From man to input factor.

Insights into the lives of migrant workers in Singapore.

Simon A. Peth
Feb 14 · 6 min read

Boomtown, Smart City and neuralgic hub of the globalized world. Not so much a nation, but rather a state-owned supra-company. A compressed space in which we can observe the main themes of globalization such as digitalization and economic transformation. That is Singapore today. Just 53 years old and founded on the emancipation wish to leave behind the British colonial era, Japanese occupation and political differences with its big brother Malaysia; and yet Singapore itself has subtly created a form of oppression. The far-reaching and permanent control of its citizens, workers and all those who come to Singapore from outside.

Migrant workers having dinner in their dormitory // © Simon A. Peth, 2015

This becomes clear, when we look at the labor movement in Singapore, which basically is non-existent. It does exist somehow, but behind this buzzword lies merely a political agenda that, under the slogan Our Unusual Labour Movement, is supposed to give the Asian tiger a social-liberal touch. But what freedoms do the Singaporean workers really have? Can they organise themselves in a self-determined way and to stand up for their living and working conditions? And what about migrant workers in particular, who count 1.4 million people, and therewith make up no less than 40% of Singapore’s total workforce?

This blog illuminates this question with a special look at the everyday life of Thai migrant workers in Singapore. The majority of Thai migrants are men who work on the numerous construction sites or as dock workers. Women are officially not allowed as workers in these sectors. The everyday life of the workers is determined by strict migration management and structural segregation, and there is hardly any scope for negotiation processes. Are these people thus degraded to the input factor of globalisation? This question cannot be answered in black and white.

This blog features photographs from a former migrant worker illustrating these questions by taking a special look at the everyday life of Thai migrant workers in Singapore. The majority of Thai migrants are men who work on the numerous construction sites or as dock workers. Women are officially not allowed to work in these sectors. The everyday life of the workers is determined by strict immigration law and structural segregation. There is hardly any space for negotiation. Are these people thus degraded to be a mere input factor for globalisation? This question cannot be answered in black and white.

At first glance, it seems surprising that there is no real labour movement in Singapore, because Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who studied in London, worked as a lawyer for the labour movement before his political career. The People’s Action Party (PAP), which he co-founded, owes its success not least to the labor movement in the early years of Singapore’s independence. But a second look reveals that Lee Kuan Yew saw the labor movement and trade unions less as an opposition to employers than as a tool for control and to foster the economy. This understanding continued prevails in today’s Singapore with its ‚tripatite mediation framework‘ in which the National Trade Union Confederation (NTUC) together with the National Employers Federation (SNEF) and the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) worke together for the national maxim of economic growth and development. Alternative associations and trade unions have been systematically banned in the past and so the ‚labour movement‘ in Singapore today is synonymous with the NTUC . While the latter is perceived by the public as a guarantor of low food prices in supermarkets, a look at the organizational structure shows that it is rather the extended arm of the ruling PAP.

The NTUC was formed in 1961 by the PAP and is an umbrella organisation of currently 58 trade unions and 62 labour associations. Its president is always a PAP official. The NTUC’s lack of political commitment to the interests of the workers became clear in 2012 during an interview with the former Secretary General of the NTUC and later Labour Minister Lim Swee stating with regard to the question of a minimum wage: „this is something we don’t embrace“. Even today, NTUC members stat that the priority shoul be set on changing the morale and attitudes of workers rather than their working and living conditions.

„The failure of the NTUC to play an independent and active role in defining and representing the rights of its members has generally left workers without adequate representation.”

(Garry Rodan, Asia Research Center at Australia’s Murdoch University)

This applies even more to the so-called foreign workers, who apart from smaller NGOs have no lobby and hardly any civil participation in Singapore. In November 2012, when a group of Chinese bus drivers protested against low wages and poor housing, the NTUC backed the government and described the strike as illegal. Previously, there had been no strikes or protests for 25 years. Over a year later, a car accident that killed an Indian worker was followed by violent riots, the Little India Riots, in which hundreds of migrant workers protested against poor treatment in Singapore. The issue became a political one. The government responded with even stricter rules for foreign workers, such as a ban on alcohol consumption, especially in places where migrant workers meet in their limited free time. Today, Singapore is one of the countries with the most strict migration systems, characterised by draconian punishments — from corporal punishment to death penalty — and permanent control. Critics speak of a modern apartheid system.

What does this mean for the everyday life of migrant workers? How does it feel to live under such conditions? The photos of a returnee who worked as a foreman on a construction site in Singapore in the 1990s provide a unique insight into the everyday lives of migrant workers.

Photo 1: Most Thai workers in Singapore come from rural areas in Thailand, especially the northeast of the country. Labour migration has become the norm and is socially reproduced since decades. Sons follow their fathers and later send their own children to the global labour markets. A culture of migration has emerged in many rural regions of Thailand. // © Srikhoon Jiangkratok, 1994
Photo 2 a/b: Arrival in Singapore. Then as now, the contrast between rural Thailand and the global city of Singapore is huge. For most newcomers it is a big challenge to find their way in the new city. Many workers reported homesickness // © Srikhoon Jiangkratok, 1994 and W. Zhang, under CC BY 2.0, 2011
Photo 3: Container camps. Migrant workers are not free to decide where and how they are accommodated. Employers are obliged to place them in sleeping camps where workers are registered. In the past, these were often temporary container camps with poor hygienic conditions. Up to 25 men slept cramped in one container // © Srikhoon Jiangkratok, 1994
Photo 4: The latest generation of so-called dormitories are modern high-tech camps. They are equipped with fingerprint scanners at the entrance and video surveillance. This system monitors the workers at all times. Up to 17,000 men are accommodated in today’s dormitories, mostly on the outskirts of the city, and much is done to ensure that they have no reason to leave the camps. There are grocery stores, cantines, laundries, sports facilities, pharmacies, internet rooms and sometimes even cinemas. Nevertheless, the dormitories are more like prisons than a place where you can find peace after a hard day’s work. // © Simon Peth, 2015
Photo 5: The work is exhausting and often dangerous. In Singapore a work permit is tied to the current employer. Thus the workers have no possibility to change employers in case of bad working conditions without leaving the country at their own expense. It additionally means that they have to go through the long process work training, tests and recruitment again. Due to the high migration costs (approx. € 2,300 per working period), migration is usually only worthwhile through overtime (OT). Ten to twelve-hour days are common // © Srikhoon Jiangkratok, 1994
Photo 6: Although injuries and even fatal accidents at work have been more frequent in the past, problems still occur today. Major accidents at work usually mean the end of migration, as employers are often unwilling to inform compulsory health insurance, to avoid rising contribution rates. A worker is quickly replaced // © Srikhoon Jiangkratok, 1994
Photo 7: In comparison to migrant workers from other countries, the Thai workers are better off, because the Thai Ministry of Labour has established an Office of Labour Affairs in Singapore, which looks after the interests of the workers and in some cases also mediates between the employers and the workers. A large network of volunteers also ensures that the workers are informed about their rights and entitlements. The photo shows a branch of the Office of Labour Affairs in the Golden Mile, the meeting place of Thai workers in Singapore // © Simon Peth, 2015
Photo 8: Together alone. Employment contracts usually run for 1 to 2 years. This means uncertainty for migrant workers but flexibility for employers. Many of the workers live from contract to contract. This often goes from 10 to 20 years, which also means a very long separation from their families. Family reunification is not permitted by law for foreign workers, unlike for highly qualified ‚expats‘. Many of the workers suffer from loneliness even when they make friends with their colleagues. // © Srikhoon Jiangkratok, 1994
Photo 9: Golden Mile, Little Thailand. There are also places where you can have more happy moments. The Golden Mile, a shopping mall from the 1970s, has become over the decades the meeting place for all Thais in Singapore // © Simon Peth, 2015
Photo 10: In the Golden Mile there is everything a worker’s heart desires like remittance services, Thai restaurants, a Thai supermarket, phone shops, a private clinic with Thai speaking staff and karaoke bars. On weekends and especially after paydays it is so crowded that there is hardly any getting through. // © Simon Peth, 2014
Photo 11: Despite the harsh working and living conditions, many migrant workers accept a life in permanent temporaryness, as in contrast to their places of origin in rural Thailand there is at least a regular income here. But not all migrants do this of their own free will. // © Srikhoon Jiangkratok, 1994
Photo 12: Trapped in the migration system. Labour migration involves many risks, including being tricked by agents. Some migrant workers need years to pay off their debts for agency fees or a mortgage on their farmland. // © Srikhoon Jiangkratok, 1994

Explore more in a web-exhibition about Thai Migrant workers in Singapore: https://storyform.co/@speth-2/-734dab35c6bb

Simon A. Peth

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