Guest workers or indentured labour? Life in Singapore’s Little India

Rupali Ghosh
30 May 06

After a late dinner, sometime close to midnight, a small group of us make our way through the grid of narrow lanes that is at the heart of Singapore’s Little India district. The street side restaurants that do brisk business during the lunch and dinner rush are winding down and there are few people on the streets at this hour.

The waiters, nearly all Sri Lankan Tamils at a Chettinad dhaba we walk past, are wiping down the plastic tables with wet cloths, piling chairs on top of tables in that classic end-of-day small eatery gesture and dealing with the last dinner guests and their endless demands: “Filter coffee irruka?” asks one Tamilian diner (“Do you have filter coffee?”) “Roti—two more,” says another though he has been told that the kitchen is closed for the night. Behind the old-fashioned cash register of the dhaba, the night manager pauses picking his teeth with a wooden toothpick as he instructs a young man cleaning out the sweet counter to pack all the remaining mysore pak sweets into three cardboard boxes. More work for the young man who has been on his feet since five that morning.

Little India is one of Singapore’s must-see tourist attractions. Anchored by the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple, Tekka Market and Mustafa’s famous 24-hour mall, this maze of streets is crowded with small eateries, shop houses, sweet shops and ethnic grocery stores specializing in produce from the Indian subcontinent. The name Little India is an inaccurate guidebook generalization as the area correctly represents the food and culture (to an extent) of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India. The area is also the nerve center of Singapore’s subcontinental migrant labor force and Little India descriptions frequently appearing in tourist guides carry a light warning about Sunday evenings “when the migrant labor force comes out on the streets of Little India.”

Warnings also abound from chatty taxi drivers—usually Chinese or Malaysian—one who helpfully alerted us to the big crowd on Desker Road (the red light quarter of Little India bordered by specialty Indian restaurants and frequented by migrant workers on weekend nights): “Don’t go to Desker Road side, very crowded with black Indians on Saturday night.”

In Singaporean society, where racism runs just below the surface of everyday life, there is a tendency to look down upon “black Indians” a derogatory term used by the majority Straits Chinese population that refers to Sri Lankan Tamils—one of Singapore’s three primary ethnic groups (the other two groups being the Chinese and Malays).

Naskar came to Singapore from Bangladesh one year ago. He works in the kitchen of a small eatery in Little India. His workday usually starts at 5am, when he accompanies another worker to the wet produce markets. Not a professional cook yet, Naskar does all the routine backbreaking kitchen jobs like peeling and dicing vegetables, cleaning and cutting fish, kneading and rolling luchi and chapati dough in the hot, noisy endlessly active restaurant kitchen. Probably the busiest times of the day are after the lunch and dinner rush when he is on utensil wash-up duty with another worker.

Naskar looks forward to Sunday nights when he goes down to Mustafa’s with other restaurant workers after work. He does not get a day-off, which is the usual practice among the unskilled labor workforce throughout most of Singapore. Naskar’s family lives in Mymensingh, Bangladesh and he sent money back home twice in the last year.

He doesn’t disclose his wages but hopes his work contract will be renewed soon for another two years. According to Singapore labor laws, a migrant worker must leave the country as soon as his work permit is cancelled or expires. Though Singapore has historically been heavily dependent on migrant labor, or foreign workers as they are called here, for its economic progress, there is little open dialogue about the living conditions and rights of these workers both in the government-controlled media under the umbrella of the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and in the general public space.

Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MoM) oversees all aspects of issuing work permits for foreign workers. According to government guidelines, unskilled and semi-skilled foreign workers are issued the R Pass (R1 and R2). The R1 pass is issued to semi-skilled foreign workers who possess some degree of practical training. The R2 pass is issued to unskilled foreign workers. R pass holders are not allowed to bring their immediate family members into the country. They are also subject to a security bond and medical examination requirements. If an employer fails to pay the required security bond, work permits are cancelled and the worker must leave Singapore within a week. In addition, the employer must post a S$5000 security bond with the government to guarantee the “good behavior and eventual repatriation” of the foreign manual worker.

The insecurity of life as an R Pass holder in Singapore is pretty much how life is on the other side of any guest worker program. For the host country, a guest worker program is a good deal: a wealthy country gets sufficient supplies of cheap labor to do all the jobs no one else wants to do, without having to invest anything in the welfare of that labor force. For the worker, it is a period of hard (oftentimes demeaning or dangerous) labor with the ability to occasionally remit money back home, a constant sense of alienation and isolation heightened by an enforced separation from home and family and no legal rights to speak of. Interestingly, this is exactly the kind of life the United States senate foresees for its 12 million undocumented workers sometime in the very near future.

In Singapore, where most of the migrant labor falls under the category of manual worker—either domestic or construction worker—the insecurity of the R Pass is heightened by the S$ 5000 security bond, that often becomes the proverbial sword of Damocles over the head of the migrant laborer, especially in the case of domestic foreign workers.

Domestic Foreign Workers (DFWs) is a face-saving euphemism for household servants that in Singapore refers to maids who are generally treated more like slaves than free human beings. Domestic worker abuse in countries like Singapore and Hong Kong has been widely documented by international NGOs like Human Rights Watch in the past. Abuse which is so rampant that it is now considered normal includes keeping domestic workers housebound so that outside human contact cannot “spoil them”; making them work long hours; and not giving workers a single day off. Actually, a monthly day-off is offered to maids in many homes, but if they work on that day-off they are given an extra S$20, so they usually end up working through the day-off for the extra cash. In Singapore, an Indonesian maid earns around S$200 a month—though ex-pat employers pay quite a bit more, as well as usually offer better working conditions. Filipino maids earn higher salaries, ranging between S$300–400. Sri Lankan and Nepali maids earn around the same, or less than Indonesian maids. [US$ 1 = S$ 1.60]

Off and on half-hearted debates on the need for a weekly day-off are published in the comment pages of the Straits Times newspaper (the largest selling English daily in Singapore published by the Singapore Press Holdings), but the general consensus is with the Ministry of Manpower—domestic workers shouldn’t get a single day off as this is cruel and unfair to elderly people and children dependent on these workers; also the absence of domestic help will disrupt the schedule of working mothers and impact productivity in their white-collar jobs.

Srimala, 37, works with an Indian family living in an HDB housing estate (government housing) on Farrer Road. She came from Sri Lanka and says she was fortunate to be chosen by the Indian family from the maid agency with which she was registered.

Srimala has been living with the Indian family for three years now. They have been the longest three years of her life. Dressed in a navy blue ankle length shapeless sarong like skirt and grey shirt, her lined and weathered face looks closer to fifty than forty. She talks in short furtive sentences about her life and will not disclose any details she thinks may reveal the identity of her employers. Her employers live in a five-bedroom apartment on the twelfth floor of the housing estate. She works for a family of six people: two elderly parents, their son and his wife, one 10-year-old son and a little baby. She usually works from 5 am to after midnight.

Her early morning chores include cleaning the apartment, making the beds, washing the windows (of the twelfth floor apartment) before preparing a traditional breakfast for the family.

Srimala accompanies the elderly grandmother to the supermarket everyday to shop for fresh vegetables; she cooks the meals; sorts out the washing (done in a washing machine but manually dried out in the sun on two long poles attached to the windows as is the custom in most HDB apartments); bathes the baby; makes numerous cups of coffee and tea for the grandfather and finally washes the dishes. She sleeps between three and four hours a night, does not get a single day off and yet says she is fortunate to be chosen by an Indian family. The reason being that local Chinese families are known to be even stricter employers going to almost insanely inhuman lengths to keep their maids virtual house prisoners. Srimala is allowed out on her own (whenever she has the time, which is usually never). She is also allowed to call her family back in Sri Lanka from a public pay phone, as she is not allowed to own a cell phone, and send them letters. She has been given an old blanket on which she can sleep in the kitchen and has never been beaten or abused verbally by her employers.

Srimala knows fellow-Sri Lankan women who are not so fortunate. A younger woman from her own village employed by a Chinese family in another HDB block not too far from where Srimala is, can never go outdoors without her Chinese mistress with her. So the only places she goes to are the local wet market and shopping center where she carries her mistress’s shopping bags. She does similar work to Srimala without a single day off, except that she also has to wash the windows from the outside (of a sixth floor apartment), clean her employer’s car and iron a hamper of clothes everyday. She has to sleep in the room of one of the teenage daughters of the house, which means she needs to sleep when the girl is ready to sleep (usually after 1 am) and cannot even sleep in privacy. She is also regularly verbally abused by her employer and is threatened that she will be “kicked out of the country” as the employers will withdraw the security bond they have posted.

The woman is not allowed any contact with her family and is never left by herself as her employers are convinced she will use the opportunity to mix with “bad men and get pregnant.” Also, her hair is regularly cut by the employer as she feels the woman’s “long hair is dirty and falls all over the apartment.”

The saddest thing is that for a domestic worker like this unfortunate woman and Srimala there is no recourse or even a place where they can go and lodge a complaint against inhuman employers. These women are too scared to take any official action with the Ministry of Manpower (which does operate a kind of help-line service). In the almost total absence of any non-governmental agency to help them, they usually just suffer in silence.

Filipino domestic workers are more organized in Singapore these days, especially after the 1995 Flor Contemplacion case. Flor was a Filipino domestic worker who was arrested for the murder of another domestic worker, Delia Maga and Maga’s employer’s child Nicolas in 1991. At the time, according to media reports, the Singapore police claimed that Flor had committed the numbers after “snapping” from the strain of her dawn to midnight routine for three years with her Singaporean employers. Flor was executed in 1995 resulting in an angry and loud protest from the Philippines—spearheaded by Filipino NGOs in the Philippines and around the world that believed Flor had not been given a fair trial. The Singapore government was accused of acting insensitively and the entire Philippine embassy staff in Singapore was sacked for reacting too slowly to Flor’s case. This incident considerably damaged Singaporean diplomatic relations with the Philippines and also led to more stringent regulations by the Ministry of Manpower regarding FDWs in Singapore. Currently the MoM runs orientation programs for Singaporeans who want to employ FDWs. The programs are supposed to educate and sensitize prospective employers about domestic workers and how they should be treated.

The Filipina women meet regularly at the Lucky Plaza center in Orchard, Singapore’s central shopping district, where there is some amount of counseling available. However, Sri Lankan, Nepalese and Burmese maids (in much smaller numbers than Filipinos and Indonesians) lack any sort of cohesive organization and are usually exploited both by their employers and the agencies that recruit them.

Construction workers are probably the most organized of unskilled foreign labor in Singapore—and also the best treated with regulated work hours, periodic health screening and some protection against exploitation. Workers in the cleaning industry (garbage disposal workers and sweepers who clean the streets and buildings) could do with some of that organization.

Yunis Mohammad is a contracted cleaner at a Holland Village HDB housing complex. All Singapore apartments are fitted with a garbage disposal chute. The idea is that regular household waste is required to be bagged securely and dropped down the chute. Big items like packing materials, newspapers, old books, etc. are supposed to be collected and disposed off at the “big garbage collection bins” placed somewhere within the complex conveniently accessible to all residents. Glass and other dangerous waste should also be placed in these bins. In practice, Yunis says, residents “throw everything down the chute, including glass bottles, big books, newspapers everything.” The glass bottles naturally shatter meaning that the chute cleaners regularly get their hands cut and slashed with pieces of glass.

Yunis who usually a works a 6am-6pm shift with a short afternoon break, is from Bangladesh and lives in one of the dormitory-style buildings rented out to workers in Little India.

He has had his hands cut countless times on shards of glass and broken bottlenecks. The stink of decomposing garbage in the chute is nauseating and stays with Yunis long after his 12-hour shift is done. He describes cleaning the chute as a hellish job as most often tenants have barely secured their trash in the garbage bags and everything from soiled sanitary napkins to leftover meals and half-eaten rotting fruit needs to be manually cleaned out of the chute bins.

Yunis chose to become a contract cleaner as that was the only job available to him, and given that sending him from Bangladesh to Singapore cost his family more than they could afford in agent fees and other charges, he needed to begin repaying the debt as soon as he could. Also, Yunis knows the reality of his life and says he “would never make this much money in Dhaka.” When he returns home on visits he takes back things that will be useful—electric fans, wristwatches, clothes, kitchen utensils and gold jewelry. He says he can buy all of these things at the best prices from Mustafa’s.

In the absence of any grassroots movement in Singapore that can provide a support structure to migrant labor in terms of counseling, legal and medical advice and other assistance, places like Mustafa’s in Little India have become surrogate social clubs for these workers. Mustafa’s is a sprawling, four-story mall that is a combination of hyper-mart, foreign exchange center and social space with coffee stalls and eating places on its premises. Being open 24/7 makes it convenient for workers to meet here even at the end of a long workday.

In Singapore, NGO activity and advocacy for migrant labor has a brief, rather unproductive history. The little activism that existed in the late Eighties was effectively stubbed out with the so-called “Marxist Conspiracy Case” in 1987, and in the years that followed even socially aware Singaporeans have been reluctant to involve themselves in migrant labor issues because of its “socialist overtones.” In May, 1987, 22 people were arrested under the Internal Security Act for allegedly threatening state and national interests. The arrested included Catholic social workers and lay workers at the Geylang Catholic Center for Foreign Workers. The Center used to lobby for better wages and more humane employment conditions for foreign workers of all faiths. However, the Church was seen as a “cover for political agitation” and the Geylang Center was shut down. As a result of this incident, religious organizations and other civil society groups have steered clear of migrant labor issues.

With the Flor Contemplacion case of 1995, international attention was once again focused on migrant labor conditions in Singapore and the backlash from the case resulted in a gradual increase—to an extent—in networking and some advocacy for migrant, especially domestic workers here. Though, as said earlier, a lot of this organization really focuses on Filipino domestic workers and groups assisting them. It remains to be seen if other civic societies can take their cue from these organizations and work towards empowering people like Srimala and Yunis Mohammed.

After stints in Tokyo and Taipei Rupali Ghosh is currently based in Singapore. When not moving house, she works as a freelance journalist and editorial consultant for the Pacific Asia Resource Center.

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