Visibilities, invisibilities and ‘spaces of labour control’ in Asia

The mistreatment of migrant labour has become central to Asian development strategies and needs increasingly to be tackled

Juanita EliasLate last year, it was reported that the infamously authoritarian city state of Singapore had experienced its first riot in over 40 years as migrant workers expressed their frustration following the knocking-down of an Indian national by a bus.  Earlier, in 2012, migrant workers from China employed as bus drivers were deported from Singapore following their role in the state’s first industrial strike since 1986.

Such events are indicative of the growing visibility of injustices faced by migrant workers from poor regions of Asia. As well as the Singaporean examples, one can point to media coverage of the extremely poor conditions faced by the workers engaged in the construction of Qatar’s World Cup stadiums or the many cases of abuse perpetuated against the region’s migrant domestic workers.

Like many higher-income states in Asia, Singapore has become steadily more dependent on low-wage, temporary, migrant workers from lower-income parts of the region.  For example, in Singapore and Malaysia the construction industry is central to the development of the high-rise modern cityscapes and prestigious infrastructure projects that dominate imaginaries of ‘rising’ Asia.  And yet, this is an industry overwhelmingly staffed by migrants undertaking precarious, dangerous and low-wage forms of work.

Regardless of whether low-wage workers come in as documented workers via state-approved systems of temporary migration or as undocumented workers, their high visibility has fuelled social and political anxieties and fed into dominant constructions of this group as potential criminals.

In this context, the Singapore riot was addressed straightforwardly by the state as a law-and-order issue: one that necessitated greater policing of the Little India district of the city and bans on the sale of alcohol.  The response has neglected any attempt to address the problems faced by low-wage migrant workers in the country, such as long hours, inadequate housing, unauthorised salary deductions and the fact that workers face immediate deportation on loss of employment.

As one commentator notes, it is significant that the incident that precipitated the riot was the knocking-down of a worker by a private hire bus. Hikes in the costs of public transport have excluded migrant workers from the public bus system, leaving them dependent on company chartered buses to and from the Little India district and effectively confining them to this particular ‘zone’ (which, unsurprisingly, comes to be associated in the popular imagination with criminal or unruly behaviour).  Little India has thus become an important space for the disciplining and control of migrant workers – often via private security guards working for the bus companies or local businesses.

In the wake of the Singapore riot an article in the Malaysian press also highlighted the spatial practices through which state and capital in Asia now seek to control and, importantly, to render invisible migrant labour populations.  Amid fears that migrant workers in Malaysia, employed in similar working conditions to those in Singapore, might themselves pose a law-and-order problem, a solution was presented: ‘foreign worker enclaves’.  The article gives the example of a group of migrant workers employed in the building of the Iskander Malaysia mega-project who are confined to purpose-built dormitories.  This is supposed to insulate local communities from the potentially unsavoury influences of migrants.  But what is also clear is how the dormitory enclave operates as an important aspect of what Phillip Kelly has described as ‘spaces of labour control’ – that is, the construction and control of space as a mechanism designed to limit labour organising.

Parallels can be drawn between this example and the spatial practices of labour control experienced by the region’s migrant domestic workers.  Living in their employers’ homes, this ‘invisible’ group of workers experiences little contact with the world beyond their employers’ households.  The employment of migrant domestic workers is a common practice amongst Singaporean and Malaysian middle-class families – a reflection of the minimal welfare-state support for social reproduction in both countries.  Employers often treat these migrant domestic workers with suspicion and subject them to extreme surveillance practices, while human rights abuses are not uncommon.

The social invisibility of migrant domestic workers is, nonetheless, being challenged. On the one hand, a wide range of Non-Governmental Organisations have consistently sought to advocate on behalf of domestic workers. These struggles have played an important role, for example, in bringing about the International Labour Organisation Domestic Worker Convention (c189).

On the other hand, labour-sending states are now taking a more activist line on migrant worker issues. For example, both Indonesia and Cambodia have put in place bans on migrant workers taking up employment as domestic workers in Malaysia following extreme cases of human rights abuse. Indonesia has also strongly criticised the treatment of migrant domestic workers in Singapore.

In many ways, the involvement of labour-sending states in more vigorous forms of labour diplomacy reflects nationalist concerns to protect ‘their’ women overseas in the face of domestic political criticism.  Notably, efforts by the Indonesian state to defend the rights of Indonesian domestic workers employed overseas have not been complemented by efforts to improve the situation of domestic workers employed within Indonesia. Indeed, for Indonesia,  the ‘problem’ of the increased visibility of abuses being perpetuated against domestic workers has been deemed to be best solved by banning domestic worker migration altogether by 2017.

It is unlikely that this policy will stem the flow of migrants out of Indonesia given the high levels of poverty that persist in the country.  And yet, it is the poverty experienced by migrant workers that enables states, employers and recruitment agencies to stigmatise and frequently perpetrate abuses against them.

A commitment to migrant worker rights as set out in the Convention is certainly important, but policies need to go much further and seek also to challenge the economic inequalities that enable abuses to get built into systems of worker migration in the first place.

About the author

Juanita Elias is the author of Fashioning Inequality: The Multinational Firm and Gendered Employment in a Globalising World (2004), co-editor of the book The Global Political Economy of The Household in Asia (2013) and co-author of the textbook International Relations: The Basics (2007).