Award Information

Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Hidden From the Heartlands: Precarity, Control, and South(east) Asian Migrant Workers in Singapore.

Drawing on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork, I describe how Singaporean labor policy strategically maximizes the economic benefits of South and Southeast Asian migrant workers while minimizing the social, political, and economic costs borne by the state. A wide variety of political objectives depend on a mass migrant labor force that is cheap, pliant, socially segregated, and ultimately expendable. Thus, I argue that Singapore's migrant-driven economy thereby relies on a strategic "politics of sight" (Pachirat 2011): if the human costs remain tidily out of sight and out of mind, ethically-fraught labor relations can legitimized and even normalized by everyday citizens. In this vein, the dissertation pursues three interrelated questions. First, how does the state collaborate with private employers to segregate nearly one million migrant workers (over 15% of the population and 25% of the workforce) from mainstream public life? Second, how are these controls gendered and adapted for each of two distinct labor populations: male South Asian manual workers and female Southeast Asian domestic helpers? And third, how do employers and the state externalize the costs of exploitation back to migrants' countries of origin in the Global South? Whereas extent research overwhelmingly fixates on narrow subsets of the migrant workforce (e.g., male Thai construction workers, female Filipina domestic workers), I use comparative methods to analyze multiple labor regimes operating within the same political space. I illustrate how male and female migrant workers are subject to parallel but strategically differentiated labor regimes: including separate debt financing models, employment legislation, labor dispute systems. The comparison also enables analysis of social invisibilization enforced at multiple scales (e.g., by state, firm, and private domestic employer).