Precarious Workmen Speaking Out: South Asian Migrant Workmen’s Diaries and Narratives as Safe Migration Resources

Sallie Yea (Nanyang Technological University), AKM Mohsin (Dibashram) and Debbie Fordyce (Transient Workers Count Too / TWC2)

***Sallie and colleagues have recently published the first output from their Antipode Foundation-funded project, a book entitled A Thousand and One Days: Stories of Hardship from South Asian Migrant Workers in Singapore. Volume 1 is free to download here – Volume 2 is available here – and you can read more about their project and the book’s place in it below.***

A thousand and one daysThe primary aim of this project is to develop resources to positively contribute to the prevention of trafficking, and related practices of labour exploitation, of migrant workmen to Singapore and assist in protection efforts aimed at them, drawing on the information gained through participant diaries, personal histories and interviews.

In Singapore migrant workers performing low-skilled and poorly remunerated work in the construction, shipyard, landscaping and domestic-service sectors are particularly vulnerable to a range of workplace abuses. These include non-adherence to a range of previously agreed to working conditions, such as non or late payment of salary, excessive working hours and unpaid overtime, withholding of a worker’s documents, failing to fulfil employer obligations when a worker becomes sick or incurs an injury in his/her work, and physical and psychological abuses of workers. Further, employers involved in these abuses routinely threaten workers with deportation, violence and blacklisting from future employment in Singapore should they complain to Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower or one of several migrant worker rights NGOs in the city state. These situations have been extensively documented in NGO reports on the subject of migrant worker rights and abuses over the past several years. In the collective these circumstances make it difficult for workers with legitimate grievances to seek redress.

Beyond Singapore, such situations are becoming increasingly commonplace in the global North and the advanced economies of Asia, which comprise major destinations for migrant (and local) labourers performing low skilled and poorly remunerated work. Further, an increasing number of studies of precarious work indicate the role of ‘flexible’ and ‘contingent’ labour markets that structure and heighten worker vulnerabilities, including the increasingly prominent role of privatised labour market intermediaries in producing, “deleterious effects for job security and social segregation in the lower end of the labour market” (Peck and Theodore 2002). The role of an emerging ‘migration industry’ in which private and state brokers and agencies figure as central actors has also been subject to critical discussion for the Southeast and South Asian region where analyses have suggested that these actors heighten migrant worker vulnerabilities at the same time as they enable mobility.

Yet missing from these discussions is critical attention to the trajectories of these workers when they do attempt to seek redress for exploitative labouring situations within migrant destinations. The particular form the search for redress takes is intricately connected to regimes of governance, citizenship and (partial) incorporation of precarious workers within migrant destinations. In Singapore at least regimes governing redress arguably heighten the precarious situations of workers, rather than ameliorating them. Men are placed on a new visa category once they leave their workplace to lodge a complaint. This visa – called a Special Pass – does not enable men to work but neither does it provide any social support. Many men remain ‘in limbo’ on a Special Pass for months and, in some cases, years. It is in this context that organisations like the Cuff Road Project (TCRP, part of the NGO Transient Workers Count Too / TWC2) and Dibashram (a migrant drop-in centre) first arose to respond to men’s immediate and longer term support needs. This project therefore aims to document men’s trajectories in limbo on a Special Pass as well as their broader migration trajectories from recruitment to deployment in Singapore through their own narratives and diaries.

The primary participants in the project are vulnerable migrant workmen from South Asia who entered Singapore as work permit holders, but have left their workplace due to labour or injury problems and have subsequently been placed on the visa category of Special Pass. These men will participate as authors of their personal migration histories and/or diaries. Many of the men will initially be met through either Dibashram or TCRP where men come to avail free meals, health referrals or advice. Others will be met through snowballing with initial participants. The project aims to produce 20 publishable histories/diaries, which will be edited for the purposes of publication. We expect not all diaries/histories collected will be publishable, so the project aims to collect 40 narratives in total, of which half will be selected for publication (divided approximately equally between Bangladeshi and Indian nationals). Sallie Yea will also conduct in-depth semi-structured interviews with the 40 participants with the aim of supplementing information provided in their self-authored stories and diaries.
Issues of confidentiality and of minimising risks and possible harms of participants through their involvement in research are magnified for vulnerable persons. Sallie will seek ethics approval for the project from Nanyang Technological University’s ethics review board prior to commencement. In addition the research is cognisant that beyond formal ethics requirements other considerations when researching with vulnerable migrants are also important. These include respect, the building of rapport and trust, and reciprocity in the research process. These additional considerations will be adhered to in the research process. In addition, there are particular gender concerns that emerge when conducting research with men, particularly men in marginal situations. The research will build these considerations in interactions with participants.

Men who are already in Singapore as migrant workmen (but not on a Special Pass), as well as men who may constitute potential migrants in source countries (India and Bangladesh) are the secondary participants for this project. They will be involved as recipients of books and booklets of stories produced by the primary participants and edited by the project collaborators. Initially the book and booklet will be distributed to approximately 40 migrant workmen dormitories in Singapore, and around five high sending districts in Bangladesh and Tamil Nadu respectively. Additional copies of booklets will also be distributed at training centres in these two countries, where men undergo training to work in Singapore.