Migrants in Libya (Photo: UN)

Cross-posted from In These Times

The much-hyped “emerging economies” of Asia are supposed to be moving up on the world stage, but the labor migration they’ve set in motion has put the poorest workers on a downward spiral. Wherever migrants clamor for jobs in “more developed” countries, social crisis often follows.

A recent protest in Singapore suggests that inequality and unrest simmer even in Asia’s most prosperous enclaves. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Bangladeshi construction workers organized an eight-hour sit-in to demand justice for an all-but-invisible workforce:

The low-wage migrant workers, who, like the much of the city-state’s construction force are from Bangladesh, gathered in a vacant field near their dormitories Monday in Tampines, a part of east Singapore. They were protesting against their employers, Singapore-based Sunway Concrete Products Pte. Ltd and Techcom Construction & Trading Pte. Ltd. Both companies are contracted by the government Housing Development Board to build homes across the island.

The workers said their employers had not paid their salaries for four months, since November last year, despite repeated requests for payment. Initial investigations carried out by officials from Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower confirmed that they had not been paid.

The workers also took issue with the food they were being served, which they said was inedible though paid from their own salaries, which are between S$2 – 2.50 (US$1.60 – $2) an hour, according to the workers.

Immigrants being cheated out of wages is a common story everywhere in the world (the U.S. included, of course), and lawmakers have little incentive to clamp down on unscrupulous employers when their economic growth figures are at stake. But Singapore might be more pressured to respond in this case because the labor dispute involves government contractors.

Meanwhile, back in Bangladesh, the export industry for virtual indentured servants is thriving. Official data suggests that of the hundreds of thousands of workers exported annually, many don’t make it back alive;  “A total of 481 Bangladeshi expatriates died in Malaysia in 2009,” according to BDnews24. To cover transport and funeral costs for corpses, families of the dead can seek help from the Wage Earners’ Welfare Fund, which, perversely, draws funds from fees paid by other workers seeking fortunes abroad.

Bangladesh’s formal labor migration system may yet be eclipsed by the expansion of illegal migration channels run by underground “manpower agents.” A Financial Express editorial notes:

in most cases these unfortunate workers are defrauded by a section of unscrupulous manpower agents who usually promise well-paid jobs against payment of a handsome amount. But on arrival these poor workers find themselves in great trouble as the promise that the manpower agents make in many cases is found to be false. Most defrauded people start staying in those countries illegally and take up low-paid menial jobs, something which is very much unwelcome to the governments of the host countries.

In both the “developed” and “developing” worlds,” migrants’ labor struggles are deepened by social alienation. In Malaysia, exploitation of Filipino and Indonesian migrants is rampant in sectors such as domestic work. But they’re also the target of hostility from locals who disdain them as economic competition.

The more isolated migrants are, the greater the perils they face surviving in their host country. Last year, terrified Bangladeshi workers struggled to escape Libya in the midst of the civil war. Now, however, some are desperate to go back to work:

“We’ve had talks with Libya and the companies where our labourers were before the war. They want to take Bangladeshi workers back. Libya will be a big job market for us as our workers have a good reputation.”

For most Bangladeshi migrants, overseas contracts are the only way they can support their families — and to secure them they often take out huge loans, usually from their employment broker.

When contracts go sour, as happened in Libya, returning overseas to pay off their debts is often their only option, said International Organisation for Migration (IOM) spokesman Asif Munier.

“They are desperate as they think they do not have jobs in their villages,” he said.

Off the coast of Thailand, the lucrative deep sea fishing industry–another case of “free enterprise” in the Global South subsidizing consumerism in the West,  has condemned men and boys from Burma, Cambodia and Laos to slavery, or even a watery grave, reports the Asia Foundation:

While working conditions vary from vessel to vessel, research conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Mirror Foundation, and other organizations suggests that a significant percentage of the men and boys trafficked to Thai ships are subject to round-the-clock working hours, cramped quarters, poor nutrition, low wages, debt bondage, physical abuse and intimidation, and other hardships that amount to virtual enslavement. Some trafficking victims reportedly meet violent deaths if they become too ill to work or demand to be released. … Problems persist for many of those who manage to escape by jumping overboard. Many of those who manage to avoid being captured and returned to their ships are detained by foreign governments or face other repatriation challenges.

Countries that absorb migrant labor set the stage for abuse with deeply inadequate labor protections that are aggravated by boundaries of language, race, gender and citizenship. A new analysis of migrant labor in Kuwait by the International Trade Union Confederation documented the inequities embedded in the remittance economy:

In August 2010, undocumented workers from the Philippines accused their employer of unfair labour practices as well as physical and sexual abuse. The authorities claimed that they we re not entitled to protection because they were undocumented migrants. All but three workers decided to return to their workplace the next day and one of the three was deported….

Reports find that Kuwait authorities do not arrest nationals for trafficking even for cases of  systematic abuse and that in practice there are no arrests or convictions for trafficking.

Justice for migrants will remain out of reach so long as migration policies fail to regulate, or instead promote, the market for cheap workers. The strike in Singapore was a start, but there’s a long road ahead before the workers at the margins of the global economy gain respect as global citizens.

Michelle Chen

Michelle Chen