cleared of debris. The government has called for a commission to investigate the incident, and has charged 24 Indian nationals with rioting. Officials have banned the sale of alcohol in the area this weekend. Citizens have been instructed to remain calm.

Up to this point, official have resisted linking the outbreak of violence to the alienation and poor working conditions of the migrant workers who gather in Little India on Sundays — their one day off, if they're lucky. There’s nothing wrong with this logic: the several dozen rioters who attacked police and first responders on Sunday night work for different employers, all of whom may be perfectly upstanding businessmen. The rush to find deeper sociological explanations for acts of disorder -- think of the London riots in 2011 -- is often misguided.

All this is true -- yet so is the fact that the hundreds of thousands of low-wage migrant workers who have laid the foundations for Singapore’s spectacular growth suffer all the same problems in the proudly efficient city-state as do their compatriots in much poorer, more chaotic nations. Middlemen charge huge fees to procure jobs and work permits. Bosses often delay or even withhold pay, knowing they can always get workers deported. Laborers are often housed in grim conditions, with dozens of men crammed into tiny, lightless rooms and sharing a single bathroom.

To its credit, the government has set up means for workers to raise complaints about abuses, and has become more responsive to local labor-rights nongovernmental organizations. Yet the process can take months, during which time the complainant must remain in Singapore and can't work for another employer. Often without written contracts or pay slips, workers can have a hard time proving their cases.

What's worse, workers are often segregated and separated from the rest of Singapore. The smashed-up bus at the heart of Sunday’s riot was carrying laborers home from Little India to the far-flung dormitories where they are increasingly isolated. Voters are growing restive about the number of foreigners -- a third of the workforce -- living in Singapore. Some officials have suggested housing transient workers on offshore islands; workers say that auxiliary police have been increasingly tough, restricting where they can congregate and issuing frequent citations for minor offenses such as jaywalking and littering.

Here's the thing: Despite growing tensions with locals, Singapore is going to need to import more low-wage workers to continue its construction and shipping booms, not less. The government understands this. Plenty of ideas have been put forward to improve matters -- allowing workers to change jobs, so they’re not beholden to one employer; having the government distribute their pay through a centralized system to prevent cheating; creating more spaces for workers to gather and socialize; developing a black list of employers who violate existing rules. If Singapore really wants to promote growth -- and serve as a model for efficiency in the region -- it could do worse than to embrace these measures.

(Nisid Hajari is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter.)