Singapore: The unseen migrant workers behind those skyscrapers

A migrant construction worker throws his boots to the side as he takes a break with fellow workers at the end of his shift in the central business district in Singapore
Photo: Reuters

By Sangeetha Thanapal.
This article will be published in Fightback’s upcoming magazine issue on migrant and refugee rights. To subscribe, click here.

Many migrant workers come to Singapore in the hopes of making a better life for themselves and their families back home, only to leave disheartened at the exploitative practices and abuse they undergo in the country.

Migrant workers in Singapore make up about 1.4 million within Singapore’s larger population of 5.6 million people.[1] Desperate for cheap labour to build the state, Singapore has had an open door policy for low-wage workers for decades. These workers are usually from India, Bangladesh and China and it is their labour that has built the skyscrapers which tourists love so much about Singapore.

They also live under harsh and extremely restrictive measures, and are often mistreated, overworked and underpaid. Their employers (who are overwhelmingly rich, Chinese businessmen in a country with a 77% Chinese majority) often cajole them with promises of paying later, and then resort to threats and mistreatment.

The state pays lip service to fair work but its policies say otherwise. More often than not, itrarely prosecutes employers[2] who withhold the wages of their employee and does not step in to ensure safe working environments.[3] It also unwittingly supports employers in their mistreatment, as workers who complain or take their employers to task can have their work permits cancelled. Thus, there is serious disincentive for workers to even claim what is rightfully theirs, made worse by a system that condones their disenfranchisement.

An analysis of workers and their plight in Singapore also requires a gendered aspect. Foreign domestic workers in Singapore are women, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia. Their stories diverge from male construction workers but only a little. Stories of physical, mental and sexual abuse are rife.[4] Women are locked up, overworked and underfed.[5] Some have been offered up “for sale”6 and many others have resorted to suicide.[7]

It is clear that migrant work in Singapore is a form of modern day slavery.[8]

So why do neighbouring countries keep sending their workers to be treated in such abysmal ways? There seems to be a convergence of interest between rich states who desire cheap labour and poor ones who can’t afford to keep many unemployed workers at home. Furthermore, a weak civil society[9] within Singapore that is kept crippled by a strong state finds it hard to grapple with this problem. There is often the idea that Singaporeans themselves are economically exploited, and that needs to be the first priority amongst civil society. There are only two NGOs that work on behalf of migrant workers, TWC2[10] and HOME.[11] On a typical day, TWC2 can see up to 500 workers with different grievances. The kind of exploitation faced by these workers is too deeply endemic for two NGOs to deal with adequately, especially when faced with an apathetic government that sees these workers as dehumanised objects to be used and tossed aside.

As a state, Singapore practices a type of surveillance mechanism, where every aspect of people’s lives are watched and controlled. Foreign workers are often subject to containment measures, especially dark-skinned South Asian men whose mere physical presence alone causes panic. There is a spatial othering that occurs with these men, who are often confined to certain areas of the country. There was even an outcry at government plans to build a dormitory for these workers in a high density building estate.[12] Singaporeans want migrant workers to do their ‘dirty work’ for them, but do not want to lay eyes on them while they do it.

The women are subjected to a different kind of scrutiny, where their bodies are the site of medical surveillance. Work permit policies prohibit these women from becoming pregnant[13] on the threat of losing their jobs and being deported. These women come to look after Singaporean families but they cannot create any of their own. They also bear all the responsibility for not getting pregnant and given the strong possibility of abuse and rape as a domestic worker in Singapore, this is an undue and unjust burden that is placed on them.

Historically, the Singapore state has practiced a form of eugenics,14 where poor women’s children’s are deemed simply not good enough for the state. The policies aimed at controlling the bodies of domestic workers are an extension of that. Unwanted children from unwanted women is transgressive: the state only desires certain types of bodies to procreate, despite a concern for the falling birth rate.[15]

Workers in Singapore in general have little rights and migrant workers face a predominance of abusive work situations with little recourse or avenue for recompense. As the Singapore government refuses to see them as human beings who deserve a safe environment to work in, this state of affairs seems likely to continue in time to come.

1Migrant workers struggle to get paid, CNN: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/02/24/asia/singapore-migrant-workers-intl/index.html
2More errant workers should be prosecuted, Today: https://www.todayonline.com/voices/more-errant-employers-should-be-prosecuted-not-paying-salaries
3Migrant workers’ cases in Singapore more shocking than in Hong Kong, South China Morning Post: https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/law-crime/article/2076082/cases-involving-migrant-workers-more-shocking-singapore
46 out of 10 maids in Singapore are exploited, Channel NewsAsia: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/6-out-of-10-maids-in-singapore-are-exploited-survey-9454694
5Singapore couple jailed for starving Philipino maid, BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-39402698
6Singapore ads for Indonesian maids for sale ignites anger, Rappler: https://www.rappler.com/world/regions/asia-pacific/212335-anger-over-singapore-ads-offering-indonesian-maids-for-sale
7Maid commits suicide after being locked up for three days straight, The Independent: http://theindependent.sg/maid-commits-suicide-after-being-locked-up-for-three-months-straight/
8Migrant workers in Singapore “vulnerable to forced labour”, TWC: http://twc2.org.sg/2017/07/14/migrant-workers-in-singapore-vulnerable-to-forced-labor-including-debt-bondage-says-us-tip-2017-report/
9Singapore’s constrained civil society, BBE: http://www.b-b-e.de/fileadmin/inhalte/aktuelles/2016/02/enl-2-ortmann-gastbeitrag.pdf
10TWC2: http://twc2.org.sg/
11HOME: https://www.home.org.sg/
12Serangoon Gardens Dormitory Saga, Progress in GP: https://progressgp.wordpress.com/2009/07/19/serangoon-gardens-dormitory-saga/
13Maids fear losing jobs when they get pregnant, The Straits Times: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/maids-fear-losing-job-when-they-get-pregnant
14Population planning in Singapore, Wikipedia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_planning_in_Singapore
15Singapore’s fertility rate at new seven-year low, Channel NewsAsia: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/singapore-total-fertility-rate-new-low-1-16-10002558

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