While we are used to speaking of human rights in terms of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly or the right to life, is there also a corresponding right to recreation? If so, how well is this right upheld for migrant workers who labour in places where they might not speak the host language nor are familiar with the laws of the land?

Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights safeguards the right to recreation, specifically declaring that everyone “has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay”.

While the UN stipulates that everyone has a right to recreation, there is often a gap between one’s rights and reality due to a lack of enforcement as well as differences in interpretation. When it comes to workers’ rights, employers are generally concerned about health and safety issues, whereas issues of recreation take a backseat. This would be met with agreement by the employees too, especially if taking a day off means that they receive one less day of pay.

Most employers would not be familiar with the right to recreation. Even if they did, there would be considerable variances over how to interpret a reasonable limitation of working hours. What constitutes a reasonable break – one hour lunch, 7 hours of sleep each night or a weekend off?

Recreation spaces for migrant workers in Singapore

Given that Singapore is getting more crowded by the day, it is becoming increasingly difficult for migrant workers to find recreation spots. Singapore now has 255,800 foreign domestic workers, a 27% spike from 2010 and it is not surprising that there are fewer spots available for migrant workers to relax on their day off. Given their low wages of roughly $700, they cannot afford to sit in cafes where coffee costs about $6 per cup.

Unfortunately, there have been casualties as a result of the lack of recreational space for migrant workers in Singapore. On 29 December 2019, a car lost control and crashed into 6 Filipino migrant workers at Lucky Plaza. The group of friends were gathering on the pavement where they were celebrating the year-end festivities. While four of them were injured, two in the group were killed.

Organisations seeking a solution for the migrant workers’ lack of space face a dilemma. Creating spaces specifically designated for migrant workers serves to further delineate low-wage foreign workers from the rest of Singapore society. Restricting foreigners to special areas can also lead to the perception that foreigners are the “others” and should not be seen in mainstream, public spaces.

In response to the 2013 Little India riots, recreation centres were established near workers’ dormitories to provide them with the amenities they need so that they would not have to congregate at Little India.

However, even if we put aside the social exclusion effect of such special areas, these centres cannot replace popular congregation places. The chair of the Migrant Workers’ Centre highlighted that people are naturally inclined towards spaces that are meaningful to them and will thus try to meet at spaces where they feel at home, especially where they reside in foreign countries.

One of the solutions currently proposed is to build safe spaces close to where the migrant workers already congregate. Perhaps we could build a clubhouse near Lucky Plaza or create a pedestrian-only zone near Orchard Road which would benefit both locals and migrant workers.

Trump Administration cuts recreational activities for migrant children

In the US, the Trump administration has sought to terminate funding for all educational, recreational and legal services offered to migrant children in US custody. These are unaccompanied minors who are detained near the Southern border. Thus, so long as these services are not related to life or safety, they may be terminated.

While they await immigration court hearings or to be united with relatives or other sponsors, they would not be able to receive even basic educational and recreational activities like rudimentary English lessons or sports. 

Critics of the plan argue that these basic educational and recreational services are imperative for their physical and mental well-being. Terminating these services would cause further harm to the children even as they await in limbo pending an immigration court’s decision. Furthermore, these educational activities ensure that children are engaged during the day and helps to minimise behavioural problems.

Is there a right to recreation for migrant children who are caught in the grey area of the law?

Watch this YouTube video on migrant workers during Ramadan in Singapore.

Questions for further personal evaluation: 

  1. Why do you think the right to recreation exists? What is the value of recreation?
  2. How should Singapore create recreational spaces for migrant workers (and locals)? What are the more important factors to consider? 

Useful vocabulary: 

  1. safeguard’: protect from harm or damage with an appropriate measure
  2. dilemma’: a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially equally undesirable ones

Here are more related articles for further reading:

  1. CNN: How migrant workers in Singapore struggle to get paid

Working in a city without a minimum wage, they earn a fraction of the salaries of white collar employees who toil in offices the migrant workers construct. Despite the city state’s reputation for technocratic efficiency, for some it’s a huge struggle to get paid.

Frustrated with not being paid their full salary, Sardar and two of his co-workers decided in September to complain to the ministry.

Such a move is not an easy decision for most workers. Filing a complaint against one’s boss can trigger repercussions. Under Singaporean law, migrant workers’ permits are tied to their employers, who can terminate work permits at any time.

Migrant workers typically pay agent or recruitment fees that range from S$3,000 up to S$15,000 to get a job in Singapore, according to a paper released by HOME earlier this year.

  1. Salon: Reasons for a right to recreation

There is a stigma associated with the idea that people have a right to recreation. It’s difficult enough convincing many right-wing Americans that everyone has a right to a job — but arguing that every person is entitled to leisure time is practically verboten even on the left. After all, a right to leisure, by implication, means a right to do as one pleases with one’s time — even if that doesn’t involve holding down a job and receiving compensation for said work.

It means, in other words, that you have a right to money without having to work for it, so that you can figure out the best way to realize your own individual potential through recreation.

The stigma surrounding this concept became pretty clear when there was a backlash to overview notes from a version of a Green New Deal proposal which said that there should be “economic security for all who are unable or unwilling to work.” While the immediate imperative there would be to guarantee that financial hardships wouldn’t befall even the willfully lazy — a group that Americans from both parties seem to feel deserve whatever misfortunes come to them — there is also the subtext that those who aren’t willing or able to work at traditional jobs may genuinely feel that their time would be better spent doing other things. The outrage, of course, was rooted in the fact that the rest of society would have to foot the bill.