Migrant workers: Where would we be without them? — issue #43

Migrant workers: Where would we be without them? — issue #43


When the pandemic hit Singapore’s shores, there was an outbreak of cases within the dormitories where migrant workers lived. While there were lockdowns for the general public, there was a sense that the migrant worker community was separate from the locals.

Their cases became outliers, not counted as part of the community spread. Despite hundreds of workers getting infected everyday, there was an odd sense of relief among locals (“at least they were infected, not us”). Mental health amongst migrant workers suffered; female migrant domestic workers, who had to stay indoors in the homes of their employers, faced overwork, abuse, and other issues.

The ways Singaporeans perceive and treat migrant workers were not only highlighted, but heightened during the pandemic years. Even before, many locals are guilty of treating them harshly in workplaces and at home.

But we forget that Singapore was built on the backs of these labourers. Today, in our almost 5.7 million headcount, 1.4 million of them are Work Permit holders. The men work in construction, transportation, manufacturing, marine, water supply, waste management, and even real estate, and the women mostly work as domestic helpers. From infrastructure to family, they are crucial to all aspects of our society. Yet, they still earn too little and face terrible working conditions—workplace injuries and fatalities so many, we wrote a data story about it.

No one has reins on the high horse here. Without migrant workers, we wouldn’t have a flourishing country. More than just showing our appreciation during National Day broadcasts, our country needs to enact a deeper, more systemic change that will ensure migrant workers live a decent-to-good life in Singapore.

On 1 May, we celebrated and enjoyed our Labour Day break. As we pat ourselves on the back for jobs well done, we must not forget the migrant workers who continue to labour on our days off, building our country with little rest.

Want to tell impactful stories with us? Send your ideas to pitch@kontinentalist.com! We’d love to hear from you.
Written by Gwyneth

Data-storytelling workshop on 9 June 2023
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Cover image of the story; illustration collage portrait of migrant workers in Singapore reflected on broken mirror, with Singapore's constructed skyline emblazoned across their chest.
Early in 2022, a group of citizens approached Kontinentalist with a stack of newspapers about the deaths of migrant workers in Singapore, and a Google Sheet filled with data they’d been painstakingly extracting from newspapers. In it were the names, ages, dates and other information from each reported incident which resulted in a migrant worker dying.

As with the story on sexual violence in Singapore that we produced last year, we knew we had a chance to make a huge difference; here was a very important topic ripe for a data-led investigation. Though migrant worker safety is a ubiquitous issue in Singapore with an endless trickle of reports about their deaths and injuries, a comprehensive look at the underlying patterns behind their deaths felt glaringly absent. Like the sexual violence story, there was no publicly available structured data with sufficient granularity. Our story was a chance to change that, and we also worked in collaboration with the group to create the Migrant Death Map.

Screenshot of the Migrant worker deathmap public google sheet.
I refined the datasheet and imposed structure before continuing the data collection for the rest of the 22 years. Structuring is important because not all data is informative. The data collection and structuring process is iterative—for example, looking at age and nationality alone didn't reveal a pattern that would give the story legs.
Bubble chart of the leading cause of workplace-related migrant death in Singapore.
However, splicing gender with cause of the death was informative, as it showed the different modalities of violence experienced by men and women migrant workers. Iterating between different degrees of scope and fidelity also shapes one’s understanding and angle. An example is deciding the different categories of workplace incidents—is falling materially different from being crushed? What about fires versus chemical explosions? We tried to base it on the underlying reason for failure to protect life that was more distinct than other categories, e.g., falling is typically caused by the failure to provide adequate safety harness attachments and guardrails.
Screenshot of 'The rights and entitlement of migrant workers: expectations versus reality'.
Part of our data visualisation on the jarring differences between expectations and reality of a migrant worker’s journey.

We backed up the insights gleaned from the data with desk research, especially the invaluable reports and many firsthand accounts sourced from NGOs like HOME and TWC2. This kind of large-scale investigative effort is extremely resource-intensive and difficult for NGOs to do. Yet we couldn’t have done it without them. Achievements like this truly show how various routes of solidarity and advocacy are needed, and we can harness each others’ strengths while moving towards the same goals.

Takeaways and learnings

On a personal level, it can be very difficult to do this work. It is technically hard to do well, requiring estimation and judgements about tasks and angles that have never been done before. It is also emotionally difficult, as one is immersed in gruesome and cruel detail daily for months.

Yet this enterprise shows it’s very possible to do this work with enough will, empathy, and curiosity—and, importantly, like-minded allies who care. Truth is in many ways a collectively-held belief; remember that you always have the power to question the only narrative you’ve been told (for example, this is just the way life is, these deaths are a sad economic necessity, etc.), and create new stories from the data and lived experiences you gather.

With our sexual violence story and this one on migrant deaths, we’ve shown how much can come to light—and inform societal interaction and policy—through this empirical approach. Singapore has a long way to go in creating usable databases that actually push the envelope in elevating the quality of public discourse on important matters. I hope more pressure is added to make data collection, cleaning, and release a default across industries.

On this theme of labour, let’s take a moment to rethink what and who is of value, why we accept the status quo of work, and boldly imagine what we’d want it to be. Sharing a new story of what is and what could be is our first step to a different and better future.

Mick Yang
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The grim history behind the term ‘coolie’.
The term coolie came to rise in the 16th century. The British used it as a ‘bureaucratic’ term for indentured labourers working in colonial plantations,1 but the word soon became associated with the exploitation of migrant workers. In the family of Dravidian languages, the word क़ुली, kūli, means wages. In Mandarin, the word 苦力, kǔlì, is an instance of phono-semantic matching which translates to "bitter strength" and understood as "hard labour".2 While there were supposedly consensual labour contracts, the system was more akin to modern slavery, rife with labour trafficking, human rights abuses, and low wages.
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