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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Here are some more photos from the evening:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to have a chance to show the pictures again!