Singapore’s infamous migrant worker system proves enticing to Korea

Posted on : 2023-01-11 15:37 KST Modified on : 2023-01-11 15:37 KST
Korean politicians are eying a Singaporean model for gaining access to exploitable foreign workers
A migrant worker dormitory in urban Singapore (EPA/Yonhap)
A migrant worker dormitory in urban Singapore (EPA/Yonhap)

As it was feverishly establishing colonies and expanding markets in Southeast Asia in competition with the Dutch in the early 19th century, the East India Company discovered the geopolitical importance of a small island in the Strait of Malacca.

Stamford Raffles, a loyal employee of the British company from the age of 14, decided to turn the island into a trading hub.

After browbeating Tengku Long, the eldest son of the sultan of Johor, who ruled the southern end of the Malay Peninsula, he took possession of the island and established a settlement.

This was the moment the military and trading city of Singapore was born.

For about 150 years, Great Britain practiced divide and rule in the city, dividing it into several districts for various immigrant groups.

For the convenience of colonial rule, Great Britain divided the city into a Chinese town, Indian town, European town, Arab town, Malay town and Bugis town, placing immigrants who arrived via the new port into communities according to race.

Inequality for migrant laborers

The origin of this colonial city planning appears even in the population distribution of today’s Singapore.

According to Singapore's statistical office in 2021, 1.47 million of the city’s total population of 5.45 million — 27% — are migrants with neither citizenship nor permanent residency.

Singapore’s racial distribution maintains racial diversity as well, including 74.3% Chinese, 13.5% Malay and 9.0% Indian.

All are the descendants of people who moved here from the 19th century.

On the other hand, you could also see the Indians as the descendants of laborers, soldiers and criminals who were semi-forced to come to Singapore from southern India and Sri Lanka in the colonial era.

Sometimes, they have been influenced by the dramatic changes in Indian society, while at other times, they have independently created a community culture of their own.

Little India is at the heart of where they have gathered.

In December of 2013, there was a large-scale demonstration in Little India.

It was sparked by the death of Sakthivel Kumarvelu, an Indian worker who was hit by a private bus he was trying to board as it returned to his dormitory after a full day at a construction site, even though it was Sunday.

Hearing that he was completely crushed when he died, about 400 migrant workers poured into the streets.

They set cars on fire in the middle of Little India and threw rocks at police.

The demonstration, which the authorities called a “riot,” was put down two hours later at the start of midnight.

The demonstration shocked everyone in Singapore, where assemblies and demonstrations are illegal.

Stressing strict execution of the law, the authorities called in for questions about 4,000 migrant workers.

It indicted 33 of the more active participants and forcibly deported 57 of the less-active participants.

It also banned the sale of alcohol in Little India on weekends starting in 2015.

This is because the accident allegedly happened because the worker who died was drunk. “The inequality that has taken root in Singapore has dire consequences and they are beginning to show,” said activist Roy Ngerng. “Perhaps it is to be expected that when we pay such [a] pittance ... to people who have helped build our country — our buildings and roads — and yet expect them to toil in the most tiresome conditions.”

After the incident, migrant workers lost their freedom of movement. The Singaporean government constructed a large-scale dormitory complex at Tuas Port, where migrant laborers work, complete with convenience stores, bars and a movie theater.

However, the chicken coop-like rooms, made from container boxes, are filled with two-story bunk beds, with up to 20 people living in them. This was nothing short of a notice banning them from going to Little India, in the heart of the city. Of the 400,000 people working at Tuas Port, 340,000 live their lives in the dormitory complex.

While efforts to improve hygiene and security in accordance with the Foreign Employees Dormitories Act are set to begin in April 2023, fewer than 10% of facilities have improved their residential conditions along these lines. The situation is a more overt revival of the tactics used during the UK’s period of colonial rule.

Migrant workers represent around 38% of the total working population in Singapore. While a very small percentage of them are elite workers in fields such as finance and IT, most are physical laborers actively brought into the country to meet its needs for low-wage, unskilled work in the areas of manufacturing, construction, and domestic help.

As East Asia as a whole has been restructured along neoliberal lines, cheap migrant labor has been essential for businesses. The demands of capital are clearly reflected in remarks made in 2003 by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who said that Singaporeans were particular and did not want to work in unbecoming areas.

In terms of migrant workers, the government and businesses tend to prefer employment that is short-term and contract-based. This makes it easier to expel short-term workers when economic conditions sour.

But this migrant worker policy ran into roadblocks during the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the virus was raging, the number of migrant workers fell by over 200,000, which resulted in an unexpected workforce shortage.

In the case of domestic workers — typically migrant women — the situation is similar to the notorious conditions in Hong Kong. With no labor law protections available, the employees do not have designated working hours or safeguards against overtime work. Employers are required to give them at least one day off a week, but that obligation is often ignored.

Despite being vulnerable to termination, the workers have no recourse to uphold their rights. This situation also helps to explain the frequency of tragic victimization, including sexual assault and imprisonment by employers.

While attending a Cabinet meeting last September, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon proposed a “foreign childcare policy” approach, emphasizing the inexpensiveness of foreign domestic workers employed in Singapore. As the Ministry of Employment and Labor found at the time, this approach inevitably gives rise to multiple issues.

Labor exploitation with nowhere to turn

Oh Se-hoon is not the only one who is brutally honest about the hunger to exploit migrant workers. Late last year, the 36th Foreign Workers’ Policy Committee approved a plan for reworking the employment permit system.

A core feature of the plan, which includes the first changes pursued since the system was adopted in 2004, involves allowing workers to stay in South Korea for 10 years or longer, with the employment permit system categories expanding to include such areas as loading and unloading jobs and domestic and childcare labor.

This was in response to demands from big business, which is seeking a cheap workforce without rights in a situation where South Korea is home to some 410,000 unregistered migrant workers.

The problem is that these workers do not even have the freedom to change workplaces. Under these circumstances, migrant workers have no place to turn when their rights as human beings are severely infringed.

What good does it do to allow migrant workers to remain employed for 10 years or more when they are being treated like slaves? Isn’t this just a way to satisfy employers’ desire to take advantage of skilled labor for more affordable prices?

By Hong Myung-kyo, staff reporter

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