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Migrant labour in Singapore: Indentured servitude by another name


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Picture by Shawn Ang on Unsplash.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the deeply entrenched inequalities within industrialised city-states such as Qatar, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Foreign workers have faced the brunt of the crisis, living with precarious immigration statuses and in cramped and poorly ventilated housing. Yet, it is this cheap migrant labour that has fueled these cities’ rapid development. In Singapore, minimising labour costs is frequently discussed as the best way for Singaporeans to reap the benefits of development. The state has directly and indirectly propagated this idea amongst citizens, who have in turn supported legal and political regimes that exploit migrants. 


A brief history of labour migration


The colonial empire relied on territorial expansion and the exploitation of racialised bodies. The transatlantic slave trade forcibly transported millions of Africans to America. In Critical Race Theory, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, et. al highlight how race, rather than being a biological phenomenon, was legally constructed by colonisers to justify treating people as chattel, or property. Blackbirding was another form of forced labour that relied on the dehumanisation of indigenous peoples in the Pacific Islands to extract their labour to build settler colonies such as Australia and New Zealand. With the abolition of slavery, the indentured labour system was introduced recruiting people from India and China under a labour contract system. These indentured labourers were sent to colonies all over the world to work on plantations and infrastructure projects. In Singapore and Malaysia, this system was gradually phased out by more informal forms of labour recruitment. Rana Behal’s Coolies, Recruiters, and Planters details how, in the Indian coolie community, middlemen called kanganies, which means ‘overseers’ in Tamil, were responsible for recruiting labourers for their colonial employers. These middlemen were usually seen as respectable figures in rural villages in Tamil Nadu, India. They would advertise labour contracts in Singapore and Malaysia as lucrative and prosperous opportunities to people in lower socioeconomic positions. These kanganies would also be responsible for the coolie workers they recruited. While people who migrate this way are often termed ‘free migrants’, Sunil Amrith notes in Crossing the Bay of Bengal that this form of labour recruitment also relied on deceitful and coercive techniques. In many ways, this exploitative migrant labour recruitment system still operates today. Although the Singaporean government has publicly condemned the use of middlemen recruiters, it has made no concrete attempts to intervene.


The kafala system, meaning sponsorship system, took hold in the Gulf States in the 1950s, following the discovery of oil and the start of rapid development. In this system, a migrant worker needs a sponsor – usually an employer or national – to enter and work in the country, which often leads to similar forms of exploitation as under the work permit system, as basic rights (housing, medical care, etc.) of the employees are phrased as the responsibilities of the nationals who employ them. This allows employers to control all aspects of their employees’ lives.


Background on the migrant worker community in Singapore

As of 2020, there are about 848,000 work permit holders in Singapore, predominantly from India (Tamil Nadu), Bangladesh, and China. The majority were recruited by middlemen for employers based in Singapore and constitute the lowest-wage category of Singapore’s foreign work pass system. 


These work permits are necessary for migrants to work legally in Singapore, and usually last for two years. Employers are responsible for handling the permit application process on behalf of their employees and hence control their movement in and out of Singapore. The only role migrant workers have in the entire process is providing fingerprint identification. Laws in Singapore tend to portray migrant workers as helpless figures that need to be taken care of by employers. Regulations frame the ‘upkeep’ and ‘maintenance’ of migrant workers as the responsibility of employers, instead of rights that employees are entitled to. Work permits can be cancelled on a whim and tie the employee to a specific employer who has paid a certain amount of levy for the employee. This means that when workplace abuse takes place in any form (withheld pay, unsafe conditions, etc.) workers risk not only being fired but being deported from Singapore, if choosing to voice their concerns. 


Recent developments


In Singapore, employees are not allowed to transfer to another company, with the exception of the 21-to-40-day work permit rule. This means that between the 21st and 40th day to the expiration of their work permit, a migrant worker can apply to transfer to a different employer without the permission of the current employer. Similarly, until recent changes made in the Qatari labour law in 2020, migrant workers in Qatar were required to obtain a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from their employer before they could change jobs, which employers could refuse to provide. In essence, the work permit system and the kafala system are predicated on similar elements: nationals/employers have to take care of and be responsible for migrant workers, usually by investing a sum of money that is interpreted to mean sponsorship or levy for the foreign worker to be in a specific country. However, this enforces an inflated power dynamic between the employer and employee, which enables exploitative and oppressive practices to continue. In fact, in Singapore as of 2020, the Ministry of Manpower has introduced limits on the number of migrant workers that can transfer using the 21-to-40-day rule, to ensure employers are guaranteed a steady supply of labour.

Furthermore, about 300,000 migrant workers in Singapore live in dormitories provided for by their employers. Since June 2020, amended laws require migrant workers to obtain permission from their employers to leave their dormitories. This has been framed as necessary due to the spread of COVID-19. However, as I write this, despite vaccination programmes happening throughout the country and in dormitories, there are no plans to amend these laws that inhumanely restrict migrant workers’ freedom of movement.


Bava Dharani

Bava Dharani has an LLM in International law and an LLB from SOAS, UOL. She works as a translator and paralegal in criminal, civil, and employment litigation matters. She is interested in studying the historic and contemporary labour migration between South and Southeast Asia.

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