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Ketam Quarry, Pulau Ubin


Indian transient workers: Then and Now
written on Friday, April 29, 2016 @ 1:32 AM


When I wrote this essay for my module SN2277 Indian Communities in Southeast Asia, I knew I wanted to share it at the end after being graded for it. It was one of the rare times in my NUS education where I could write on a topic I was passionate about. For those who like good grades or think it would not be validated without a good grade, you will be glad to know that I got an A for it. Enjoy the essay and I hope you learn more about how while some things have changed for the better, many problems still plague the people who work tirelessly to build our nation but are not well appreciated in many instances. So here it is.


This essay is dedicated to Habibullah Opu, MD Shahin Alamand all transient labourers who make Singapore the beautiful place it is. A big thank you toArathi Vinodwho helped me with essay planning and teaching me how to write a proper essay (without whom this essay would have been a disaster)!

Transient workers are people who are recruited and compensated for their work in a State where they do not hold citizenship[1]. Since the 19th century, colonization brought about the increased flow of Indian workers from India, especially parts of South India. Conditions were highly unfavourable and many workers endured tough working and living conditions as human rights awareness and technological advancements were not as advanced as they are today. During the colonial period, low skilled labourers were the largest group of migrants. In mid-19th to early 20th centuries, colonials utilized indentured labour for plantations and public works in Malaya and Singapore. Famine and epidemics in Madras presidency due to rapid population growth, high unemployment, widespread poverty amongst lower castes especially the Adi Dravida[2] caste who were viewed by the British as ‘docile’, ‘malleable’ and inexpensive. In modern Southeast Asia, the term Indian is used loosely to refer to people that arrive from the Indian subcontinent such as those from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Today, the source countries that provide cheap labour to the Southeast Asian region include Bangladesh and India. Remittance receipts and payments make up about 4% and 12% of India’s GDP and Bangladesh’s GDP respectively[3]. This group of migrants consists of high and low skilled migrants. However, this essay will only focus on the position of low skilled foreign workers from India and Bangladesh. This essay delves into the contrast between the position of contemporary foreign workers in Southeast Asia, mainly Singapore and Malaysia with Indian labourers who arrived before the early 20th century. It will explore how despite the fact that so many decades, technological advancements and social awareness lie between these two groups of people, the progress in the lives of contemporary migrant workers fall short of what one would expect it to be. Change and progress is weaved into the fabric of history but this is barely noticeable in the everyday realities of these transient labourers and while there have been improvements on a surface level, there are still underlying problems that persist.

During the colonial period of the 1800s, colonies were rapidly expanding through botany and the trade of goods such as gambier, pepper, coffee and rubber. This created a need for cheap labour and low operation costs in countries in Southeast Asia as the Western world had developed expeditiously following the Industrial Revolution. On the other hand, famines or forced labour accounted for colonial migration of Indian labourers to plantation or port cities controlled by the British. Since the 19th and early 20th centuries, the drivers of migration have changed. The invention of the steamship and later the airplane has led to globalization and rapid technological advancements. Besides technologies that compress space and time, some countries in the region have progressed quicker than others in terms of GDP. Singapore, one of the four East Asian Tigers, has experienced an economic boom since the 1970s and has a labour market that is based on the high-value added R&D industry[4]. With almost no Singaporeans that want to take up the dirty, dangerous and difficult job of being a construction, port or cheap labourer, people for these jobs are sourced from developing countries. With regards to Malaysia, it supplies the world with 40% of the global palm oil and rakes in $12 billion dollars in revenue every year[5]. With demand from U.S. and China, the worldwide palm-oil industry is estimated to rake in $30 billion every year. However, producing palm oil requires a large pool of unskilled labour. With the demand for cheap and low-skilled labour in countries like Singapore and Malaysia and famine and poverty in countries such as India and Bangladesh, there has been a migration of cheap labour from less developed countries to more developed countries. Indian women labourers might have had jobs on plantations in the past but are restricted to being foreign domestic workers in Singapore today as male workers dominate the construction and port industry.

In the 1800s, convict labour was obtained from India and forced to work on building public infrastructure for free. However, many perished on the journey here and on the job due to terrible living and working conditions. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the indenture, kangani and maistry systems recruited labourers through debt bondage by paying for their transport and accommodation. Foreign labourers then become indebted to their kangani or maistry. With the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, a new labour recruitment system was created: the indenture system. Written contracts were drafted with promised daily wages and a contract period of 5 years. However, the men or women who were employed were illiterate and did not understand the written documents or their rights. The kangani system relied on Indian middlemen who are paid commisions for bringing workers from their hometown. During the recruitment phase, the agent or middleman paint a rosy picture of the job to recruit new labourers. This practice has been carried out since the time of indentured labour and is still present today. Agents, who pay for a worker’s transport and settle the administrative work, bring in most of the Indian foreign workers. There is also an element of debt bondage in which money is borrowed to pay ‘agent fees’. However, more often than not, it creates debt bondage and many foreign workers live in constant stress of surmounting debt. In a survey done by Singapore Management University (SMU)[6], it was discovered that the main causes for psychological stress in foreign workers were housing issues for injury and salary claim workers, constant threat of repatriation in regular and injured workers and debt due to agent fees. Although the human rights movement has picked up over time, there is still a disconnect in the laws and the situation on the ground.

The journey to Southeast Asia from India is not an easy one. After the abolishment of slavery, slave ships were used to transport Indian labourers from the India to Singapore. Condition onboard the ship was terrible with the quick spread of diseases as many labourers were densely packed together and barely given anything to eat. Consequences were dire with many deaths before reaching the destination. Today, with the advent of budget airlines, a worker today can simply fly from Tiruchirappalli in South India to Singapore for no more than USD$200 with Tiger airlines. This allows for a comfortable and safe journey. However, despite the option of budget air travel, transient workers are still being subjected to treacherous ride on rickety boats and illegally smuggled into Southeast countries such as Malaysia to work on palm oil plantations[7]. In an account by a Bangladeshi palm oil plantation worker, 200 Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims were put on a 12-metre boat and the boat operators to reduce the amount of trips made to the toilet controlled food and water. Dozens died and their bodies were cut open to ensure they would sink. Although transport has improved across the world, many still suffer dangerous journeys to work illegally. In addition, companies such as P&G and Nestlé remain ignorant to the issue at hand and the lapses in the supply chain.

From 1823 to 1930s, St. John’s Island was used as a quarantine station to house Chinese migrants before they started work on the mainland[8]. There was a hospital on St. John’s and a burial ground at Kusu Island as diseases such as cholera were rampant amongst migrants that had no access to proper sanitation and nutrition on the long boat journeys. Unfortunately, these conditions are still present in Southeast Asia in which 50,000 people endure the treacherous journeys every year in the hopes of working in Malaysia. However, many succumb to illnesses along the way on these highly packed boats and the results are often fatal[9]. Upon reaching the border of Malaysia and Thailand, these workers are kept in holding camps where illnesses spread and people are not given proper shelter or food and smuggled to work in palm oil plantations. Once again, although the field of medicine and sanitation has improved by leaps and bounds over the past few years, not every one has had the privilege to reap the benefits. Having survived the arduous journey and having steered clear of disease, the migrants reach a destination that may or may not have expected. In the past, communication would have also been an issue and they would be cut off from all events that occur back home. In contrast, this is no longer an issue today, ever since the birth of the Internet and communication applications like Skype. By improving communications across the globe and a fee of S$20 a month for Wi-Fi, workers can stay connected to happenings at home and culture through online entertainment and news without needing to assimilate. This can help to alleviate homesickness and help workers stay rooted to home.

It cannot be denied that institutions such as the government have a great amount of influence on the workforce and more so, the lives of migrant workers. While citizenship was much more easily gained in the past under the British, migrant workers today have no chance of becoming a citizen in Malaysia and Singapore. Both economies are focused on refining their local workforces to be highly educated and highly valued. This has led to policies that favour highly skilled workers with possibility of citizenship. In contrast, the employers of transient workers are required to post a S$5,000 bond with the Government to guarantee the worker's repatriation at the end the work permit[10]. Also, as holders of the S Pass, they have no possibility of settling down in Singapore. The same has occurred in Malaysia with the introduction of the Immigration Ordinance in 1953 which welcomed skilled labour while ending the large-scale migration of unskilled labour. In reality, these policies have led to many of these workers to become exploited as illegal migrants or be constantly threatened with being repatriated as they are seen as being less important than the highly educated or privileged.

In the Straits Settlements Ordinance of 1884, plantation workers were paid twelve cents a day in their first year and fourteen cents in their second year. With low daily wages of 12 cents a day during the hayday of indentured labour or no payment at all, much has improved with regards to wages. A transient worker who works in the construction industry in Singapore can earn SGD$800 a month. In reality, there are still cases of employers that do no pay theirs workers on time or do not pay them at all. This is where the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in Singapore has stepped in and has made itemised pay slips mandatory from 1 April 2016. In addition, key employment terms (KETs) must be defined in the first 14 days of employment. If employers fail to do so, there is a fine of up to SGD$200. This is to prevent the exploitation of migrant workers who may be less educated or aware of their workers’ rights[11].

Migrant workers’ living conditions and welfare have always been a problem since the 19th century. Unsanitary conditions, crowded living spaces and the lack of nutrition have plagued workers till today. After the 2013 Little India Riots, the issue of migrant welfare was looked into with careful consideration. Although the government ruled out work-related grievances as the reason for the riots, there have been efforts to regulate agents, improve payment of wages and improve living conditions. In the newly built Tuas View Dormitory, 16,800 men can be accommodated in the complex[12]. It has medical, sporting and shopping facilities for them. Even though it is hailed as an ideal accommodation, it clearly is meant to keep foreign workers out of sight of Singaporeans as most migrant worker housing are in industrial areas far away from citizens and is resisted by employers as it is more expensive than other accommodation. To add on to that, privacy is a privilege as they not only have to share their rooms with eleven to thirty other men but also have 250 CCTV camera units watching their every step. These mega dorms have an additional feature of thumbprint access, allowing the police to get information on workers if a crime occurs. This has been actively challenged by the presence of human rights groups or migrant welfare groups such as Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and HOME. These organizations help to raise awareness on the plight of workers and provide assistance to migrants if they need help with injury claims or welfare issues. On a global scale, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Amnesty International crack down on modern-day slavery and many are concerned with the human trafficking situation in palm oil plantations in the region. Together with modern technology, they are able to shed the light on conditions that workers live in through photos and videos even if plantations are hidden away from urban developments.

Locals in colonial times might have resisted having migrant settle in their country but were fewer in numbers or did not have the power to send these migrants away. They could also live far away from migrants or not encounter them. Today, xenophobia in Singapore is present and might be inevitable with the high rates of migration and the constant close encounters with transient workers. This mindset is can be seen in Singaporeans as they are not very welcoming of living in the same neighbourhood as migrant workers. In 2008, 1400 residents from Serangoon Gardens signed a petition expressing fears of higher rates of crime and lower property values[13]. In spite of the fact that the government went ahead with plans, modifications to the plans included a SGD$2 million access road that was separate from the existing road and a 70m buffer zone that divides the dormitory from residents of Burghley Drive. Another instance that highlights this issue is the recreation response that was set up in Jalan Kayu that leans more towards paranoid segregation by creating a group of locals called the Kayu Rangers. They conduct security patrols and put up fences to divert migrant workers away from the houses and recreational amenities were also set up within the dormitory compound to prevent migrant workers from encroaching public space[14]. This can be attributed to the lack of interaction with this misunderstood group of workers and often leads to prejudice towards this group of people and preconceived notions of them. However, local initiatives such as Geylang Adventures[15] and Waterways Watch Society allow Singaporeans to have lunch, kayak or play badminton with workers in hopes to foster understanding amongst locals and migrant workers. Hopefully, more initiatives like these will arise in the future.

In conclusion, there is a general disconnect between the expectations and laws on paper and the realities that these migrant workers face. While there have been improvements in infrastructure such as mode of transport, policies that protect workers and communications, social awareness and the perceptions of transient workers still have a long way to go. There needs to be an acknowledgment by institutions that modern slavery needs to be put to rest to prevent the suffering of workers who toil day and night to build the foundations of the modern cities we live and play in and whose fruits of labour we enjoy with little gratitude. (2831 words)


References:
[1] Assembly, U. G. (1990). International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.
[2] Mendelsohn, O., & Vicziany, M. (1998). The untouchables: Subordination, poverty and the state in modern India (Vol. 4). Cambridge University Press.
[3] Migration between South and Southeast Asia – Overview of trends and http://southasiandiaspora.org/index.php/archives/1521
[4] Barro, R. J. (1998). The East Asian Tigers have plenty to roar about.Business Week, 27, 24.
[5] Al-Mahmood, S.Z. (2015, July 26). Palm-Oil Migrant Workers Tell of Abuses on Malaysian Plantations. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/palm-oil-migrant-workers-tell-of-abuses-on-malaysian-plantations-1437933321
[6] Harrigan, N., & Koh, C. Y. (2015). Vital yet Vulnerable: Mental and Emotional Health of South Asian Migrant Workers in Singapore.
[7] Al-Mahmood, S.Z. (2015, July 26). Palm-Oil Migrant Workers Tell of Abuses on Malaysian Plantations. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/palm-oil-migrant-workers-tell-of-abuses-on-malaysian-plantations-1437933321
[8] Lee, J.. (1999, February 25). History of St John's. The Straits Times, Home, pp. 28–29.
[9]Al-Mahmood, S.Z. (2015, July 26). Palm-Oil Migrant Workers Tell of Abuses on Malaysian Plantations. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/palm-oil-migrant-workers-tell-of-abuses-on-malaysian-plantations-1437933321
[10] Yeoh, Brenda S.A. (2000). Global Cities, Transnational Flows and Gender Dimensions, The View From Singapore. Department of Geography, University of Singapore: The Royal Dutch Geographical Society KNAG.
[11] Seow, J. (2016, April 1). Itemised payslips a must from today. The Straits Times. http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/itemised-payslips-a-must-from-today
[12] Glennie, C. ( 2015, April 14). Singapore is keeping an eye on its migrant workers. BBC. http://www.bbc.com/news/business-32297860
[13] Tay, D. (2009, December 7). Serangoon dorm opens, fuss free. Asiaone News. Retrieved from http://news.asiaone.com/News/AsiaOne+News/Singapore/Story/A1Story20091207-184340.html
[14] Daniel Trudeau, ‘Politics of belonging in the construction of landscapes’ (2006) 13 Cultural Geographies 421 at 437 
[15] Lai, L. (2015, September 3). Cultural adventures in Geylang. The Straits Times. Retrieved from http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/cultural-adventures-in-geylang

Essay by Sumita Thiagarajan, Photo by Timothy Chua Yi-Neng.

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