Siwala: The Life of a Thai Migrant Worker in Singapore
In 1992, Boon Siwala, from a village in Naklang
District, Nongbua Lampoo Province, was persuaded by his
relative to go to work in Singapore. Boon and six of his
friends from the village agreed to go to work in Singapore.
Though they all knew that they would work illegally, the
poverty of their village meant they had no local work opportunities.
In addition, by using a recruitment agency, they paid less
than if they had used a legal channel for employment abroad.
On 20 December 1992, Boon and friends
traveled by van to Hadyai. He found that in addition to
him and his friends, there were another 3 men from Nong
Kai Province. Everyone had paid 10,000 baht to the agent
at Hadyai. In total, everyone paid about 15,000 baht for
the agent and other expenses. After staying one night in
Hadyai, they entered Malaysia in the van and then changed
to tour bus for the trip from Malaysia to Singapore. The
agent arranged for all the transportation.
Upon their arrival in Singapore, their employer
was waiting for them and took the men to their work place.
After everyone saw the working conditions, they decided
not to work and wanted to go back to Thailand. But a friend
from their village, who was already working there, helped
find gardeners jobs for them which paid S$17 or about 255
baht per day (S$1 = 15 baht, at that time).
Everyday, an agent picked them up from their
residence at 7 a.m. and sent them to public gardens around
Singapore. The working hours were from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
and with a one hour break for lunch. They had Sundays off.
Their duties were to clean the public toilets, collect garbage,
cut grass and trees, spray pesticides and fertilize the
Boon was the unluckiest since his job
was to spray the pesticides. The chemicals affected him
badly, causing dizziness, loss of appetite, muscle pains,
difficulty speaking. After two months of working in Singapore,
his lost several kilograms of weight and was sick all the
time. Finally, the agent told him that he should go back
home. However, Boon insisted on working further because
he wanted to earn more money.
Many of Boon's friends faced similar health
problems, especially from the flu, headaches, and muscle
pains. For example, a man named Ma often had headaches and
nose bleeds. Nookan, another worker, had headaches and lost
a significant amount of weight.
The causes of these health problems were
not only the working condition but the places where they
lived. The employer housed them in a wet and humid area.
The shelters the employer provided were just small square
rooms made from particle board and wood scraps. These rooms
had no windows, one door and one electric fan. The workers
slept in bunk beds made from particle board as well, with
four workers in the top bunk and four in the bottom bunk.
The workers also became ill in part because
of their inadequate diet. Since these workers were illegally
working in Singapore with an uncertain future, so they tried
to save as much as possible. Boon and friends allotted
only S$1 for meals per person per day. This is very little
compared to the S$2-4 needed to purchase one ordinary meal
in Singapore. Therefore, they picked vegetables, raw jack-fruits,
papaya, morning-glory, and caught fish from ponds.
Apart from these health problems, everyone
had to keep alert for police checks on illegal workers.
Boon and friends were once chased by the police but
luckily they managed to escape. On another occasion, the
police searched for them in their shelters but they manage
to escape as well.
After working as gardeners for 3 months,
Boon and friends began looking for new jobs with higher
wages. In the end, they found employment in the construction
sector. When they were ready to leave their gardening jobs,
they went to collect their remaining wages from the agent
but he refused to pay them. As a result, Boon and friends
lost S$100-200. Employers frequently fail to pay migrant
workers or cheat them out of wages.
At their new job, Boon and his friends
disassembled the barriers used to separate construction
sites from public areas, after the construction work was
complete. It was hard work but they received S$22 per day
(330 baht). At this new job, there were two agents that
brought them to different work sites. After working at this
job for 3-4 months, Boon's friends started returning
Since they were working illegally, each
person had to pay S$700-900 for an agent to assist them
in dealing with Singapore's immigration system. Praphas
was the first worker who decided to come back to Thailand
but he was not the first one who arrived because he was
arrested while the agent was taking him out of Singapore
by boat. He was jailed for 3 months and was caned 3 heavy
lashes that made him sick and left scars on his bottom.
Among all of Boon's friends who risked going
back to Thailand by boat, three were arrested and caned
(including Praphas). Though Boon and the other workers had
better luck, their trip was still very difficult. Everyone
still remembers their journey very well.
Boon was the last worker who returned
to Thailand. He left Singapore on 24 February 1994 after
paying S$750 to an agent. Upon his arrival home, he discovered
that his wife had left him and appropriated 10 rai of land
that had been purchased using money he sent to her. He had
nothing left. Among Thai overseas workers, it is said that:
"When you go you lose your land, but when you return
you lose your wife."
Many of Boon's friends sought jobs in their
village and in near-by areas. However, there were some workers
who continued going abroad for employment; e.g., Ma who
worked in Brunei for two years. For this second trip, Ma
used a legal channel. When he returned from Brunei, he bought
a pick-up truck to hire out in his village and the areas
Presently, Boon and Noo (who also
went to Singapore) work together digging wells but they
have not found regular customers. Thus, Boon wants to work
overseas again using a legal channel. However, the fee for
a legal recruitment agency is so high, he cannot decide
if he should go.
(Names have been changed for subjects' security)