Event: Syria Speaks

syria peaceful revolution

March 15th is the anniversary of the Syrian revolution.

Hear Syrians in New Zealand speak against the uprising about the Assad government, the violence that has followed, the role of foreign governments in the conflict, and what New Zealanders can do to help. An informational meeting supported by Organise Aotearoa (views of speakers do not necessarily represent OA).

Speakers:
ALI AKIL came from Syria as a teenager and has lived here for two decades. His father was an activist against the Assad regime who was imprisoned, tortured and narrowly escaped execution. Ali was the founder of Syrian Solidarity NZ, which was established in 2011 in response to the dignity uprising in Syria.
(others TBA)

6pm, Friday March 15th
The Peace Place, 22 Emily Place, Auckland, New Zealand
[Facebook event]

Syrian revolution pamphlet successfully crowdfunded

free syria

Fightback are pleased to announce we have successfully met our goal of raising $1,000 for our upcoming pamphlet Syria: Revolution and Counter-Revolution. The pamphlet will be published in both electronic and printed forms, and in English and Arabic.

In Syria today, Assad and his lackeys are flattening entire neighbourhoods, so this little collection of writing seems like a small contribution in terms of solidarity.

However, ugly lies about Syria have become a commonplace, infecting even the left which claims to be a bastion of solidarity. We therefore consider it important to tell the truth about Syria, as an absolute minimum commitment of anyone who believes in democracy and self-determination.

The pamphlet will feature five articles, including reviews of the books The Impossible Revolution and Burning Country, and an interview with Syrian Australian artist Miream Salameh (alongside featuring Salameh’s artwork).

The campaign closes on March 14th, so there is still time if you’d like to contribute and receive a copy.

Funds raised will go directly to production and distribution costs, including translation. Sincere thanks to all who have pledged.

Click here here for PledgeMe campaign

Germany: The far right, conservative leftism and how to get rid of that shit

la gauche

Top: Die Linke’s Sahra Wagenknecht, text translates to ‘left-wing anti-immigration.’ Bottom: German antifascist flag.

By JoJo, a Fightback correspondent based in Germany.

This article will be published on Fightback’s upcoming magazine on International Perspectives. To subscribe, please click here.

In this piece, I attempt to analyze some strategies against the rise of the far right in Germany, including conservative leftism. I will argue that in order to push back fascism as well as conservative leftism, we will need to develop a new progressive leftist narrative that not only connects current struggles but also explores ways to overcome capitalism and what a post-capitalist society might look like. I’m using examples from the German context as it is the one best known to me but since developments are similar elsewhere, I hope folks might find this piece helpful.

In Germany, like elsewhere, we have seen a normalization of the far right over the last couple of years. In Fightback’s magazine on “Migrant and Refugee rights” from June 2017 I wrote about the rise of the AfD, the “Alternative for Germany”, Germany’s far right party1. Things haven’t changed a lot since then, the AfD now has seats in all regional parliaments as well as the national parliament and is scoring around 12-15% in polls nation-wide and over 20% in East Germany. This is still accompanied with far right mobilizations on the streets, most notably last August in Chemnitz (a town in East Germany) where Neo-Nazis and other far right activists exploited the killing of a 35-year old man for their racist agenda because of the suspect’s refugee status, leading to large racist demonstrations and riots.

The Left was not able to stop this development, despite some successful antifascist mobilizations. Until last year, confronting the AfD was mainly the job of the radical leftist activist milieu alone, other forces did seldomly show up or organize counter-protests. But Chemnitz among some other factors seems to have changed that: In October, a demonstration under the motto Unteilbar (“undividable”) mobilized almost a quarter million people in Berlin. It was mainly targeted against the AfD, but also made a clear point that the social question and the cause for open borders are not to be played out against each other. Trade unionists, migrants, queers and feminists marched together as they saw their interests connected to each other. In addition, demonstrations of Seebrücke (“sea bridge”), demanding the decriminalization of NGOs who rescue refugees in the Mediterranean, also brought surprisingly high numbers of people to the streets.

Other progressive social movements have been growing as well: The climate movement is becoming bigger and more successful, mainly around the struggle to save Hambach forest which is being cut down to make place for an open cast lignite mine, but also with the school students’ “Fridays for Future” protests. There can also be seen a rise in feminist organizing, leading up to a women’s and queers’ strike on March 8 (international women’s day).

Also, within the Left, there are some interesting debates going on around “new class politics”2. Those who argue for “new class politics” want the Left to return their focus to class issues, to organize and push forward class struggles, but without just repeating “old” class politics. Instead, the Left should take into account today’s composition of the working class and see feminist and anti-racist issues connected to the class struggle.

These developments, in theory as well as in praxis, signal a shift from mere antifascist counter-activism towards more actively pushing forward an own agenda, an own narrative of solidarity. It will be crucial to develop class struggles and connect them with feminist and anti-racist issues, since the far right attempts to play out the white (and mostly male) working class against migrants and other minorities. Even though the AfD is a cross-class project and has indeed a quite neoliberal program, it seems to be attractive for white male low-income workers who over-proportionally vote for them. This has of course a lot to do with their attempt to save white and male privilege, but is also connected to their class position. Without a visible and believable left anti-capitalist narrative, a far right populist program gives people the opportunity to express their diffuse anger which is rooted in their miserable situation and exploitation, but is then being redirected against migrants and “corrupt elites”. Of course, determined AfD supporters will not be convinced by left wing ideas and the connection of class struggle with feminism and anti-racism. “New class politics” is rather a strategy that aims to make a left narrative visible on the long term, so that this anger can be rationalized and directed towards the proper goal, before it is even redirected by far right populism.

However, the debates about how to react to the rise of the far right does not lead everyone on the Left to take a stance of borderless solidarity with all oppressed and exploited people (which is basically what “new class politics” and the social movements briefly described above have in common). Just like in the Anglosphere and in other countries as well, some on the Left think that they can win back right-wing voters by compromising their stance on migration issues and focusing primarily on the “white working class” (to be more precise, they sometimes do not even focus on the “white working class”, but abandon class analysis all together for a mere populism of positioning “the people” against “the elites”). The most prominent figure of this development in Germany is Sahra Wagenknecht, parliamentary leader of the party Die Linke (“the Left”). Over the last couple of years, Wagenknecht repeatedly draw attention with anti-refugee remarks. In October 2016, she even took part in a double interview with AfD-leader Frauke Petry in which she agreed with her on some points. Her positions are heavily debated within Die Linke, however the party still doesn’t throw her off her chair, probably because they are afraid to lose votes, as Wagenknecht is currently the party’s most notable and charismatic politician.

Last year, Sahra Wagenknecht launched the self-acclaimed movement Aufstehen (“Stand Up”) together with other politicians mostly from Die Linke, but also from the Social Democrats and the Greens3. Aufstehen claims to be a collective movement of the Left, bringing together members of different parties and non-party members. It is inspired by La France Insoumise, a similar movement in France launched by left-wing nationalist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and the Momentum platform for Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. Aufstehen has so far not been particularly active in any protests, but has already around 167,000 members (as of December 2018). It is a perfect example of conservative leftism, defined by Fightback’s Daphne Lawless as “a reactionary, undialectical opposition to various aspects of neoliberalism” which “essentially consists in trying to apply yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems”4. With Aufstehen this means trying to bring back the social welfare state of the post-war years, while ignoring that this kind of social welfare state could only exist in this certain historical moment, with a Fordist production model and the system competition with the Eastern block. It could also only exist in the framework of the nation state, was based on the exploitation of the Global South, and was also deeply connected with traditional gender and family norms. It is thus only consistent that Wagenknecht and Aufstehen are mostly ignoring gender, sexuality, race and migration issues if they are not openly opposing these emancipatory struggles. Aufstehen did not take part in the big Unteilbar-demonstration and Wagenknecht said this was due to Unteilbar’s position in favor of open borders. However, some local branches took part in the march nevertheless and criticized Wagenknecht for her announcement which they had no say in, since Aufstehen so far still does not have a democratic decisionmaking process. So it would be false to accuse all Aufstehen members of red-brown politics, as some on the antifascist Left do. Instead, it might be interesting to examine why it is so successful in gaining members.

Aufstehen does professional social media work that addresses issues of social inequality in a relatable and understandable way, often with personal examples of Aufstehen supporters and offers easy ways to get organized, online as well as in many local groups. This is a level of accessibility often lacking within the radical Left. It is also not a big surprise that in lack of a progressive anti-capitalist alternative, the answer of many people who are discontent with neo-liberalism is to return to some way of social welfare state, especially if they still grew up in such a welfare state.

So I would argue that even though it is necessary to critique conservative leftism, the best way to overcome it is to actually offer a progressive alternative to it.

What could such an alternative look like? As a Marxist, the answer is of course that I do not want some kind of more “social” capitalism, but that capitalism should be abolished. However, this cannot stay a mere slogan. Instead, we need to think about what capitalism is and what can replace it. The traditional Marxist models of state socialism has certainly failed and cannot be repeated (that attempt would be just another kind of conservative leftism). To develop new strategies of overcoming capitalism it is helpful to look at the critiques of “actually existing socialism” made by ultra-left currents such as the Communization or the Value-Critizism current5. According to them, traditional Marxists’ fault was and is to reduce Marx’s theory of capital to class struggle. The goal thus became for the proletariat to take over state power from the bourgeoisie leading to a nationalization of value production, to state capitalism, instead of the abolition of capital. Instead of reducing Marxism to a question of power relations between two classes, the ultra-leftists developed a fundamental critique of the basic categories of capitalism such as commodity, value, work, money, capital and state. In a capitalist society, these appear fetishized (a concept developed by Marx in the first chapter of Capital Vol. 1), which briefly means they seem to be natural, a-historical and thus unchangeable categories to the “common sense”, but are actually the product of specific social relations. Fetishism does not mean that the capitalist class somehow tricks the workers into thinking that these categories are unchangeable, but rather it is a process that happens “behind everyone’s back” and affects workers as well as capitalists. To abolish capitalism would then mean to abolish these basic categories, to establish a mode of production where things are not produced as commodities, where they are not exchanged and where therefore would be no money (or no equivalent such as “labour time vouchers” as in some traditional Marxist and anarchist models of economy). Instead, it would be the realization of Marx’ slogan “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”.

In their recently published book “Kapitalismus aufheben”, Simon Sutterlütti and Stefan Meretz, both coming from a background of Value-Criticism as well as Critical Psychology, elaborate what such a society might look like6. They call it “commonism”, a play of words with “communism” and “commons”. Commons are resources that no-one owns, but that are available for everyone to use for free, often self-managed in a non-hierarchical way by those who are using it. They are a form of economy that exists beyond state or market. Commons exist already under capitalism, e.g. in form of open source software, and actually precede capitalism, as under feudalism, meadows and forests were often used as commons. The project of commonism would then be to extend these already existing commons and to replace private property with commons. The internet will probably play an important role here, not only because many forms of modern commons are being developed here, but also because it offers possibilities to manage the commons and to coordinate different commons-projects in a flat-hierarchical manner. This does however not replace the revolutionary expropriation of the resources that are now in private hands and need to be made common. In a commonist society, everyone would be able to feel safe since everyone’s needs would be fulfilled instead of the fulfillment of needs being dependent on market mechanisms, that always leave people behind, as in capitalism.

Capitalism produces misery and fear on a daily basis, especially since its fundamental crisis that’s been going on since 2008. It is no surprise that in a society based on competition and exclusion this leads to authoritarian reactions and people’s diffuse anger often being directed at scapegoats. So in order to tackle the rise of the far right, mere antifascist counter-activism, even though it is necessary, is not enough. Instead, the Left needs to push forward an own narrative of universal solidarity. The diverse social movements described above as well as the approach of “new class politics” are a starting point of that. However, they often lack a clear vision about how capitalism can be overcome and what can replace it. Without such a vision I think a discontent with the neoliberal status quo often tends to lead to conservative leftist reactions as it is much more satisfying to cling to a “better past” than to have no idea what we’re actually fighting for at all. I suggest that the concept of commons could be such a progressive vision, not only because they fulfill the communist promise “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”, but also because they are prefigured already today and thus are not just some abstract idea, but something that people can already experience in some niches. In fact, social movements often tend to produce social dynamics of commoning, when people come together in solidarity, establish protest camps, share food and other resources according to people’s needs or squat buildings or squares and thus make them common.

To be able to win against the far right and against conservative leftism, we need social movements of universal solidarity and a progressive alternative to capitalism as offered by the concept of commons.

2Mostly within the undogmatic leftist monthly newspaper Analyse&Kritik, e.g. see here (unfortunately only in German): https://www.akweb.de/ak_s/ak627/18.htm

3https://aufstehen.de/ for those who understand German

5English texts by the German value-critizism journal Krisis are available here: http://www.krisis.org/navi/english/

6The book can be read online at commonism.us unfortunately again only in German

Crowdfunding campaign for Syria pamphlet launched

idlib-kafranbel-protest

“The people want the fall of the regime – الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام‎.”

Having emerged from the Tunisian revolution and the wider ‘Arab Spring’, this slogan played a role in setting off the Syrian revolution when a group of youths were ‘disappeared’ for grafitiing it in the city of Dara’a. Citizens from many faiths mobilised in the streets of Syria, calling for democratic reform, before Assad’s military repression set off the ongoing crisis we see today – the greatest refugee crisis in a generation.

However, misinformation about the Syrian revolution abounds. You don’t have to go far on the internet to find claims that the Syrian revolution was a CIA conspiracy from the start – a claim made by Chris Trotter on New Zealand’s most popular left blog.

As put in the book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, “the start of solidarity is correcting the narrative.” Fightback therefore seeks to help correct the narrative with a collection of articles on the Syrian revolution. The pamphlet will contain five articles by Fightback members, including two book reviews, an interview with a resettled Syrian Australian, and other analysis.

Rather than making grand uninformed claims about the war, this material seeks to engage with work by Syrian revolutionaries, and encourage wider engagement.

The pamphlet will be published in both English and Arabic, and in both electronic and printed forms.

Funds will go towards design, printing, mailout, and translation of articles.

كتيب حول سوريا: الثورة والثورة المضادة باللغة الإنجليزية والعربية

إن شعار الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام“. بعد أن خرج من الثورة التونسية و وبشكل اوسع من الربيع العربي، لعب دوراً في إنطلاقة الثورة السورية وذلك عندما تم اعتقال مجموعة من الشبان بسبب كتابة هذا الشعار على جدران مدينة درعا. احتشد المواطنون من مختلف الأديان في شوارع سوريا ، داعين إلى الإصلاح الديمقراطي ، قبل أن يؤدي القمع العسكري للأسد إلى الأزمة الحالية التي نشهدها اليوم وهي أكبر أزمة لاجئين لهذا الجيل.

إن المعلومات الخاطئة حول الثورة السورية هي معلومات زاخرة، وليس علينا الذهاب بعيدا على الانترنت للعثور على مزاعم بأن الثورة السورية هي مؤامرة من قبل سي آي إي وكالة الاستخبارات المركزية الأميركية” – وهو ادعاء قدمه مارتين برادبري ، مدون اليسارالأكثر شعبية في نيوزيلندا.

وكما ورد في كتاب الأرض المحروقة: سوريا في الثورة والحربيبدأ التضامن في تصحيح السرد ومنظمة فايت باك دافعتسعى للمساعدة في ذلك من خلال طرح كتيب لمجموعة من المقالات حول الثورة السورية.

يحتوي هذا الكتيب على خمس مقالات من أعضاء حزب فايت باك دافع، تتضمن هذه المقالات مراجعة لكتابين ومقابلة مع سورية استرالية تم توطينها وتحليلات أخرى. فبدلا من تقديم ادعاءات كبيرة غير معلنة عن الحرب، تسعى هذه المادة الى الانخراط في العمل مع الثوريين السوريين وتشجيع المشاركة على نطاق أوسع.

سيتم نشر الكتيب باللغتين الإنجليزية والعربية ، وفي كلتي النماذج الإلكترونية والمطبوعة.

سوف يستخدم المال من أجل التصميم والطباعة والبريد وترجمة المقالات.

Please click here to donate and promote

Why I no longer support #changethedate

Aboriginals communities stage a protest on Australia Day

This article is reprinted from the Aboriginal-led website IndigenousX. Please consider donating to their patreon.

This will also be reprinted in our upcoming magazine on theme of ‘International Perspectives.’ You can subscribe to our magazine here.

You want a day to celebrate Australia. I want an Australia that’s worth celebrating.

In the past I have supported the #changethedate campaign.

Until recently, when you searched ‘change the date’ on Google in Australia the first entry was even an article I wrote a few years back titled ‘Why we should change the date ofAustralia Day’.

It is still the most successful article on this website, by far.

I had hoped that there were enough Australians who would agree that celebrating Invasion is a pretty shit thing to do, and that changing the date could provide a catalyst for creating a country worthy of celebration. However, after seeing the rise of the #changethedate campaign I have come to the opinion that there are too many people who seem to think that the problem with Australia Day rests solely on the day we celebrate it, not with what we are celebrating.

I don’t really feel that Australia, where we sit right now, is worth celebrating.

Not just the actions of 230 years ago, or a century ago, or 50 or even 15 years ago that are problematic.

It is those things that exist today that are so problematic that I couldn’t in good faith celebrate our nation as a whole. A lot of that is tied up in our denial of history and our collective refusal to make any meaningful steps to reconcile it, but it extends beyond that too.

A simple observation would be to point out that there are only two events where we can be guaranteed to see white people wearing flag capes – on Australia Day and at neo-Nazi rallies.

Moving an overly politicised and problematic day to another date won’t change that.

A country that is content with Indigenous incarceration rates sometimes going up to as high as 100% in individual prisons, even though we represent 3% of the population, is not one I really want to celebrate anyway, regardless of what date it is on.

Especially not when you look at those incarcerated often dealing with issues of FASD, severe hearing loss, intergenerational trauma, or abuse at the hands of the state.

Many people whose only real crime is being poor; poor in a country made wealthy of the backs of Indigenous peoples’ dispossession, exploitation and exclusion from the opportunities created within colony.

A country that refuses to ever hold authorities to account for the deaths of Indigenous people in custody is one that does not deserve a party.

And that’s just scratching the surface of issues to do with incarceration. There are countless other issues in countless other areas across the colony in health, education, media, housing… you name it.

We have people homeless on their homelands while billions have been ripped out of those same lands through mining.

We have communities whose water is poisoned.

People who are routinely punished for not applying for jobs that don’t exist.

We have people whose languages were stolen from their parents and grandparents and today we act like teaching people their languages in school would somehow be doing them a disservice.

We have corporates who we applaud for hiring Indigenous people even if the government has to pay them to do it.

We acknowledge the traditional owners at events, but we don’t acknowledge what happened to change them from ‘owners’ to ‘traditional owners’.

How many of us even know what happened right under our feet to make that change? In detail. Do you know the names? Do you know the sacred sites and the massacre sites?

How can we acknowledge what we don’t even know?

That is not to say that there aren’t amazing and beautiful people, places and actions all across Australia that are worthy of celebration, but most of those things for me exist in spite of the colonial project, not because of it.

We have wonderful slogans of a fair go for all, or of being a lucky country. For years we have had politicians ignore racism by calling Australia ‘the most successful multicultural country on earth’, but now that they are trying to move away from the spirit of multiculturalism to a more open admittance that the Australian-ness of any non-white migrant is always conditional, and that their citizenship can and will be withdrawn at a minute’s notice. In this environment even the lie of being multicultural has needed to be downgraded to ‘the most successful migrant nation’.

These are the lies Australia tells itself, not to aspire to a greater future, but to deny our past and our present. This is why we changed the International Day of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and made it Harmony Day instead. Not because we had eliminated racial discrimination, but because we wanted to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

This is what Australia does with its symbolic gestures. It uses them to pretend that no further changes are required.

And that is why I cannot in good conscience support #changethedate anymore. If public pressure for changing the date grows to sufficient level I don’t doubt that the major parties would do a 180 to support it. But because it would be a responsive vote grab rather than reflecting any sincerely belief or aspirations for a better country, they would continue to dismiss and undermine Indigenous aspirations and to avoid the tough questions of Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination.

So, change the country first, and then we can talk about a date.

Show me a country with a Treaty or Treaties that are robust. A country with meaningful Indigenous representation in decision making that affects us, at the local and the national level.

Show a me a country where the greatest areas for Indigenous representation aren’t in prisons, child removal, and suicide.

Show me a country that acknowledges not just its white supremacist origins, but it’s current state. A country that fights to eradicate racism and understands that we must be eternally vigilant against its resurgence once it is removed.

Show me a country that I can be proud of, that I can teach my children to be proud of, where they can grow up confident in the knowledge that this country doesn’t see their very existence as a problem to be solved, and then I will talk about what could be a good date in the calendar year to throw a party for how awesome the country is. Because right now, I just don’t see a country worth celebrating, and I’m not willing to change the date in the hopes that it might come next year, or the year after that.

Every year more and media orgs at large plays #changethedate for clicks and sensationalism rather than to highlight issues or foster dialogue. Political parties pounce on it with such breathtaking hypocrisy that in the same breath they talk about being a free country and in the next about forcing local councils to hold celebrations and about dress codes for citizenship ceremonies. They hide behind a faux support of migrants to mask their support for white nationalism.

And for the record, the 26th of January will always remain Invasion Day, and Survival Day, and a Day of Mourning, because #LestWeForget.

Hopefully though, one day, Australia might become a country that I could celebrate, but only if we name the changes that need to occur, and we work towards achieving them. Changing the date is one of the final steps one that list, not one of the first.

But even then, the goal should not be so that we can ‘reconcile’, or that we can all have a party together some day on a given date. It needs to be less about appeasing white guilt and more about supporting Indigenous empowerment.

The goal is a country that does not treat Indigenous people as a threat but instead recognises and respects the unique status of Indigenous peoples in Australia, and strives to weave that in to the national identity, decision making processes, and day to day life of the colony – even where that means some Indigenous people choose to withdraw from the communities and institutions that have so long rejected and disenfranchised us and create our own instead.

Luke Pearson is the founder of IndigenousX.

It’s not about ‘regime change’: A brief history of US intervention in Syria

trump putin

By Ani White.

Chomsky’s criticism of US withdrawal from Kurdish-held territory poses a strange contradiction; why have so many on the left accused Syrian Arab rebels of being US proxies, while either supporting or remaining silent on the far more consistent US support of the Kurdish SDF against ISIS?

Given the widespread misinformation about Syria, a basic rundown of the facts about US involvement is necessary. This is a very brief outline of well-known facts about the war – for a more detailed analysis of the various forces involved, the work of Michael Karadjis is particularly recommended.

The dominant narrative on the left holds that US involvement in Syria is an attempt at ‘regime change.’ As highlighted by Karadjis, this is in contradiction with the statements of US officials:

  • In 2016, declaring that the US was “not seeking so-called regime change as it is known in Syria,” Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry added that the US and Russia see the conflict “fundamentally very similarly.”

  • In March 2017, Trump’s UN representative, Nikki Haley, despite her own tendency to spout anti-Assad rhetoric, declared that the Trump administration was “no longer” focused on removing Assad “the way the previous administration was.”

  • The same month, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, noted that “The United States has profound priorities in Syria and Iraq, and we’ve made it clear that counterterrorism, particularly the defeat of ISIS, is foremost among those priorities. With respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept.”

  • In July 2017, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson clarified that the only fight in Syria is with ISIS, that Assad’s future is Russia’s issue, and he essentially called the regime allies: “We call upon all parties, including the Syrian government and its allies, Syrian opposition forces, and Coalition forces carrying out the battle to defeat ISIS, to avoid conflict with one another …”

  • Following the one-off US strike on an empty Assadist air-base after Assad’s horrific chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, US National Security Advisor HR McMaster clarified that the US had no concern with the fact that the base was being used to bomb Syrians again the very next day, because harming Assad’s military capacities was not the aim of the strike; and far from “regime change”, the US desired a “change in the nature of the Assad regime and its behavior in particular.” [note: not a change in the nature of the regime, a change in the nature of the Assad regime].

  • Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s speech in January 2018 focused on supporting the Geneva process for a “political solution,” but now the US no longer expected Assad to stand down at the beginning of a transition phase as under early Obama, or even at its end as under late Obama; rather, US policy was to wait for an eventual “free election” under Assad: “The United States believes that free and transparent elections … will result in the permanent departure of Assad and his family from power. This process will take time, and we urge patience in the departure of Assad and the establishment of new leadership.”

  • Even before his most recent, more blatant, statement, [Trump’s special envoy to Syria Jim Jeffrey] had already made a similar statement in his November 29 address to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Syria, declaring that the US was committed to a political process that “will change the nature and the behaviour of the Syrian government … this is not regime change, this is not related to personalities.”1

 

However, it’s not enough to take officials at their word. Do these claims contradict the actual practice of US intervention? Well, no.

The USA has continuously attacked ISIS-held territory since 2014, killing thousands of civilians.2 Meanwhile, two direct actions against Assad – an airfield bombing in 2017, and a chemical weapons factory bombing in 2018 – killed nobody, and both sought to warn the regime against chemical weapons attacks, rather than remove it from power per se. These two actions prompted widespread protests in the Anglosphere, while continuous US attacks on ISIS-held territory prompted silence, or in some cases support (see the open letter to the US to ‘defend Rojava’ signed by David Harvey, David Graeber and Noam Chomsky among others). If the USA sought to remove Assad from power, why not bomb Damascus? Why focus primarily on ISIS-held territory?

Crucially, the war began not with US involvement, but with an independent popular regional rebellion (against both US-backed states and ‘anti-imperialist’ ones), that was militarily attacked by Assad. In August 2012, Obama famously stated that any use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime was a “red line” that if crossed would invite direct US intervention. Yet in 2013, the Obama administration backed down from a threatened bombing campaign after Assad’s use of chemical weapons in East Ghouta killed 1,400 people.3

Although the USA offered some assistance to the Syrian rebels, this was limited. The Assad regime was able to rain death on the rebels from the sky, while rebels were limited to ground forces, so to beat Assad they would have needed aerial support or weaponry. Yet the CIA specifically blocked Saudi Arabia from providing the rebels with anti-aircraft weapons,45 and the USA did not implement a No Fly Zone. While the reasons for this are murky, they may include the fact that US policy was an ad hoc response to a volatile situation, that many rebels were anti-Zionist and hard to control, and/or the ‘realist’ policy of the Obama administration. Obama infamously mocked the rebels as “farmers or dentists” and said training them would take a lot of time and resources,6 showing a lukewarm attitude to the situation.

Finally, in 2014, ISIS intervention in the Syrian war triggered expanded US involvement. Contrary to narratives which reduce the Syrian revolution to ISIS, the group formed in Iraq, recruited internationally, and opportunistically intervened in the Syrian war as an occupying force – 3 years into the conflict. In September 2014, Congress approved a $500 million expansion of funding for US involvement, focused on equipping rebels to fight ISIS.7 A number of rebels left the training programme after it specifically placed a condition on trainees that they only fight ISIS and not Assad’s forces.8 This led to the US swivel towards supporting the Kurdish forces, which increasingly reached a detente with Assad against their common enemy ISIS. The USA also began bombing ISIS-held territory. In July 2017, Trump ceased arming Syrian rebels.9

US forces would not directly intervene against Assad until 2017, after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib. At this point Trump warned Assad and Putin of the attack, allowing them to evacuate the targeted airfield. This was a symbolic action, at most a warning against further chemical weapons attacks. Again, if the intention was to take out Assad, the USA could have rained death on Damascus rather than Raqqa.

In sum, US policy in Syria since at least 2015 has focused primarily on fighting ISIS, while remaining complicit with Assad. This is not a defence of US policy; complicity with Assad is a bad thing. Trump’s recent claim that “Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there [sic] work” is a logical extension of this policy.

As for why so many leftists falsely characterise the intervention as a ‘regime change’ effort, a few factors seem salient:

  • Reducing a complex situation to an easily understandable one.

  • Relatedly, failing to catch up with a shift in geopolitics whereby the Trump and Putin administrations increasingly converge around reactionary politics.

  • Most fundamentally, solidarity with states rather than people; Assad is imagined to have ‘sovereignty’ despite obviously fake elections, while the Syrian people are secondary.

Those who still identify with the left must catch up with reality; we risk irrelevance at best, and siding with reaction at worst.

Fahrenheit 11/9 review: “There are many Americas”

starstarstarstarstarempty

By Ani White.

Why is there a water crisis in Michigan? “We don’t have the power. We don’t run the factories.”

I was worried that Michigan local Michael Moore might affirm the dominant ‘white working class’ narrative with this film. The above line, spoken by a black working class Michigan woman, abolishes that bullshit in one shot.

Moore is utterly clear that Trump was never the working class candidate. 75% of the USA didn’t vote for him, and the remaining 25% is the wealthiest slice of the electorate.

The film wisely doesn’t focus too heavily on Trump’s various daily inanities, implicitly assuming we already understand he’s evil and ridiculous. Rather, Moore asks what it is about the USA that allowed Trump to gain power. The answers: firstly a sensationalist media that Trump played like a harp from hell, secondly the electoral college, thirdly the demobilisation of the Democrat base, and fundamentally the perennial: racialised, gendered capitalism in advanced senility.

I’m not always a Moore fan – Bowling for Columbine was hilarious at age 13, Roger and Me was an important history lesson, but Fahrenheit 9/11 and Capitalism: A Love Story were politically messy and narcissistic. This film is getting bad box office, and I saw it essentially by accident, initially meaning to see Suspiria which was sold out. However, Fahrenheit 11/9 is a return to form.

Moore employs his traditional populist montage-heavy method for variously better and worse, it’s eclectic and too damn long, but overall it’s bang on target. My red heart swelled at shots of striking teachers set to marching drums. Moore’s familiarity with his home state delivers many cogent and powerful moments.

Couple of political criticisms: Moore sort of dog-whistles at 9/11 trutherism, and just to state an unpopular opinion on the left, he is too soft on the Sanders wave. Vote Democrat out of sheer desperation if you like, but it seems to me that turning the party left-wing is a fool’s errand.

That said, he conveys the deep disappointment generated by every prior Democratic president, constructing a convincing narrative of a party split. For all my many criticisms, I feel the excitement of a youthful socialist counterpublic forming, and understand the need for optimism.

Why do we need optimism? Because a racist misogynist failed businessman leads the ‘free world’, and the fascists are back.
Merry Fucking Christmas.

 

Community, democracy and solidarity in doubling New Zealand’s refugee quota

in the bonds of love parliament

Double the Quota rally at parliament (source: Radio NZ).

This article will be published in Fightback’s December 2018 Migrant Refugee Issue. To subscribe to the e-publication or physical magazine, click here.

Launched in 2013, the campaign to double New Zealand’s refugee quota – after three decades of stagnation – went from a radical ask to a mainstream success. In this article, the campaign’s founder discusses the way that community support and solidarity led to the campaign’s success.

Today, the double the quota campaign is at a rare moment for campaigners: reflecting on a hard earned success. I review the troughs as well as the peaks, wonder at how things might have been otherwise and take pleasure in the way that a wide arc of civil society solidified around the singular ask to do more for refugees.

As I speak to others and read mainstream media representations of the campaign’s success I come to see two general explanations. The first explanation draws from the discourse of politics as intrigue and heroic struggle. This approach explains the increase with reference to the savvy, even heroism, of political leaders and campaigners. In this explanation, change is achieved by a combination of moral fortitude and individual doggedness. This view of political change is singular and acute.

The second explanation comes from the opposite vantage, locating success in a plurality of actors and forces. Civil society and community are foregrounded. While the first explanation offers an easy trajectory for how change comes about, the second is less direct. Change is posited as the result of either spontaneity, coincidence, luck, or a kind of tectonic build up that is eventually unleashed. If the first explanation leans too heavily on the agency of individuals, the second succumbs to a kind of unknowable, almost mystical, fatalism: the view is so diffuse that it offers nothing beyond platitudes of community empowerment.

Both of these go-to explanations simplify the five years of campaigning into a narrative that places too little emphasis on the specific organisations – of which, roughly, there was a dozen – and individuals that rallied members and associates towards this end. These organisations were civil society – such as Amnesty International and ActionStation; religious – the Anglican church, and Quakers Peace Service; anarchist – Peace Action Wellington; social-good businesses – Lush cosmetics and Scoop News; and community service providers and already resettled refugee representatives – groups like the Red Cross and ChangeMakers Refugee Forum, both of whom had to be more cautious of how public support for the campaign might impact on their funding.

Alongside these groups were a similar number of individuals who offered regional organising or economic support to the campaign. These people were drawn into the campaign by pre-existing friendships, our extensive use of Twitter and Facebook and by about forty opinion articles written for almost every major newspaper and website in the country. To name and enumerate what all of these individuals and organisations did and how we came together would take a book. Hence, the recently published Doing Our Bit: the Campaign to Double the Refugee Quota. In lieu of summarising that, I want to focus on a couple of moments of community solidarity from the first third of the campaign when doubling the quota was most often seen as a radical ask.

The first point to note is that community support was the means, but not the end of the campaign. The double the quota campaign was what we came to call a pressure campaign. That means that we tried to make the most acute pressure as possible on decision makers at a specific time. Compare the pressure campaign to a social change campaign which, if it were focussed on refugees, might be geared towards something like changing the New Zealand public’s attitudes towards refugees. In the pressure campaign, we had a very specific goal and it was very obvious who had the authority to make it happen. Social change campaigns don’t have such tidy or measurable ends. The benefit of the pressure campaign is that it doesn’t require massive budgets for television ads, nationwide pamphleteering or strategic lawsuits.

The pressure campaign focussed on the Immigration Minister and then the Prime Minister. We aimed at three pressure points: two elections and one scheduled triennial review of the refugee quota. These specific time periods focussed the campaign on moments where we could proactively pressure the government. This might all sound obvious, but compared to the vague way I began the campaign with the ideas of putting up posters and holding protests, it was all very strategic.

Despite this focus on the decision makers, we still needed to show them that the campaign had broad support. People in the tech-world speak of social proof. The concept suggests there is a threshold that organisations and campaigns need to surpass in order to have further followers feel that they’re a part of a movement that is growing. The start of our campaign focussed on a raft of measures of social proof: a thousand Facebook likes, five-hundred Twitter followers, five articles or press releases centred on or from our organisation. The assumption is that these are the metrics that people first consider and judge us on when noting the campaign, rather than the validity of the ask. In pop-psychology this approach might be described as the first-follower concept. The enthusiasm of the campaigner is less important than the enthusiasm of the first person to understand the campaign and to give their support to it.

To achieve our metrics of social proof I contacted pretty much all of my personal acquaintances and explained the campaign to them asking them how they would help on a scale of one to five. Three’s would commit to sharing five posts in the next six months. Four would do that, plus some on the ground assistance in organising. Five would be available to assist in a more collaborative, open-ended manner. This filtering and volunteering secured our first community support on terms each person was comfortable with, on a time-frame that they decided.

I came to see first supporters as a finite resource, but one that met the needs of social proof so we could move to the next level of reaching out to other organisations. In early 2015, Amnesty International were the first organisation to join us in the call to double the quota. They made it their focus of campaigning for the next eighteen months. As the refugee crisis became acute in Syria and surrounding countries, more organisations adopted the call to double the quota, and the campaign ask became an acceptable, mainstream position.

The notion of community support changed as we started to see stories appear in the media which we had not seeded or suggested and which didn’t mention us. How is a volunteer-run organisation supposed to exist alongside organisations with decades of experience and a four-million dollar budget? One answer came through discussions with Amnesty – we had no reputation and so no one could say, ‘ugh, not bloody that lot again’. Nor were we restrained by the need to have good relationships with political parties into the future. We could say the radical things they could not.

Organisations with budgets also operate through a hierarchy – social media posts and press would have to be discussed and agreed on, while I could churn ours out in the minutes after news breaks. We, like most activist-led campaigns, were nimble. But we were also friendly. As with Elias Cannetti’s Crowds and Power the perception of a growing crowd of supporters was enough to buoy all organisations instead of each closing ranks and asserting themselves based on an identity as outsiders, originators or any other antagonism that would make one more legitimate than another.

The second aspect of community I want to gesture towards involves a caution about democratic logics. The tensions in New Zealand politics about migraton can be usefully analysed through Chantal Mouffe’s disambiguation of the oft-hyphened term liberal-democracy.

When considered alone, most on the left saw the justice inherent in our campaign. But once the austerities of neo-liberalism were factored into people’s view of the social terrain, we heard a constant refrain to sort out ‘our own’ problems first. While the logic of the refugee as a problem or a cost without end1 to be borne is riven with blind spots, I want to dive a little deeper into arguments of us and them. Mouffe describes the need of democracies to constitute themselves by an included and an excluded – the demos who can decide how they are ruled and the outside who have no say.

In contrast, it is the liberal logic of human rights without exclusions that propels the commitment to refugee protection. And yet to enact this universal right, campaigners need to work with the included group of a democracy. Central to that task has been convincing those in the democracy that liberal values are essential to the democracy’s internal functioning. As Mouffe notes, this intertwining of liberalism and democracy have been the compelling urges of most Western democracies for at least the last hundred years.

In recent years, the privileging of the economic side of liberalism – read neo-liberalism – has undermined people’s faith in the pairing of liberalism and democracy, including the social forms of liberalism like human rights. And so we see the urge to tightly define who is a part of the democracy and nation, as as blaming outsiders for the ills of speculative investment and high finance.

In the New Zealand case, there is a community memory of anti-racist work that is doing well to challenge the desiccating of democracy. While some people are seduced by the virile patriotism of putting New Zealanders as numero uno, many more understand that the exclusion of new migrants and refugees would never be the end of exclusions. If new refugees and migrants were excluded, then next would be migrants who are already citizens, then others who aren’t quite Kiwi enough for the steaming mess of ethno-nationalists.

We saw this most acutely in the way that some of the several hundred thousands supporters of ActionStation responded to the campaign to double the quota. Most specifically, a not insignificant number of the tens of thousands drawn to the campaigning organisation around the notion of TPPA and sovereignty were horrified that the government would increase the refugee quota.

The irony in much of these discussions on outsiders and inclusion is that it is those communities in New Zealand, and countries around the world, where there are the fewest refugees that are most able to let their fantasies of the refugee and conspiracy run wild. It is much harder to see migrants and refugees as barbaric hordes or plants from the UN when they merge into the banality of everyday life.

1See my article ‘Refugees without end forever and ever and ever’ in Fair Borders? Migration in the Twenty-First Century, ed David Hall, Bridget Williams Books, 2017, Wellington.

“Workers in the most vulnerable part of the economy, they’re brave”: Organisation of migrant farm workers in Australia and Aotearoa

we feed you nuw

By Ani White.

It’s an open secret that the conditions faced by migrant farm workers in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand are dire.

In Aotearoa, a study conducted by Sue Bradford for FIRST Union and the Union Network of Migrant Workers (UNEMIG), released on UNEMIG’s fifth anniversary in August 2017, found evidence of dire exploitation of Filipino migrants in the dairy farm industry. The study interviewed 27 Filipino workers, three local workers, and one dairy farm manager. Health and safety precautions were practically nonexistent:

One farm worker said he wasn’t given a helmet to ride around on a motorbike and another said that for two years, he was made to ride a bike that didn’t have lights or brakes.

Another respondent said he was not provided proper training or wet weather gear, and had to pay $700 from his own pocket to buy one.[1]

This abuse is not limited to Filipino dairy workers. More than half of the Bay of Plenty’s kiwifruit employers audited in 2017 did not meet basic employment standards, as highlighted by FIRST Union when it launched its new Kiwifruit Workers Alliance.[2] Ni-Vanuatu workers in Marlborough’s vineyard sector approached Stuff anonymously with reports of underpayment.[3] Migrant worker abuse in Aotearoa extends throughout many industries, as found in a 2016 study interviewing more than 100 migrant workers, the first independent evidence-based study of its kind.[4]

In Australia, a Four Corners study into migrant farm work uncovered similar shocking conditions. Workers were paid as little as $3.95 an hour, worked shifts as long as 22 hours, and reported performing sexual favours to extend their visas, among numerous other abuses.5 Moreover, law-abiding farmers were priced out of the market. This shows that the brutality of the industry is not simply a matter of individual bad farmers, but compulsions of capital that must be resisted collectively.

Fortunately, FIRST Union in Aotearoa and the National Union Workers (NUW) in Australia have both taken up the organisation of migrant farm workers.

Mandeep Singh Bela, an organiser for FIRST Union and the coordinator of UNEMIG, says that working in isolated environments and having a lack of access to information about their rights is a major factor in migrant workers’ abuse. “Being a migrant myself in this country since 2009, I worked in the kiwifruit industry, and I’ve been in a similar boat, where I was paid below minimum wage entitlements, I was exploited, didn’t know where to go for help.” Bela moved on to work at Pak N Save, where FIRST is active, and became active in the union. To address the isolation and lack of information for migrant workers, FIRST and UNEMIG have now released a Migrant Workers’ Rights Passport(MWRP), which contains information on employment rights for migrants, collective agreements, and legal and mental health support services. The booklet will act as a work guide and vital connection point for migrants so they can safely work in Aotearoa.

Tim Nelthorpe, a national organiser with Australia’s NUW farm organising team, explains that the NUW has been organising in the horticulture sector for three years (Nelthorpe adds that while FIRST has been organising in the sector for even less time, the NUW has been impressed with their work rapidly winning over “hearts and minds”). One major cue was when members of the NUW, previously employed by poultry suppliers, moved into horticulture and reported shocking conditions, asking the union to take this issue up.

“We’re a supply chain union so we’re the union for the warehouse,” Nelthorpe explains. “The missing part of the supply chain should be in our union, and our members want those workers to be paid properly.” Aotearoa’s FIRST Union is similarly a supply-chain union with many members in supermarkets and warehouses.

Organisation at multiple points in the supply chain allows the NUW to place pressure at one point, for results at another point. Members who were worker-shareholders at Coles and Woolworths were able to place shareholder pressure in support of farm workers. “When they mess with our farm workers they mess with our supermarket workers as well,” Nelthorpe adds.

Horticulture workers have also taken industrial action on a range of issues, often independently of the union. Nelthorpe explains how a recently recruited delegate was able to build a culture of strike actions around a health & safety issue: “Whenever those chemicals came in to be sprayed he walked into the middle of the packed shed and say ‘right: OUT!’ And the whole workforce would walk out. In a highly organised CFMEU [Australian construction worker’s union] site that’s probably not unusual, but in a new industry, it just shows you that it’s inherent in people, they just need a supportive structure and they can do the rest.”

Nelthorpe explains that the lawlessness of the industry can go both ways. “Think of it like the jungle. In the jungle where there’s no laws, people take industrial action, and employers take industrial action too, so employers will sack all workers and cash contractors in a day, the employers will call Immigration on their own workforce, but at the same time, workers in the most vulnerable part of the economy, the undocumented workers, they’re brave, they’ll walk off a job, they’ll do a go slow, they’ll rock up to their contractor’s house demanding money, because they have to.”

Through militant action, NUW members have won a number of victories. Firstly, the NUW managed to smash cash contracting in South-East Melbourne and Northern Adelaide. Workers on some sites have made an impressive leap from $12 an hour to $22 an hour. Delegate structures are consolidating. Nelthorpe says the NUW is on the cusp of winning casual over-time in the industry and is also focused on challenging piece rates.

Nelthorpe says there are three major factors that enable abuse in the horticulture industry. Firstly, the award system; while Australia has a system of industry awards setting minimum wages and conditions, horticulture has the worst award of any industry, for example not requiring overtime pay. Secondly and thirdly, the interlinked issues of cash contracting and insecure working visas. “Cash contractors in the most seasonal industries, say grapes, strawberries, asparagus, stone fruit citrus, they control the point of entry into the industry to the point that if you want to work in a lot of the sites you have to stay in the contractor’s house, you have to use the contractor’s transport, you have to use the contractor’s preferred unlicensed migration agent to get your visa made,” Nelthorpe explains. “That means that it’s very hard for people who feel bonded to break away from that without really taking serious risks.” In Aotearoa, the Regional Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme similarly keeps migrant workers insecure, along with other bonded working visas.

Nelthorpe is sharply critical of unionists who push a ‘local jobs for local workers’ line. Excluding migrants from the union movement is self-defeating, because “there’s 1.8 million temporary migrant workers in Australia, which is 10 percent of the workforce, and union density has gone through the floor.”

“Workers should be able to go where ever they want to go. Capital can flow so workers should be able to flow as well. And unions should be able to adapt to that and support any worker that wants to join a union.”

Crucially, standing for migrant worker rights allows unions to set minimum standards, rather than letting the abuse of a vulnerable workforce drive down conditions for all. “So there’s the self-interest element, but also these are the workers that are picking and packing the food that we eat. And every person has a responsibility to make sure people are treated with respect.”

Despite wages and conditions in the industry being dire by Australian standards, wages are still often better than in migrant workers’ origin countries. For that reason among others, wages matter, but aren’t the main issue driving organisation in the industry. “Respect is the deeper issue, and being able to have a voice at work.” explains Nelthorpe.

Organising in an industry with an international workforce also has distinct aspects. Organising must be multilingual, with materials in the first language of members, and a multilingual organising team. Members also bring the political concerns of their communities to the union.

Nelthorpe recalls a 2017 NUW mobilisation against genocide in Myanmar. “Our Rohingyan membership in Melbourne were looking to do something in solidarity with their community, and so they turned to the union cause they’ve got no-one else really, and we helped them organise a rally in Collins Street in the city, and to be honest it was the most powerful inspiring rally I’ve ever been to.”
“About 200 members of the community mobilised, you had NUW flags, the night before the rally we worked with the group at the Trades Hall studio, they made all their own banners, made their own blood-splattered or red paint splattered clothing, and it was just an outpouring of grief for the community. When you think about what a union can be, sometimes we get caught in this narrow wages and conditions prison, and we get caught in the workplace level, but a union’s much more than that, and for these workers, the union was the vehicle through which they could express their grief and anger at what’s happening to their people. That community will always love the union because of that experience, and when they’ve got nowhere else to turn, they turn to the union. So since that rally we’ve had a number of refugee rallies, at which members and organisers of the union have spoken, and they connect the struggle of the union with the struggle against Mandatory Detention, the struggle against a backward racist immigration system, there’s massive opportunities there to break the racial stereotypes, the racial language that’s used to denigrate refugees in this country.”

In Aotearoa, FIRST Union members and organisers also take action on international political issues. In 2007, current FIRST Union president Dennis Maga faced potential arrest in his home country of the Philippines for protesting against the president’s visit, a threat that was averted.[6] FIRST’s mobilisation against repression in the Philippines continues to this day,[7] alongside the more recent organisation of migrant farm workers. FIRST in Aotearoa and NUW in Australia show that migrants’ issues are workers’ issues.

1http://www2.nzherald.co.nz/the-country/news/article.cfm?c_id=16&objectid=11907236
2https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/business/357040/exploitation-of-kiwifruit-workers-is-rife-union
3https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/90410800/nivanuatu-rse-workers-and-marlborough-vineyard-contractor-embroiled-in-contract-dispute
4https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11766210
5https://www.news.com.au/finance/work/at-work/four-corners-investigation-reveals-exploitation-and-slave-like-conditions-on-farms-supplying-aussie-supermarkets/news-story/e3264dc44240a65308c226c80e67bb7a
6http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO0705/S00563.htm
7https://filipinosolidarity.wordpress.com/2017/12/31/auckland-philippines-solidarity-in-2017-a-retrospect/

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