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The politics of obedience: Bangladeshi construction workers and the migrant labour regime in Singapore

Bal, Charanpal (2013) The politics of obedience: Bangladeshi construction workers and the migrant labour regime in Singapore. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Among advanced capitalist states, there is an increasing trend towards the use of low-wage temporary migrant workers with limited political rights. Singapore is a prime example. In this country, migrant workers‟ ability to agitate for better working conditions is greatly compromised by the repression and co-option of the trade union movement; their inability to access political rights guaranteed by citizenship; their occupational immobility and deportability; as well as the amount of debt accrued from high recruitment fees. Despite these tight controls, the stability of the migrant labour regime has been called into question in recent years by sporadic public episodes of migrant labour unrest and nascent NGO advocacy on behalf of these workers. There is a need to trace the origins of these tensions and examine how they impact upon the existing regime.

Using the case of transient Bangladeshi migrant construction workers, I identify workplace struggles – the production politics – between these workers and their employers as the source of these tensions. I argue that the extent to which the migrant labour regime can be contested is contingent on the form and outcomes of these production politics. Within this context, the latter tend to take the form of a tense and precarious politics of obedience. It is the collapse of this obedience politics, rather than its continued coherence, which provides the political impetus for contestation through NGO advocacy. The prevalence of obedience-based politics among these workers thus cannot be explained by their powerlessness or the inhibitions of their migration projects alone but by the manner in which they are situated within the dynamics of control in the labour process. Similarly, the limitations of NGO advocacy cannot be solely attributed to state repression. It needs to be considered that these dynamics of control tend to depoliticise worker grievances and provide workers with opportunities for tactical accommodation.

This thesis contributes to the migrant labour politics literature by emphasising the salience of labour process dynamics in understanding challenges to the migrant labour regime. The outcomes of production politics carry significant implications for the nature and extent of civil society contention within an authoritarian political environment. Political impediments facing contract migrant workers, therefore, need to be examined for the precise way in which they engender resistance and conflict. While structural coercion and migration projects may constrain political agitation, they compel workers to accommodate or resist control in other ways.

Publication Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: Asia Research Centre
School of Management and Governance
Supervisor: Hutchinson, Jane and Rodan, Garry
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