Sunday 12 February 2023

The Visible Invisibles: Stories of Migrant Workers in Asia, guest post by Shivaji Das and Yolanda Yu


Featuring a careful curation of unconventional yet universal life stories from a diverse cast of characters, The Visible Invisibles: Stories of Migrant Workers in Asia offers a human connection to the undocumented lives of migrant workers across Asia, presenting stories of adventure, love, hope, loss, guilt and redemption. It is written by an inter-racial migrant couple coming from India and China who have played a foundational role in giving voices to migrant workers across Asia and Africa through acclaimed platforms such as Migrant Poetry Competitions and the Global Migrant Festival.

Shivaji Das is the author of four critically acclaimed travel, art and business books. He has been actively involved in migrant issues and is the conceptualizer and organizer for the acclaimed Migrant Worker and Refugee Poetry Contests in Singapore, Malaysia and Kenya and is the founder and director of the Global Migrant Festival. He was born and brought up in the north-eastern province of Assam in India, but is now a Singapore citizen.

Yolanda Yu’ s Neighbor’s Luck, a collection of short stories, was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Award 2020. She is a co-organizer of the Singapore Migrant Worker Poetry Contest and Global Migrant Festival, also an event host and coordinator for outreach for the Chinese migrant worker community. Born in North-Eastern China, Yolanda moved to Singapore on scholarship in 1998 and has been living there since then. 

So, over to Shivaji and Yolanda…

Migration of labour is one of the most defining characteristics of our world today. Over a billion people are living in a place where they were not born. Among them, around 281 million are international migrants while the rest are domestic (internal) migrants. A vast majority of migrants happen to be migrant workers, of the lower-wage category, those tempted or forced to move as a result of economic stagnation, political instability, identity-based discrimination, or climate change. In contrast to higher-income migrants who often have a path to citizenship in their host country and the economic wherewithal to fight for their rights or move to a more convenient location; the low-wage migrant workers, whether international or domestic, face crippling challenges such as exorbitant agent fees, informal and unenforceable nature of contracts, poor living conditions, hostility from locals, and denial of any political agency.

After the finals of Singapore’s first Migrant Worker Poetry Competition in 2014, many from the audience—mostly comprised of locals—made a common patronizing comment, ‘Wow, migrant workers are humans too, just like us’. The migrant workers, on their part, were visibly eager to take selfies with any willing locals in the audience, pictures that they then shared widely on social media. These two separate but related reactions made us wonder: how big was the gap in understanding between locals and low-wage migrant workers?  Why are there so few avenues—other than across supermarket tills—for interaction between the two categories? Why do we know so little about this highly visible group of people who are building our houses and roads or taking care of our children and elders? Does this apathy in any way affect the policies designed for them, a group of people who typically stand out because of their physical appearance, work attire, or manner of speech? So what if we were to know about their childhoods? What if we knew more about the circumstances that made them migrate? What if we knew about their love stories, their grudges, their hopes, aspirations, and heartbreaks? Could greater understanding lead to more humane policies and structural changes?

So we decided to write a collection of stories about migrant workers —focusing solely on the life journeys of low-wage migrant workers as narrated by them in their own words. We hope that this collection will foster greater understanding between locals and migrants. Our underlying belief behind this effort is that with understanding comes political agency, and with political agency, come positive structural changes.

 We interviewed forty-five current and former migrant workers whose experiences span various jobs: construction, marine, domestic services, aged care, mining, manufacturing, plantation work, security services, retail,  day labour, and sexual services. We sought biographical accounts of both domestic and international migrant workers; the featured men and women coming from the major sources of migrant labour in Asia: Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines.

We asked about childhood experiences, factors influencing the decision to migrate, work experiences, as well as relationships with employers, other workers and the wider society. We explored themes of power imbalances, love, language, friendship, alienation, family dynamics, response to cultural contrasts, race relations, digital inequality, social liberties, migration-induced change in mindset, etc. We were interested in both the physical and the emotional landscape. Also while the situation of low-wage migrant workers is all too often narrated by third parties—an NGO, an academician, or a journalist—the perspectives provided here are from the ‘I’ rather than the ‘they’.

The life-stories in this book span universal themes of longing, love, ambition, loss and the spirit of adventure among others. Zhou Hongxing picks up a discarded teddy bear lying by the trash bin as a gift for his daughter. Durga Balan mourns the death of his best friend in an industrial accident. Ah Linn Eain, a fatherless girl rejected by her own mother, becomes a migrant worker to support her orphaned niece while dreaming of building an orphanage back home. Figo Kurniawan recounts his days spent in the wild, hiding from the police looking for undocumented workers. Ataur Rahman tries to rebuild his life with a reconstructed ‘alien’ face after suffering severe burns at work. Faced with COVID-19 restrictions, Mai and Aomsin scramble to cope with the complete loss of customers for their sex-work while Vijaykanth, stressed from lockdown, finds solace playing with toys in a toy store. Chen Nian Xi looks at his X-ray scan and in it, sees a catalogue of his work injuries from his sixteen years of being a miner. A.K. Zilani shares how the anonymity of migration facilitated his evolution as a freethinker with progressive ideals. Lovely Comavig, runs away from her husband who’s set out to kill her, and finds love in her host city. Sagar struggles to catch-up with the never ending demands of his family back home. Lalita Vadia, freed from traffickers posing as employment agents, supports other migrant workers now. Zhou BoTong and Dilip both gamble frequently, hoping to strike it big one day. Wiwi, Deni, and Sugi share tips for dating in a foreign land.

Striking similarities appear across borders and jurisdictions with respect to the issues and challenges faced by low-wage migrant workers. But while most complain of discrimination from locals, the featured individuals also demonstrate strong prejudices against fellow migrant workers from other races.

Migrant workers, devoid of any political representation, often find themselves fighting a giant system that is unfavourable to them. But workers such as Rajendra, Mai and Aomsin—through their own formal and informal networks such as unions, collectives, etc.—are demonstrating a certain ability to fight for their rights. Nonetheless, the stories here make it apparent how policies and their consistent enforcement remain critical for any improvement in their situation.

Overall, this collection presents an archive of human miseries: discrimination, injustice, exploitation, alienation and social immobility. But by repeatedly demonstrating a certain pride in their work, resilience amidst adversity, a strong feeling of solidarity for all workers, and an all-conquering sense of hope and determination to uplift an entire generation and beyond, the featured life-stories of migrant workers firmly endorse the reaffirming qualities of human life.

It was our privilege and honour to record these life-journeys.

Details: The Visible Invisibles: Stories of Migrant Workers in Asia is published by  Penguin Random House Southeast Asia (Singapore) in paperback and eBook, priced in local currencies.