Migrant workers in singapore during COVID 19 Pandemic Lockdown

Perfect City, Broken Bodies: Migrant Workers in Singapore

Singapore is home to some of the world’s best infrastructure, the country topped Mercer‘s 2019 Quality of Living survey for Asia, making it one of the world’s most attractive countries to live in. However, behind the facade of shiny skyscrapers lie stifled stories of suffering. They belong to the invisible hands that built this perfect city.

History of migrant workers in Singapore


1890's Chinatown in Singapore
Credit: Pinterest @ingridbazuin

The history of migrant workers in Singapore originated as early as the founding of the colonial state by the British in 1819. Set up as an entrepot, Singapore (also known as Singapura at that time) drew the attention of many as a land of job opportunities. This resulted in a surge in the number of migrants from places such as China, Bengal and Indonesia who came to the land in hopes of bettering their lives.

Post-WWII: The Second Boom

Singapore was heavily bombed by Japan during the Second World War
Credit: Getty Images

As Singapore attempted to slowly rebuild itself post-WWII, problems such as poverty, unemployment and unsanitary living conditions continued to plague the city. Further compounded by rapid population growth, the country was greatly crippled; basic necessities for locals were unmet. In an effort to tackle these challenges, the Singapore government introduced a host of economic policies targeted at developing the city. A key strategy was providing tax incentives to attract foreign investors to set up businesses and factories. This was met with significant success as the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate soared and by the 1970s, unemployment became a rarity. Singapore had become a land of opportunity for many around the world.

Migrant workers today

Differential assimilation within society

As of 2020, migrant workers make up 38% of Singapore’s labour force. They play a critical role in ensuring the country’s economic growth and social development. However, migrant workers are unequally incorporated into society. For high-skilled migrants such as professionals and businessmen, they are often paid comfortably and given preferential treatment by the government in the form of citizenship and permanent residency. This allows them to easily assimilate into society. However, this is not the case for low-skilled migrants. Low-skilled migrants are essentialised for their labour, performing 3D jobs (dirty, dangerous, demeaning) that are low-paying. Even though they play pivotal roles in creating Singapore’s infrastructure, they are deemed easily replaceable and hence stuck in a transient state where social constraints prevent them from assimilating within society.

Issues present-day migrants face

Migrant worker during COVID-19 Pandemic
Credit: Kyoto Review

While discussing migrant workers, this article henceforth will be focusing specifically on low-paying migrant workers, specifically Indian and Bangladeshi migrant workers in Singapore who make up a significant percentage of the construction worker force.

The issue of inequality

Often loosely referred to as “foreign workers” by locals, the terminology “foreign” alludes to the subconscious establishment of a degree of alienation within the little red dot. Perceived as an outsider by locals, their movement and mobility within Singapore are effectively limited – perceptions of their identity are wholly based on the perceptions of locals of them as foreign bodies. This in turn determines their positionality as “outcasts” belonging to the bottom rung of society, limiting their job opportunities to menial construction jobs that are dangerous and low-paying.

Anthropological link

According to Karl Marx’s Conflict Theory, society is characterized by conflict between social groups, with unequal power and competing interests resulting in them competing for scarce resources. The Singaporean society, like others, is organized based on one’s economic capital and function within the community. As each group advances socially and economically, authoritative forces ensure that society functions through allowing and even promoting the constant oppression by social groups higher in the hierarchy towards the groups below them. As a result, the migrant workers who are stratified at the bottom continue to remain oppressed to maintain social internal coherence.

Segregation by the state

migrant worker dormitory
Credit: Bloomberg

In addition to this, governmental forces play a role in the continued oppression and systemic inequality faced by migrants on the basis of maintaining internal coherence within society. Journalist Rina Chandran comments on the long-lived ill-treatment and inequality migrant workers housing in Singapore have silently faced over the years, where reportedly more than 300,000 labourers from Bangladesh, China and India are often packed together in rooms at the fringes of the country, shared by 12 to 20 men, working jobs that pay as little as $20 a day.

This can be supported by Wajihah Hamid’s 2015 journal publication “Feelings of Home Amongst Tamil Migrant Workers in Singapore’s Little India”, where she reinforces Straits Times writer Devadas’ idea that “[the migrant workers] live in pitiable conditions provided by the employers, either in shacks, squatters and makeshift containers at the worksite itself, or in purpose-built dormitories in the industrial belts of the country”. Hamid further writes how Tamil migrant workers in Singapore are housed in dorms where “public transport is sporadic”, deliberately isolated from the city, living in isolated industrial areas or unfavourable places such as next to cemeteries.

Discriminated against left, right, and centre

little india singapore
Credit: Culture Trip

Unfortunately, such unequal treatment is not limited to the state but rather trickled down to everyday social relations within Singapore. Migrant workers are physically forced out of public spaces through formal and informal practices of power relations. This can be exemplified within the space of Little India in Singapore. Located east of the Singapore River, Little India is a neigbourhood rich in Indian history and culture that serves as a popular local tourist attraction.

For the Indian and Bangladeshi migrant workers who view Little India as a semblance of home and familiarity in a foreign land, they were limited to going to Little India once a week on a Sunday. On the other hand, tourists and locals could come and go as they pleased. Such a restriction on migrants aimed at ensuring the invisibility of the workers to the public eye. Furthermore, even on Sundays when they visit Little India, they are often made blatantly aware that they are unwelcomed. In shopping malls and void decks, resident committees and neighbourhood policemen place signboards in Tamil and Bengali cautioning workers to not “loiter” around residential blocks in Little India. Locals utilise informal practices to exert social control by spraying water on the floors below their apartment blocks, preventing the migrants from gathering. Additionally, there is a strong use of disciplinary gaze in the form of daily patrolling by police and auxiliary police officers in Little India from 2009, as well as the instalment of metal gates around flats and certain public spaces after the 2013 Little India riot.

Impact of discrimination

little india singapore
Credit: The Straits Times

This illustrates how due to the little economic and cultural capital the migrants have, they are effectively at the mercy of those above them in the power hierarchy. Thus, they are subjected to poor living conditions and face restrictions in their movement around the land. As their bodies are those of foreign labourers associated with a low social class, the distinction between them in contrast to the living conditions and use of public space of the local Singaporeans exemplify the inequality the migrants are required to conform to and comply with.

This then pushes the workers out both physically and metaphorically, where they are dictated where they are allowed to go and where they are not. Discrimination is seen more implicitly through the constant monitoring and surveillance by disciplinary institutions to keep the migrant workers in check for a harmonious coexistence of the foreign body with the local. Through the different forms of power used, the power hierarchy in both societies is continually reinforced. Ironically, such reinforcement aids in shaping the temporal identities of the migrants within society, who normalise, naturalise, internalise and reproduce their required behaviours to ensure peaceful coexistence. This is observed through the way migrant workers would often congregate in “leftover” spaces in Little India such as near rubbish bins and in hidden alleyways, highlighting the constant physical and symbolic boundaries they are met with.

The Impact of COVID-19

Migrant workers in singapore during COVID 19 Pandemic Lockdown
Credit: The Jarkarta Post

When COVID-19 hit Singapore in early 2020, the inequality faced by migrant workers was illuminated.

Treatment by the state

Credit: The Edge Singapore

During the start of COVID-19, the government continually housed them in dormitories, where clusters of cases in workers’ dormitories formed due to the absence of safe distancing. This is a stark comparison to Singaporean citizens who were able to stay in the comfort of their homes as well as government-sponsored luxury hotel rooms for those in quarantine.

This social stratification of foreign workers can further be seen through the adoption of two categories of separate local infections of COVID-19, one for migrant workers who live in dormitories and another for the local community. While the deliberate separation of foreign worker cases with cases from the local community has its merit when it comes to having a useful census to help combat the pandemic, it once again effectively demarcates and separates the foreigners from the local population, posing an insider versus outsider situation. This reinforces the skewed notion of migrant workers as foreign bodies that are not part of society, which in turn justifies the unfair and unequal treatment they receive from the government with regards to the long-term issues with housing and wages, as well as the handling of COVID-19 positive foreign workers.

Public Response: Social media

Singapore's manpower ministry has implemented safe distancing at migrant worker dormitories in the bid to control the spread of Covid-19.
Credit: Singapore Ministry of Manpower

Upon seeing the sudden surge in migrant worker infections, citizens began paying closer attention to the marginalized population. Campaigns such as “Welcome In My Backyard” and non-profit organizations such as Transient Workers Count Too that aim to raise awareness and ensure equitable treatment for migrant workers garnered public awareness. On social media, words of sympathy for migrants and outrage against the government have been voiced, especially by local youths. Fundraising campaigns were also set up to aid migrant workers in obtaining daily necessities.

Conclusion: The uncertain road ahead

migrant workers singapore
Credit: Salt & Light

It took the presence of a global pandemic to shed light on the strong-rooted structural discrimination faced by migrant workers. While present-day social media buzz on migrant workers’ plight has been dwindling months after the loosening of circuit breaker restrictions, this does not lessen the severity of the mistreatment they had and continue to receive. Even with government pledges to heighten the living conditions of the migrants, the inequality that migrant workers face still remains.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “all men are created equal”. As a country that prides itself on democracy, does Singapore’s treatment of migrants truly reflect such equality?

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