With migrant workers making up the vast majority of recent Covid-19 cases in Singapore, there are renewed calls for the government to reduce Singapore's dependence on migrant labour. On the surface, this appears to be a progressive proposal, given that it is being made in response to the cramped and unsanitary nature of the migrant worker dormitories.
In reality, however, these are xenophobic demands to reduce the number of foreigners and these demands have nothing to do with improving conditions in migrant worker dormitories. Many have compared migrant labour to a drug to which Singapore is addicted. Such analogies demonstrate a deeply ingrained aversion to foreigners and speak to the racist discrimination to which migrant workers in Singapore are subject.
The state has been trying to reduce "dependence on migrant labour" for decades. Ever since the 1980s, it has devoted huge sums to try to reduce labour-intensive jobs by getting firms to adopt productivity-enhancing technologies. But automation always occurs unevenly. Earlier investments in what used to be the latest technology cannot be abandoned right away, and some firms are better placed than others to make these transitions. This gives rise to a whole spectrum of industries ranging from more capital-intensive to more labour-intensive.
Ironically, automation is what allows labour-intensive processes to persist. The adoption of technology by some branches of industry causes some workers to be redundant, and these workers then sell their labour power at lower than market price in order to remain competitive. Despite being less efficient and less profitable, labour-intensive industries survive because they are able to draw on this reserve army of labour.
The workers that are most likely to form a reserve army of labour are migrant workers, which explains the over-representation of migrant workers in labour-intensive industries. In Singapore, migrant workers make up 3/4 of the labour-intensive construction industry.
The reason migrant labour is a reserve army of labour has to do with the social reproduction of their labour power. A worker's labour power is regenerated on a day-to-day basis. It is regenerated through the performance of domestic labour in the household or in a dormitory. But labour power is also reproduced on an intergenerational basis. It is reproduced through the production of new workers in the family unit. For the native worker, the day-to-day reproduction and the intergenerational reproduction of labour power take place in the same location. For migrant labour, however, the day-to-day reproduction and intergenerational reproduction of labour power take place in different countries. Migrant workers often remit their wages to countries where there are lower costs of living, and are therefore more able than native workers to work for a lower wage.
This is not to say that migrant workers are the only ones who will sell their labour for less. If Singapore were to completely ban migrant labour, the uneven process of automation would continue. It would continue to generate a pool of desperate Singaporean workers who are forced to sell their labour below the market price even though the conditions of their social reproduction is less conducive to it. Labour-intensive industries would continue to draw on that pool of desperate workers. If Singapore were to ban migrant labour, lowly paid, labour-intensive jobs would still exist. The only difference would be that these jobs would now be done by Singaporeans.
Singaporeans have managed to avoid doing lowly paid, labour-intensive jobs because of the notion that their labour power is superior to that of migrants. While the Singapore state has devoted resources to the education and training of Singaporean workers, it has not done the same for migrant workers, and this contributes to the present disparity between migrant and local workers. It is not only the capitalists who spend less on migrant labour, but states also reap the benefits of migrant labour without having to invest very much in their social reproduction. The fact that the Singapore state invested heavily in the education of its native-born workers is one example of that.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the state's push for education was part of a broader project to accommodate the flows of capital and its need for "skilled labour". During that time, Singapore saw an exodus of labour-intensive industries and an influx of capital-intensive industries. Manufacturers of garments, electricals and wood products began to relocate to neighbouring countries where costs were lower. But capital-intensive industries such as computer manufacturing, chemical manufacturing and precision engineering began to set up shop in Singapore, creating demand for engineers and technicians.
The 1980s and 1990s also saw Singapore become the regional headquarters for the labour-intensive manufacturing operations that had relocated to nearby countries. Singapore was a place from which capitalists could oversee their regional businesses, and this led to a rapid expansion in financial and business services. These service industries too required managers and professionals. The government met the demand for skilled labour by increasing the educational attainment of its local workforce. Singaporean workers were then able to market their labour power as skilled labour, and obtain jobs in these industries.
Capital-intensive manufacturing, and service industries like business and finance, are a lot more profitable than labour-intensive industries. They have the potential to pay high wages, unlike labour-intensive industries whose survival depends on the undercutting of wage levels. But capitalists in "more advanced" industries are, of course, always looking for ways to save on labour costs. If migrant labour had been employed in the capital-intensive sectors, this would have caused wages in those industries to go down, to the benefit of the capitalists. But Singaporean workers in the capital-intensive sectors did manage to obtain the possible higher wages of capital-intensive industry, and this was achieved through the racialisation of migrant labour as inferior.
Migrant labour in Singapore are the often the butt of racist humour about the darkness of their skin. They are demonised as criminals and rapists, and are housed in dormitories far away from the rest of society, much like prisoners. When the spread of Covid-19 in the dormitories required healthy workers to be housed in local housing estates, Singaporeans vigorously resisted these proposals on the grounds that they feared for their safety. The poor living conditions in the dormitories, which has now led to the spread of coronavirus, is not unrelated to the racism migrant workers face. You cannot have one without the other. The racialisation of migrant labour serves to justify their inhumane treatment as well as their exclusion from highly paid capital-intensive industries.
Companies have brands, but so do workers. A worker's race is his brand. Native-born Singaporeans market their labour power to the capitalists as a superior labour power, and the capitalist is prevented from hiring migrant labour for less. Given that Singaporean workers have a stake in the racialisation of migrant labour, the solution is to fight for anti-racism at all levels of the working class - not just in the labour intensive sectors, but in the capital-intensive, better-paid jobs as well. The fight against racism requires us not only to dispel notions about the criminality of migrant workers in the construction industry, but it also requires us to dispel popular notions that talented foreigners - known in Singaporean political discourse as "foreign talent" - are stealing jobs from Singaporeans in capital-intensive, high value-added industries.
The current pandemic has thrown a spotlight on Singapore's migrant worker dormitories. In spite of the repressive political conditions of Singapore, there is a fresh wave of activism and discussion on the issue. There are calls for migrant workers to take the lead in organising and advocating for themselves, and for Singaporeans and NGOs to play a supportive role. Debate about the migrant workers will surely lead to discussions about the working class and capitalism more generally, and this is a positive development. It has been suggested, however, that the solution to the poor working conditions of migrant labour is for there to be lesser restrictions on free speech in general, and for there to be greater freedom to unionise and organise outside of the state-controlled labour unions.
While these are all demands to be fought for and supported, working-class unity across racialised divisions is not something that happens organically. Even in capitalist states where there are freedoms to unionise and to go on strike, unionisation is not always anti-racist. In fact, labour unions in the US have a history of excluding workers of colour so that white workers and white unions could obtain higher wages. W.E.B Du Bois said that there were two labour movements in the America, one black and one white. While the fight for greater political freedom in Singapore must continue, every step of that fight has to be anti-racist.