The above is an excellent documentary from BBC about the domestic worker “transfer market” in the Gulf states, with a harrowing case study from Kuwait. It is really worth its 51-minute length as it follows undercover reporters and helping hands as they go out to save a girl named Fatou, an underaged victim originally from Guinea.
It may be easy to think the issue — very clearly human trafficking — is specific to the Gulf region, and perhaps in terms of the scale and seriousness of the problem, it is, but as you watch the documentary, there will be moments when what is revealed sounds awfully familiar. The stain on Singapore may not be black but there’s quite a lot of gray.
Moreover, while this video is about female domestic workers, it doesn’t take much to see similarities with experiences faced by male migrant workers in Singapore’s non-domestic sectors too.
For example, at 13 minutes 10 seconds, the narrator describes Kuwait’s kafala system which ties a migrant worker to a sponsor. We may not use these terms in Singapore but we too tie our mgrant workers to their employers. In a sense, Singapore is more “clever” in this regard, preferring to use more Orwellian language instead, saying that it is the employers’ responsibility to “take care” of their foreign workers.
At 13 minutes 25 secs, the narrator explains that migrant workers cannot, of their own free will, look for another job. This too is awfully familiar. Migrant workers in Singapore are not allowed to change employers unless the current employer has “released” the worker, either through a letter of consent or (for construction workers) by declining to renew the work permit.
From the 19th century (and certainly earlier) we have the concept of manumission. The concept is still alive.
May al-Tararwah, a lawyer, says (at 00 minutes 55 secs) that “we need to get rid of this idea that just because I paid for someone’s services, I own them.” She repeats a similar view at 40 minutes 30 secs.
Here in Singapore, a similar atttude persists (“because I brought them into Singapore and gave them a job, I own them”) — made worse by the way our laws are written tying migrant workers to employers and forbidding them from changing jobs on their own. It’s not far-fetched to say our government reinforces such an attitude.
At 2 minutes 35 secs, and again at 7 minutes 50 secs, the issue of employers retaining migrant workers’ passports comes up even though doing so is against the law. Guess what the situation is in Singapore?
At 7 minutes 00secs and again at 14 minutes 20secs, two employers describe how they do not allow their domestic workers to go out on their own. In Singapore, some employers of domestic workers may have the same attittude, but what is even more shocking is that newly-introduced by-laws (to our Employment of Foreign Manpower Act) now give employers full power to confine non-domestic workers inside dormitories and subject their movements to employer permission. That is to say, we may have gone further than Kuwait, with our government legalising the control by employers over other human beings’ movements.
At the centre of the BBC story lie the vast sums of money exchanged when migrant workers are taken to new jobs. In this documentary, the money is paid by the buying employer to the selling employer. At first, we may not see this as something that much happens in Singapore, at least not in this way. Here, it is workers who are made to pay huge sums of money to get jobs, money which often ends up in the pockets of the employers (it happens in Kuwait too).
Look closely and there is a kind of parallel nonetheless, where employers (the seller in Kuwait’s case, the buyer of the worker in Singapore’s case) get illicitly richer through the movement of a labourer.
Last, but not least, the documentary ends by saying that the employers engaged in trading Fatou were ultimately not prosecuted or punished. This is despite the Kuwaiti government official saying (at 38 minutes 50 secs) that such behaviour is against the law (“Anyone who deals in this type of business will be punished”).
Such outcomes are familiar to us too at TWC2 — too many platitudes, too little real action.