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Labour justice and political responsibility: An Ethics-Centred approach to temporary Low-Paid labour migration in Singapore

Chok, Stephanie (2013) Labour justice and political responsibility: An Ethics-Centred approach to temporary Low-Paid labour migration in Singapore. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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The policy discourse surrounding low-paid labour migration is driven by economic utility approaches. In this thesis, I adopt an ethics-centred, justice-oriented approach in assessing temporary low-paid labour migration, a politically divisive issue in many countries, including Singapore. I argue that a labour justice approach demands shared political responsibility to ensure that managed labour migration programs are ethically robust, rather than merely economically beneficial.

This thesis situates itself as value-full, politically motivated research, and adopts activist ethnography as its primary methodology. Structural inequalities are explicitly acknowledged and academic objectives are aligned with broader imperatives for social change. Extensive fieldwork was carried out in Singapore over several periods between 2006 and 2010. The central case study involves migrant construction workers from China embroiled in labour disputes with their company, Hai Xing Construction. The workers complained of withheld wages, unfair deductions, excessive work hours and underpayment in terms of overtime and rest day pay. Hai Xing Construction, a subcontractor, employed hundreds of construction workers who were sent to the building sites of two high-profile casino developments backed by large gaming companies and supported by the Singapore government.

Sustained empirical work contributed to an exploratory framework for assessing migrant workers' precariousness - what I term term precarity package. This framework considers the various dimensions of labour insecurity experienced by low-paid migrant workers as well as two key interdependent features of low-paid labour migration: deportability and dependency. Collectively, these mutually reinforcing dimensions and features constitute what can be conceived of as a precarity package - a confluence of factors and relations that contribute to a heightened state of precariousness, and leave migrant workers vulnerable to abuse at all stages of their employment experience. I argue that atomistic interventions that address isolated aspects of this complex, collective experience have limited effectiveness and often result in further unintended negative consequences.

This thesis argues against conceptions of justice obligations that are narrowly legalistic, deceptively apolitical and unrealistically spatially-bound. A labour justice framework recognizes that attempts to achieve workplace democracy cannot be divorced from the concurrent need for a broader conception of work participation. It is not merely policy reform, but a radical reorganization of decision-making processes and the democratization of institutions and regulatory regimes at the national, regional and international scale that is required. Otherwise, genuine empowerment will remain implausible and ad-hoc gains from policy modifications will operate as concessions that appear progressive while entrenching the status-quo.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Arts
United Nations SDGs: Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth
Supervisor(s): Macbeth, Jim and Warren, Carol
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