'Guest workers' or modern slavery?

May 24, 2008

A pile of bags and clothing on an old shopfront verandah on Cuff Road in Singapore's Little India is "home" to a group of about 50 migrant workers who have been spat out by an economy that relies heavily on so-called "guest workers".

All are men from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, lured to Singapore by shady labour agents who had extracted heavy fees from them.

"When they landed, some found there were no jobs waiting for them. Others, unaware of regulations here, were tricked into entering on social-visit passes, which do not allow them to work. A few workers even claimed they were met at the airport by 'agents', who took the return portion of their air tickets and disappeared", the local Straits Times reported on March 18.

Others worked legally for a while, but were tossed out by their boss after incurring work injuries.

Jobless, desperate, homeless and hungry, some of them tried to work illegally and were arrested, jailed and flogged. Corporal punishment, like the death penalty, still remains a feature of modern Singapore law.

To cap it off, some of these men are not allowed to leave Singapore because the labour ministry — which administers the approximately 900,800 transient migrant workers that comprise more that 40% of the island state's total labour force — requires them to stay to appear as witnesses in a string of court cases.

"They find themselves in a debt trap, having borrowed money to pay agency fees and plane tickets, many continue to borrow money to pay for basic necessities now", explains Sha Najak from Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a small charity which is helping feed the men and championing the cases.

Receiving no funds from the Singaporean government and struggling to stay afloat, TWC2 (<http://twc2.org.sg>) was formed out of outrage following the 2001 killing of 19-year-old Indonesian domestic worker Muawanatul Chasanah, following months of brutal assault by her employer. Chasanah's autopsy revealed some 200 caning, scalding, punching, kicking, and burning injuries at the time of her death.

Some 170,000 of the nearly one million transient workers work as domestics and one of TWC2's current campaigns is for these migrant domestic workers to be guaranteed at least one day off in a week!

Model program

Yet Singapore's "guest worker" scheme is presented as a model for the world by some right-wing forces. An article in the January edition of the right-wing "libertarian" US magazine, Reason, supported US President George Bush's call for a guest worker scheme that would partly legalise the exploitation of "illegal" migrant workers in the US, without ending the vulnerability and super-exploitation that arise from being denied the right to legally settle in the US.

Similar arguments are now being raised by advocates of the Rudd Labor government's plan of continuing in substance (though under another name) the former Howard government's notorious 457 visa regime for temporary overseas workers.

Singapore is seen as a model because it is a relatively wealthy island in South East Asia, with average incomes (adjusted for price parity) only slightly below that of the tiny oil-state of Brunei. The Reason article, by Kerry Howlett, argued that its guest worker scheme is a win-win solution.

According to a 2008 report from the Asian Development Bank: "The Singapore government estimates that foreign labour contributed 3.2 percentage points of its annual growth rate of 7.8% in the 1990s." Singapore gets the hard and dirty jobs done and workers from poverty stricken countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh get to send money home to their families.

Across the causeway in Malaysia, the situation for "guest workers" is a lot worse, as Newsweek conceded in a March 15 article entitled "Bottom of the barrel".


Malaysia is one of the "most notorious" host countries, according to the Newsweek article. It has an estimated 2.5 million foreign workers, many of whom fit the UN's definition of forced laborers.

"Malaysian law effectively makes every foreign worker a captive of the company that hired him or her. In the name of immigration control, employers ... are required to confiscate guest workers' passports and report any runaways to the police."

Newsweek cited the case of a local computer component manufacturing company — which probably made the casings for hard drives in many of the top-brand computers used around the world — which exploits a virtually enslaved migrant workforce. The article quotes a company executive pitying these workers who were "fooled hook, line and sinker" by sleazy labour brokers. They had tricked the workers into paying huge placement fees for jobs that yield a net income close to zero.

"This is the dark side of globalization: a vast work force trapped in conditions that verge on slavery. Most media coverage of human trafficking tends to focus on crime, like the recent scandals involving migrant laborers who were kidnapped and forced to work at brick kilns in China.

"And forced prostitution, of course, which accounts for roughly 2 million people worldwide, according to the United Nations' International Labor Organization ... The ILO reckons the worldwide number of forced laborers today at some 12.3 million. It's a conservative estimate; other approximations rise as high as 27 million."

[An article in a future issue of Green Left Weekly will look at the situation for guest workers in Australia.]

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