The faraway near: how migrant workers cross borders

Stories of the foreign intimate, the faraway near, the familiar alien. Asia Research Institute’s Asia Trends 2015 symposium featured a photo exhibition and talks about migrant workers. 

by Alex Ma

Stories of the foreign intimate, the faraway near, the familiar alien peppered the curved corridors. Knowing nods and sympathetic frowns were sporadically punctuated by the occasional recoil and thinly veiled gasps. The Asia Research Institute’s annual Asia Trends conference, held this year on July 2nd at *SCAPE, has never failed to draw a diverse crowd, and this year proved no different.

A diverse crowd checks out Ruom's photo exhibition of domestic worker stories at the Asia Research Institute's Asia Trends event, 'En Route to the Departure Hall'.
A diverse crowd checks out Ruom’s photo exhibition of domestic worker stories at the Asia Research Institute’s Asia Trends event, ‘En Route to the Departure Hall’. / Photo credit: Henry Kwan

Titled ‘En Route to the Departure Hall’, the symposium featured a curated photo exhibition – ‘Dreaming Singapore’ – by Nicolas Axelrod of Ruom photojournalist collective, as well as short presentations by Nicolas, Dr. Manolo Abella, a senior research associate at the University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, and ARI’s own research and communications officer, Kellynn Wee.

Designed to bridge the esoteric findings of academia with the wider public, this year’s symposium drew masses from the international research community, non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations, students, and curious members of the public. In total, over a hundred people were in attendance.

Attendees chat outside the symposium venue at *SCAPEmedia Hub while waiting for the talks to begin.
Attendees chat outside the symposium venue at *SCAPEmedia Hub while waiting for the talks to begin. / Photo credit: Henry Kwan

‘En Route to the Departure Hall’ sought to inform the public of the complex, precarious and profoundly human processes that underwrite contemporary transnational migration. In particular, the symposium weighed in on the issue of foreign domestic worker and construction worker migration to Singapore—a topic that has received much press and civil society attention in recent years.

Caption from exhibition: April 25, 2014 - Jakarta, Indonesia. Aspiring domestic workers practice making beds and vacuuming in a training centre on the outskirts of the capital, as a trainer oversees their work. Some domestic workers use a doll to learn how to wash, change diapers and take care of newborns and infants. They also take language and cooking classes. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom
Caption from exhibition: April 25, 2014 – Jakarta, Indonesia. Aspiring domestic workers practice making beds and vacuuming in a training centre on the outskirts of the capital, as a trainer oversees their work. Some domestic workers use a doll to learn how to wash, change diapers and take care of newborns and infants. They also take language and cooking classes. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

Ruom’s photography resonated with current research that looks at the sprawling networks and points of exchange that constitute the migration machine. The exhibition presented the emotional process of migration from origin to destination, a journey that is fraught with uncertainty.

Visitors find the exhibition compelling. / Photo credit: Kerrie Wee
Visitors find the exhibition compelling. / Photo credit: Kerrie Wee

Immersive prints took the voyeur beyond the fetishized construct of foreign labour and into the stories of heartache and departure, camaraderie and solidarity, and all the hoops in between through which domestic workers jump to work for one in every five Singaporean households today.

Each photo came with a familiar backstory and accentuated the human side of migration.

Caption from exhibition: June 09, 2014 - Semarang, Indonesia. Tutik arrives home after working in Singapore for three years. At first, the reunion is subdued. The girls bow their heads and continue eating. For some time the only sounds are the men speaking on the front porch, wrapped in the blue smoke of their clove cigarattes. But soon, awkwardness gives way to intimacy. The girls help Tutik unpack, and years of distance fall away. Her eldest daughter Ika is so happy she is home that she doesn't leave her alone. In two months' time, Tutik will return to Singapore to work for a new employer. The more time she spends with her daughters, the more she realises their futures depend on her leaving.
Caption from exhibition: June 09, 2014 – Semarang, Indonesia. Tutik arrives home after working in Singapore for three years. At first, the reunion is subdued. The girls bow their heads and continue eating. For some time the only sounds are the men speaking on the front porch, wrapped in the blue smoke of their clove cigarattes. But soon, awkwardness gives way to intimacy. The girls help Tutik unpack, and years of distance fall away. Her eldest daughter Ika is so happy she is home that she doesn’t leave her alone. In two months’ time, Tutik will return to Singapore to work for a new employer. The more time she spends with her daughters, the more she realises their futures depend on her leaving. “For farmers, there’s no salary,” Tutik says. “I want my children to become successful people, useful people. I want to give them an education. I know that is going to require millions and millions of rupiah.” © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

Nicolas’ talk detailed his photographic ethnography through which he befriended, followed, and documented the experiences of Indonesian domestic workers during their recruitment, training, migration and return.

Our second speaker, Manolo Abella, spoke extensively on the commercialisation of labour migration in Asia. For Manolo, the primary issue behind migration is the cost of mobility; hefty fees and debt burdens impact upon migrant welfare and render them more vulnerable to exploitation.

Dr. Manolo Abella addresses the crowd.
Dr. Manolo Abella addresses the crowd. / Photo credit: Henry Kwan

Moreover, such fees are premised upon: 1) market dynamics where migrant labour supplies, especially in industries such as construction, outweigh demand, 2) inefficient or misguided governance of migration policies and, 3) failures of information to account for differences in labour and qualification standards.

Nonetheless, Manolo remains optimistic that solutions can be found in remedying information asymmetries, fostering intergovernmental cooperation, and finding greater mediums for migration management. To this end, Manolo references the possibility of free movement agreements to reduce the barriers to migration, such as in the European Union, as well as technological and organisational streamlining to ensure workers are suitably matched to jobs through direct governmental mechanisms, such as in South Korea.

Caption from exhibition: April 30, 2014 - Kendal, Indonesia. An aspiring domestic worker during a Skype coversation with a possible future employer in Singapore. During Skype interviews, women often feel pressured to agreeing to unreasonable conditions, such as no off-days, limited usage of mobile phones and excessive working hours. Presenting an attitude of willingness and enthusiasm to a potential employer is essential. Singaporean employment agencies may not be able to control recruitment and training practices in Indonesia, but they do have the potential to excercise a strong influence on the working conditions that migrant workers agree to. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom
Caption from exhibition: April 30, 2014 – Kendal, Indonesia. An aspiring domestic worker during a Skype coversation with a possible future employer in Singapore. During Skype interviews, women often feel pressured to agreeing to unreasonable conditions, such as no off-days, limited usage of mobile phones and excessive working hours. Presenting an attitude of willingness and enthusiasm to a potential employer is essential. Singaporean employment agencies may not be able to control recruitment and training practices in Indonesia, but they do have the potential to excercise a strong influence on the working conditions that migrant workers agree to. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

On the domestic worker migration industry, Kellynn presented an accessible slideshow of factual snippets and infographics that charted step-by-step the tumultuous path to Singapore

By tracing the recruiters, agencies, training centres, and employers involved, Kellynn’s presentation was intended to educate the public about the costs, both human and economic, of migration.

Information about the demographics of domestic workers was presented in regards to educational, age, nationality, and class indicators and the cost of migration was heavily emphasised.

It is reckoned that the typical costs incurred through domestic workers’ move to Singapore total around $SGD3000-3600.

Presenters field a lively question and answer section.
Presenters field a lively question and answer section. / Photo credit: Henry Kwan

For construction workers, the average fee was around $SGD6340. For construction workers, these sums are often paid upfront to the relevant recruiters and employment agencies. Upfront payments often necessitated the burden of debt – 80.5% had borrowed money to finance their migration.

For domestic workers, repayment is deducted from monthly salaries. Domestic workers in Singapore are burdened with lengthy periods of salary deductions lasting 6-9 months, and may earn a nominal level of $SGD10 per month during this salary deduction period.

Importantly, Kellynn also presented international case studies on how to ensure migrant welfare by reducing the cost of migration through regulatory pressure on agents via license requirements, enforcement of sanctions for non-compliance, and by standardising and capping migration fees.

The night was capped with lively discussions that extended beyond the end of the event as we continue to search for answers to the big question: how can we reduce the costs of migration while continuing to enhance its positive developmental impact?

We hope you had a better time than this little girl!
We hope you had a better time than this little girl! / Photo credit: Kerrie Wee

Here are some more photos from the evening:

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DSC_0587 DSC_0581 DSC_0591 DSC_0600 DSC_0603 DSC_0597

IMG_1904 IMG_1910 IMG_1911 IMG_1912 IMG_1913 IMG_1916

IMG_1922 IMG_1925 IMG_1941 IMG_1944 IMG_1948 IMG_1957 IMG_1964 IMG_1971 IMG_1982 IMG_1991 IMG_1997 IMG_1998 IMG_2004

If you would like to see more of ARI’s work, please check out our Working Papers here.

If you have any questions, or would like to host Ruom’s exhibition, please contact ARI’s Communications Officer, Kellynn Wee, at kellynn.wee@nus.edu.sg. We would love to have a chance to show the pictures again!


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