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Boon Siwala: The Life of a Thai Migrant Worker in Singapore

Junya Yimprasert
December 1997

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 plants.

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 to Thailand.

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 nearby.

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)