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MagNet discussion on public attitudes to migrant workers

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Welcome to the MagNet discussion on public attitudes to migrant workers

Posted by John Gee at July 19. 2011

Migrant workers leave their homes to work elsewhere for various reasons, but generally, they seem to be very focussed on earning money, usually to support their families. They try to avoid getting into trouble so that they don't risk drawing the attention of the authorities, being detained, fined and perhaps sent out of the country. This is particularly important to undocumented workers. Studies on the impact of migrant labour have tended to conclude that countries and regions they go to are normally better off overall as a result of it.

Yet in many such places, there is a significant part of the population that views migrants with suspicion or downright hostility. They are seen not only as a challenge in jobs markets, but as a nuisance, associated with criminal activity and anti-social behaviour. When things get tough economically or socially, it can be easier to blame a minority community than to deal with complicated problems and policy issues. The recent recession was one such moment. In many developed countries where there have been job losses, increases in unemployment and social service cuts, public support has grown for raising barriers against migration and restricting the rights of migrants already present.

The impact of the recession was not so acute in the East Asia and Pacific region, but even so, it seems to have fuelled anti-migrant sentiment, particularly among those who feel that they are losing out to migrants. It is hard to gain a clear picture of its impact: how widespread and deep-seated is it? Is this a case of a minority that is good at making itself heard, when the majority are either indifferent or sympathetic? How are views changing? It would be useful to know what observers in different countries think of questions like these, which will give more of a living context to our work.

Re: MagNet discussion on public attitudes to migrant workers

Posted by Max Tunon at July 20. 2011

Dear John and MagNet members,

I'm looking forward to an interesting discussion on this topical and emotive issue. 

To ground the discussion in some facts and figures, I am uploading the findings of a recent study conducted by the ILO on public attitudes to migrant workers. This survey was conducted among 4,000 people across four migrant-receiving countries in the region: Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand.

The findings show varying attitudes and levels of knowledge across the 4 countries. In general, the host populations acknowledge the need for migrant workers in certain sectors, but show limited support for migrants' rights - regardless of their legal status.  

In three of the countries the majority view was that unauthorized migrants have broken the law and cannot expect to have any rights at work (78 per cent of respondents in Singapore, 82 per cent in Malaysia, 84 per cent in Thailand and 40 per cent in Korea).  Even authorized migrant workers cannot expect the same working conditions as nationals when carrying out the same job, according to 73 per cent of respondents in Malaysia, 64 per cent in Thailand, 58 per cent in Singapore and 51 per cent in Korea.

In Singapore and Korea, the vast majority of the public were of the view that migrants make a positive net contribution to the economy, 78 per cent and 83 per cent respectively. In Thailand and Malaysia the figures were much lower, 40 per cent and 37 per cent respectively.

Perhaps unsurprising - as other studies around the world also bear this out - is the finding that in all countries, interaction or personal experience with migrant workers is a key factor in determining the level of support. Those with closer relationships, particularly in employer positions, are more likely to hold positive attitudes towards migrant workers.  

I've uploaded the study to AP-MagNet, but it is also available on the ILO website:

I'm looking forward to hearing whether these findings correspond with what others have noticed in other studies or more generally in the public discourse.


Re: MagNet discussion on public attitudes to migrant workers

Posted by William Gois at July 22. 2011

Greetings from Manila!  John, this is a great start to the forum discussion – hope to see many more voices participating here!

Part of MFA’s ongoing advocacy is to tackle anti-migrant worker sentiment by undertaking media sensitization campaigns.  Currently, we have a strong campaign in India and Oman, in which we are engaging journalists in our attempts to raise awareness of the issues of migrant workers.  Our workshops encourage respectful and anti-racist public discourse on the issues migrant workers face in the Gulf. 

Another campaign is around public attitudes towards domestic workers, and migrant domestic workers.  This is particularly relevant in light of the recent adoption of the ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers.  In spite of having established an international standard for domestic worker rights, there is a long way to go in terms of changing public attitudes towards this vulnerable group. Particularly revealing are news articles referring to domestic workers as ‘helpers,’ ‘maids,’ ‘servants,’ ‘caregivers’ – rather than as workers.  Casting domestic workers as anything other than workers delegitimizes their positions and contributions, and can increase their vulnerability to mistreatment and abuse.  A key point in our campaign is to mainstream the idea that domestic workers are workers.

It would be good to hear about other campaigns happening in this respect.

With respect to impressions generally of public sentiment towards migrant workers, we will encourage our members to respond to this on the basis of their own experience and understanding of the prevailing attitudes in their various countries.

William Gois, Migrant Forum in Asia

Re: MagNet discussion on public attitudes to migrant workers

Posted by Min Ji Kim at July 22. 2011

Bonjour from Genève everyone!


My name is Min Ji, and I work at the ILO headquarters as part of the MIGRANT unit.


I don't want to come across as if I'm boasting, because really I'm not (well, maybe a little ^^...), but in a way I'm not that surprised at the results of study on public attitudes toward migrant workers in Asia, in particular as it relates to Korea. I'm Korean, and I have worked for a couple of years on migrant issues in Korea. As Max summarised so well, the general public attitude of Koreans toward migrants in Korea tends to be neutral to positive. Although culturally Koreans are unused to the presence of foreigners and historically have been very ethnocentric for a long time, there isn't any overt xenophobic political discourse (not yet, anyway) of the variety that is unfortunately becoming all too common in Europe.


I think there are two main, equally important reasons behind this: 1) Migrant workers in Korea still make up a very VERY small portion of the overall workforce (barely more than 1% according to OECD), 2) Migrant workers in Korea pre-empted the Korean public media by taking control of the way the public discourse on them is shaped. I am going to focus mainly on 2) because I think it is the most interesting for those of us who research and/or protect migrants.


In Korea, the migrant workers realised early on that public discourse on anything is largely shaped by a) those who start the conversation first and b) those who stake a claim on media channels and other means of mass communication. So, they learned the language, not just Korean but that of mass media. They set up their own TV station (MWTV,, learned how to use video equipment to make films and upload them on to the internet, engage with social media, many even became actors or musicians and are now well-known among the Korean public that follow independent films and music. MWTV has a yearly film festival, the Migrant Workers' Film Festival  which features not only films made by professional directors about migrants but also films made by the migrants themselves on their perceptions of this or that aspect of life in Korea and Korean culture. And, although the festival and TV stations is always strapped for funds and is supported largely by volunteers, the migrants behind it have managed to make the partnerships with civil society necessary to pass on their knowledge of media communications to other migrants in Korea and the region.


Therefore, in Korea migrants themselves can dictate, at least to some extent, the way they are approached and projected by the native population. And I think it's for this reason that I don't recall an instance where the mainstream media in Korea portrayed migrant workers as taking away native jobs or being criminals or any of the other negative stereotypes given to migrants by media in many destination countries (*coughcough*Switzerland*coughcough*). If anything, I remember a news story by the public broadcast, KBS, on its 9 o' clock news (the most watched news time slot) showing the plight of migrant workers in Korea due to the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2010 in a sympathetic light that made it clear that migrant workers do not always fall into irregular status by their own will (the epidemic put a lot of migrant workers working in livestock agriculture out of work, and under the Korean migrant permit system (EPS) a migrant worker who can't find another job 3 months after losing the previous one becomes irregular automatically).


Another intelligent move by migrant workers in Korea is to associate themselves and their stories with the Korean Government's campaign to promote "multiculturalism" or "multicultural families" (this refers to families in Korea, mostly in rural areas, composed of a foreign wife who migrated to Korea for marriage, a Korean husband and mixed-race children). The Migrant Workers' Film Festival has changed its name this year to Migrant World Film Festival so that it could incorporate these issues into the film festival programme and convey the message that migrant workers too are vectors of multiculturalism in Korea and therefore integral to the success of this project.


I'm sorry that my reply became so long. I didn't know I had so much to say, but I hope what I have said is useful to someone here. In essence, there is still plenty of room for improvement in the governance of foreign labour in Korea, but thankfully in the area of public attitude toward migrants, Korea is on the right path, in my opinion.


Min Ji Kim


Re: MagNet discussion on public attitudes to migrant workers

Posted by Min Ji Kim at July 22. 2011

Hmmm...rereading my reply, I think I may have unintentionally been unfair to Europe. It's true that I went through quite a culture shock when I first got here and witnessed how the mainstream media in EU countries and Switzerland would often actively spread the image of immigrants as social vagrants or criminals, but at the same time there is so much that Korean authorities, society and average Koreans can learn from the European experience in the area of multiculturalism and integration. And thanks to the tireless efforts of civil society and migrant worker activists in Europe, I'm starting to see small changes in a positive direction. Not long ago, Swiss television ran an hour-long investigative journalistic piece on the exploitation of irregular migrants in the construction industry in Switzerland that clearly put the burden of proof on employers and unscrupulous subcontractors. I was impressed that the producers of the programme took the time to interview thoroughly the migrant workers themselves. It would be nice to see more representations like this in the media, where migrants are given communications space to voice their perspective and humanise their own image.


In this regard, I wish Mr. Gois the best of luck on MFA's campaign! ^^


Min Ji



Re: MagNet discussion on public attitudes to migrant workers

Posted by Andrew Billo at July 25. 2011

Hi, my name is Andrew Billo, an officer at IOM.  I’ve enjoyed reading all of the above discussion and I’m happy to contribute some further thought.  In particular, I’d like to address the role of social capital with regard to migrant populations, as I think this is an interesting concept, and one that generally has not been given great discussion beyond consideration in terms of social networks that facilitate migration.  In other words, what are the implications of social capital within a country, once the migration has occurred?  What are the possibilities for developing social capital between host country nationals and migrants?  More specifically still, I’m less interested in “bonding social capital,” that is the network that may exist within a group of migrants or within a host country population, but rather, what can be done to encourage “bridging social capital” that may bring host and migrant communities together to coexist in a more trusting environment? 

Political scientist Robert Putnam defines social capital as “any network with value.”  Putnam argues that in communities with strong social capital, members are, for example, more likely to feel that their homes will be safe if they go away on vacation.  In his article “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the 21st Century,” Putnam shows that in America, ethnically homogenous communities tend to have higher levels of social capital than ethnically heterogeneous communities.  Given this fact, what measures can ethnically diverse communities take to build more trust and overcome the reduction in social capital that results from increasing diversity? 

 I think an interesting aspect of temporary labour migrant schemes in the Asian region is that there is a deliberate reduction in social capital by those controlling the migratory process: regular migrants are often intentionally kept in the dark with regard to their rights at the destination, and irregular migrants are often tacitly permitted to remain in countries of destination with the purpose having an inexpensive workforce with few or no legal rights.  These irregular migrants may be reluctant to draw attention to themselves, as John Gee points out, for fear of getting into trouble.  Irregular migrants, their passage across borders sometimes facilitated by smugglers, may be isolated from other migrants sharing similar ethnic, linguistic, and cultural understanding, thus limiting opportunities for bonding social capital to develop. 

Of course, many labour migrants do enjoy bonding social capital.  It’s easy to see when hundreds of Filipina domestic workers convene on Orchard Road in Singapore each Sunday.  Those in that network, who have been afforded a day off by their employers, are fortunate as compared to many of their contemporaries, who are left working without rest, sometimes in exploitative conditions. 

While reducing migrants’ social capital may seem like a profitable strategy for a host country, there are negative implications of this strategy as well.  That is, there are a significant number of migrants entering the country, the population is becoming more heterogeneous, and therefore there is a tendency to trust everybody less, both local and foreign born. (This is the case in heterogeneous American communities at least -- host populations not only trust immigrants less, but also trust people of their own race less.)  Unfortunately, because most labour migrants in Asia are permitted only on a temporary basis, the activities that would make sense for developing stronger bridging social capital, are infeasible and counterproductive to the host country’s strategy of ensuring labour migrants remain only temporarily.  The local population won’t reach out to the immigrants and try to help them assimilate, and the immigrants are not provided opportunities to assimilate, because this is antithetical to a temporary labour scheme. 

Putnam also points out that America has been relatively successful in incorporating diversity because immigration is a strong part of the nation’s identity. The Statue of Liberty is a symbol of both American identity and opportunity for immigrants.  Putnam points out that the US has seen positive gains with regard to bridging social capital when it’s succeeded in developing relationships across ethnic lines based upon a higher calling, for example nationality or religion.  Improvements were made during the civil rights era and integration of ethnically diverse groups into schools, and Putnam suggests that revisiting education and language training may be a way for both immigrants and host populations to overcome differences to develop stronger social capital.

In short, some Asian countries may allow for the deliberate reduction of migrant social capital, because they desire an inexpensive, less rights-conscious labour force.  As a result of this strategy, however, host countries in Asia theoretically suffer from an erosion of social capital and an overall increase in distrust (if Putnam's research could be accurately extrapolated to the Asian context).

In Korea, the presence of a significant marriage migrant population, which is more assimilated than the temporary labour migrant populations in other Asian countries, perhaps facilitates a more positive attitude toward migrants (as well as the pro-active use of media by migrants as mentioned above).  As for why Singaporeans and Koreans believe that migrants make a more positive contribution than Thais and Malaysians, it may be that because more migrants enter Thailand and Malaysia via irregular channels, as compared to Korea and Singapore, social capital is further lessened.  The relatively high levels of irregular migrants entering these countries are less connected to any official Malaysian or Thai immigration process, and hence a greater disconnect is felt and borne out in how Thais and Malaysians perceive migrants.

Improving social capital in increasingly heterogeneous societies takes time.  But because of the temporary nature of migrant employment schemes in the region, there is insufficient opportunity to create “new forms of solidarity,” which may involve deconstructing and reconstructing national identities.

Thanks again for the discussion.

Re: MagNet discussion on public attitudes to migrant workers

Posted by John Gee at July 26. 2011



Thanks for the postings so far. 


Two questions struck me about the findings in the survey posted by Max, which is very interesting.


I wondered if, looking back, it might have been useful to look for responses to migrant workers in general and domestic workers as a distinct group. I can well understand why employers of migrant workers would tend to have a more positive view of them than the general public: there's the factor of personal contact, but also a certain personal interest in the presence of the migrant workers. 


It can be argued that the same factors ought to be true of attitudes towards domestic workers, but in my experience, employer attitudes differ quite radically, at least in Singapore. Most seem to develop some level of decent relationship with their workers, but a substantial minority have fairly hostile attitudes towards them. They talk quite openly about them being stupid, 'loose', not to be trusted, lying - a wide range of negative characteristics. In some cases, this may be due to bad experiences with workers, but in others, it seems that the employers placed very unreasonable demands on workers and were angry at them for not being able to live up to them. Sometimes, these attitudes serve to justify the employers' own treatment of workers: denying them time off, stopping them from using the telephone, preventing them from going out otherwise than in the company of the family and opening and reading their outgoing or incoming mail. There are exchanges on websites where some employers write with extreme hostility about domestic workers, trading negative tales. There is a short video recording of a domestic worker striking a child left in her care, and it keeps on surfacing, each time generating a spate of stories about how domestic workers beat children when their parents aren't looking, although it has been pointed out many times that the video is years old and was taken in Malaysia. I'd say that there's a kind of sub-set of ideas about domestic workers which can vary quite significantly from thinking about migrant workers generally.


Another important distinction in public opinion seems to be in attitudes towards workers who are present legally and those who broke the law by entering a country illegally or staying on after their visas expired. Public attitudes in Singapore, for example, are often quite sympathetic to migrant workers on work permits who report being underpaid, underfed and poorly housed, for example, but the same attitudes don't necessarily come out in response to similar complaints from workers who are illegally employed or illegally present. There tends to be more of a 'They brought it on themselves' attitude and a sense that they are undeserving. Is there anywhere where events and public education have produced a more humane attitude?


John Gee

Re: MagNet discussion on public attitudes to migrant workers

Posted by Ali Haider Chowdhury at August 02. 2011

Migrant workers are vital for Bangladesh, its economy and also in providing considerable support to the meeting of its balance of payment needs.

Migrant workers and associates of Migration should be considered most essential and dignified personalities in the labour receiving countries. The employers of destination countries take the opportunity of unemployment situation of some developing countries and select some agents to start visa trade and to reduce wages and other conditions of service which are not in conformity with the existing labour laws of the destination countries. It is reported that too many migrant workers are still being shabbily treated and exploited.

They also violate ILO convention related with Human rights and labour laws as they have not signed the conventions related with Migrant workers.

We, BAIRA would like to insist on the labour receiving countries to adopt or at least adhere to the UN conventions on the rights of Migrant workers and also to use multilateral process to promote a common stance on minimum wage ceiling protecting workers rights in the host country and reducing cost of sending workers.

BAIRA always have the honour to appreciate all efforts to uphold the image and rights of Migrant workers.

Re: MagNet discussion on public attitudes to migrant workers

Posted by Jackie Pollock at August 03. 2011

Within the discussion is the age old question: does media reflect public opinion or form  public opinion? Just last week the Nation newspaper in Thailand, an English language newspaper which recently seems to have been taken over by business corporations, printed a story about the fishing industry desperately needing more migrant workers and how they were prepared to give employment contracts detailing the working and living conditions in advance. This is quite remarkable!  The fishing industry actually offering employment contracts, actually realising that maybe if they improved their conditions more migrants would sign up. But the Nation chose the following headline: Fishing Industry Wants Illegals. It seems a clear case of the media manipulating public opinion rather than reflecting it. The migrants who were to be offered better conditions are reduced to non-entities,"illegals".

I have taken to introducing myself in meetings as I'm Jackie, I'm an alien. And everybody either giggles nervously or is shocked or embarrassed. So why is it so easy to use this word about migrant workers? in legal speak I am as much as an alien as any of the migrants we work with... and no one blinks an eyelid at the ubiquitous use of "reng gnan dang dao"...alien workers.

These words: aliens, illegals contribute to separating and segregating migrants..they make them different, fearful, strange...well altogether alien really. So either we reclaim the words or we stop using them. Having bored of trying to get others to stop using them, now I'm onto the reclaiming! reminds me of how for many years we tried to get everyone to use the word sex worker, and then I got invited to the Whores Ball in  San Fransisco!!

Migration policies in Thailand have an unwritten segregation clause...keep the migrants out of them way out the back on the construction sites, house them behind the iron gates enclosing the factories, house them in the orange orchards...don't allow them to travel...don't provide any public transport ... don't give them a day off... only allow them to stay for a year at a time...they are only temporary...the result is that migrants live in a parallel universe (mmm so is it the migrants or the host population who are the aliens?) and very rarely interact and certainly aren't given an opportunity to  integrate. It is quite normal for people to be afraid of what they don't know. So if policies insist on segregating migrants, keeping them as the unknown other, then there will be distrust and fear purely because each community is an unknown entity  to the other community.  

Things are changing...apart maybe from the media...but other things are changing. As the "education for all" policy kicks in and more migrant children are going to schools, there is interaction between migrant and host children, the teachers fears are dispelled  as they get to know the migrant children just as children and hopefully soon the teachers will try to interact more with the parents and bring them into the school and the community activities. 

As community organisations we have to try and contribute to the building of new communities which are inclusive of different nationalities and ethnicities, which don't fear each other, which can recognise their differences and enjoy them. The tensions are too close to the surface...they keep boiling over..the burning of migrant communities after the rape and murder of a Thai student, the border conflicts, the constant exploitation with impunity...we cannot sit by and do nothing.  And first we have to practice it ourselves.






Re: MagNet discussion on public attitudes to migrant workers

Posted by Jackie Pollock at August 03. 2011

One more quick comment: years ago in Bangkok (maybe 15yrs ago!)  a theatre group, I think from Singapore, performed a great play about migrant workers. In the play, all the migrants who were from many different countries, and they only spoke their own language. So the audience could only ever understand little pieces of the dialogue, as did the migrants themselves when communicating with each other and the employer etc.  So the audience was taken into the community, experiencing this. It was a really great play, showed immigration raids etc but managed to show the migrants as people, with humour and resilience. It was I remember very funny. I think drama can really be a useful tool, but worry that a lot of the NGO dramas are more melodramatic than dramatic, thus losing the audience rather than gaining allies.  The wonderful thing about that play I saw was you could just have the one play for the whole of the region...cos understanding the language was not the goal!  Still looking for this theatre group after all these years!

Re: MagNet discussion on public attitudes to migrant workers

Posted by ellene sana at August 03. 2011

hi john. hi all. thanks for the opportunity to be part of this discussion. my work is with filipino migrants so my sharing will be about them, about us.

when i was new to travelling to europe, colleagues in the ngos warned me -- be careful in europe. filipino women are categorized only into two groups -- either as a prostituted woman or a domestic worker. the prostituted woman label --i did not encounter. other colleagues did though --when they were in trains in europe, european/foreign men will simply touch them or something...

the domestic worker label, i experience many times when i am abroad. automatically, people --locals in the countries or even migrants of other nationalities --when they see that i am filipino --will automatically assume that i am a domestic worker. when they see in a public place, they would assume i am on my day off. initially, my reaction was to clarify that not all filipinos abroad are dws or migrants workers for that matter....but i gave up the idea of engaging each and everyone who would make that assumption of filipinos overseas. in any case, what could be more revolting that for a uk dictionary to redefine the word filipina which means filipino woman as domestic worker. and for it to evolve as the informal term for a domestic worker, regardless of nationality!  "filipini" for caregiver in israel, "filipineza" in greece for dw. even the pm of italy refer to filipinos as dws! 

juxtaposed with these derogatory labels however are more confusing perceptions of filipino dws -- on the one hand, there was perception that they are the preferred workers (to other nationalities) because  they are "multi-skills"; on the other hand, some employers would also say that they do not prefer filipino dws because they are demanding and they are only "behaved" for the first 3-4 weeks of employment. afterwards, they run away in search of other job opportunities that offer higher wages! 

in another instance, one filipino migrant worker teacher reported that in a geography class in a dubai elementary school  --the way to introduce the philippines is to say that this is the country of filipino migrants who are so poor that they have to go abroad to work as domestic workers.

but just as there are bad attitudes towards them, there are also notable ones -- in some companies in saudi arabia --the way to attract customers is to hang an advertisement that a filipino mechanic or a filipino beautician works here.

in the aftermath of the hostage taking of hongkong nationals in the philippines that claimed the lives of several hk nationals, there was fear of reprisals from hongkong against the migrants in hongkong. but there were also those employers who were sympathetic and concerned for the safety of their  domestic workers.

back home, migrants are called modern-day heroes, saviour of the economy, martyrs as they endure the abuses and exploitation of working abroad, survivors but more often than not, victims. 

media does contribute a lot to how public attitudes towards mws are shaped. in the philippine media, the victim profile of migrants is high in public perception because most stories about migrants in the media are on abuses about migrants -- battered, killed, detained, raped and abused, etc. overall, media is sympathetic to migrants but not only because of the stories of abuses but i guess also because migrants now are not only stories to be covered but they are a huge market also for media. hence local media started to expand their programs overseas --television channels, print media started to have online editions, radio programs started to have both internet and television versions! and these contribute i think to how migrants are perceived and packaged in public.

the vast market potential of migrants is actually one big factor in itself in the shaping of attitudes towards migrants. media is not the only one that sees the market potential of migrants -- everyone else that profits from migration --telecommuncations, airlines, remittance centers and banks -- do have high stakes on migrants that they would shape and re-shape the images of migrants in public as it suits them.

what to do? migrants have to take it upon themselves to project and promote a more real image of themselves. i agree with some of the points already mentioned by others -- sensitizing the media -- we do this in the philippines -- tete-a-tete with the media in the philippines and cultivating good relations with those based abroad --for example, when al jazeera calls, our rule of thumb is to accommodate them rather than refuse because for example it was short notice or something like that -- in order to elevate the issues of migrants from the victims profile -- to make the media appreciate the multifaceted dimensions of migration; advocacy through culture and the arts --this is really effective --for the migrants themselves as in reaching out to the local population. once, there was an overseas pinoy theatre formed in hongkong for filipino migrant domestic workers. working through the local churches -- we have a saying in the philippines --if you are lost in a foreign country, try to locate the nearest church and chances are, there would be filipinos there  (except in saudi) -- being active in the local church helsp. it is a source of support to the migrants; 

developing and mobilising a pool of public leaders and known personalities  as advocates of migrants rights... can project and promote positive public images and attitudes towards migrants.

in host countries, cultivating local support for migrant communities can serve as buffers to negative perceptions and attitudes of the local population. a good example are the migrant support groups in singapore, hongkong (in hongkong, the local trade union --hongkong confederation of trade unions) extend support to migrant worker organizing) and elsewhere.

 of course, one sure formula is the organizing of migrants themselves so they can find their voices in the community --at home and in the host communities.

all for now. thanks.






Re: MagNet discussion on public attitudes to migrant workers

Posted by John Gee at August 05. 2011



 Glad to have those latest comments in.


I'd just like to respond on a couple of things.


Jackie Pollock's remarks raise the general issue of to what extent do public attitudes shape government policy and media coverage compared to how much public attitudes are themselves influenced by government and media. I think it works both ways. Government policies tend to send messages about how welcome or unwelcome migrant workers are and there seems to be good reason to think that sectors of the public in each country do absorb these messages, though others may react against them. Their attitudes can be particularly important at times of public debate. There's a big difference between countries of origin and countries of destination of course, not just in their different roles in the global economy, but in the very basic fact that migrant workers in their countries of origin and in some cases (like that of the Philippines) when abroad usually have the chance to vote for their governments, but in countries of destination, only citizens have the right to vote and it is what they say that counts most for governments. In the face of strong tides of hostility among the public towards migrant workers, the tendency is often to take measures to pacify those who are hostile towards migrants, rather than to stand up to them.


I've found media attitudes varied. In Singapore, there have been excellent features and articles based on thorough research by correspondents who took the trouble to ask questions, listen to answers and think hard. There are also articles that tend to go along with popular prejudices or encourage them: reports on domestic workers and boyfriends adopt a lofty moral tone of disapproval while supplying titillating snippets. It is rare to see anything thoughtful on this subject. There's a common assumption among sectors of the public that migrant workers are over-sexed (if male), 'loose' (if female) and that they have strong criminal tendencies. When police statistics a couple of years ago revealed that migrant workers were the Singapore community least likely to commit crimes (compared to locals and Permanent Residents), many were surprised.


Ellene Sana wrote about 'confusing perceptions' of Filipino domestic workers. Sometimes the same perceived characteristics can be seen in opposite ways: They're good workers because they are smarter and better educated than others, but they are troublesome because they are more sneaky and more ready to stand their ground on things like having a regular day off. I wonder if there are other examples of whole peoples being labelled a certain way on the basis of the migrant workers who go abroad? I'm not aware of it happening in the case of Indonesia, for example.


We're just a few days away from the end of this brief dialogue and it is making me think of more questions. I'm wondering about how well public attitudes towards migrant workers have been assessed, country to country? Do worries about possible negative results ever discourage research about the extent of certain attitudes and beliefs? How much do we understand the complexities of public attitudes - when, for example, people who tend to have negative views towards migrant workers show deep sympathy with workers who are mistreated or underpaid by their employers, or others whose views are generally supportive but who embrace negative stereotypes? Jackie Pollock raised the issue of policies that exclude migrant workers and urged that integration was a better way to go, but what does that take and are there good examples of countries that have taken that course successfully?



Re: MagNet discussion on public attitudes to migrant workers

Posted by Max Tunon at August 07. 2011

Hi all,

As Jackie mentioned, there is very little interaction between Thais and migrants. The recent ILO study found that only 17 percent of the respondents in Thailand knew migrants personally, and most of those people did not have close relationships.

The recently launched Saphan Siang campaign provides a space for Thais and migrant workers to share views and experiences. Initially, this will take place online (, but there are plans to develop additional platforms for interaction. The website features short video clips of Thai youth sharing their thoughts about migrants in Thailand, and migrant workers sharing their experiences of coming to and working in Thailand. Some of these clips were cut together to produce a public service announcement.

The broader aims of the campaign are to promote understanding between the Thai public and migrant workers, and raise awareness of the situation of migrant workers, both in terms of rights abuses and their contribution to Thai society and the economy.

Another example worth sharing are the roadshows organized in June by the Migrant Workers’ Centre in Singapore. Under the theme “Embracing Differences”, the roadshows featured a number of recreational activities for migrant workers, as well as an exhibition on Singapore’s history, customs and social norms.

In this regard, I think we should also think about what countries of origin can do prior to departure to prepare migrant workers with an understanding of cultural sensitivities, or even language training, as is required under Korean EPS programme. A lot of negative feeling stems from migrants’ not adapting to the social norms of the host society.


Re: MagNet discussion on public attitudes to migrant workers

Posted by Debbie Fordyce at August 09. 2011

Dear John and MagNet members,


Thanks for this discussion has garnered many interesting ideas about attitudes towards migrant workers.


I’d like to comment on the notion that migrant workers are disproportionately responsible for crime. In Singapore, this is, at least in part, due to the sensationalizing of crimes perpetrated by foreign workers, such as the recent murder of the Indonesian woman by the Bangladeshi man, who then shoved her body into the water tank atop a block of flats. That one incident is likely to contribute to negative attitudes towards both male and female migrant workers for years.


If we consider the crime of overstaying the social visit pass, then people from some countries, most notably the traditional sending countries, are more likely than others to be guilty of this crime, which by definition can only be committed only by foreigners.


When I speak to Singaporeans about discrimination, I rarely hear about discrimination based purely on skin colour or nationality. Most young people are likely to have friends from different ethnic groups or language backgrounds, thanks in large part to the housing and educational policies in Singapore. But none that I know, except for people who work closely with migrant workers, socialize or make friends with the male migrant workers.


I’ll mention a personal situation that I’m now facing as an example of attitudes gone astray. For many years I’ve offered my home to male workers with serious injuries. These are men who are not provided with housing or support from their employers and are obliged to remain in Singapore for a year or longer until treatment is completed, and then until compensation for permanent incapacity is awarded. I’ve usually kept the numbers within the limits allowed by law governing residential properties: no more than 8 people occupying one unit (more are allowed if they constitute a family).


The residents of my condominium have recently come to know of this situation and have begun a struggle to expel the foreign workers. This is the first time I’ve witnessed such a disturbing response to foreign workers sharing a living space with well-off Singaporeans.  Letters, petitions, and emails to the management committee offer reports of strangers wearing inappropriate attire (this refers to sarongs), wives and daughters having to share the lift with foreign workers, women nearly fainting when encountering Bangladeshi men at night, and warn of disease, robbery, molest, and the loss of peace, safety and security of the condominium. It’s as if they’re guilty before the crime is committed.


Some residents are working to amend the by-lays of the condominium to prohibit male migrant workers from staying on the premises, a move that is very likely to succeed with the fear and alarm spreading faster than reason and understanding. I believe this would be a first in Singapore. I should mention that the leaders of this anti-foreign worker movement are people with whom I had a pleasant relationship before this situation came to light. None of them have spoken to me about why I choose to house the men, why they are required to remain in Singapore, how their treatment is progressing, or why their employers are not offering housing. None of them have asked about the mission or work of Transient Workers Count Too, the NGO for whom I volunteer.


Racial discrimination isn’t quite an adequate label for this fear of foreign workers because many Singaporeans do socialize with people from of different nationalities, with different skin colour, and who speak different languages. I believe it more as fear of poverty. Once people have acquired a lifestyle that allows them to live in an exclusive gated condominium, they would like to ensure that exclusivity and keep people who occupy a lower rung on the socioeconomic ladder at a safe and hidden distance. That’s the attitude I’ve noted from the wealthy Bangladeshi community in Singapore towards the Bangladeshi migrant workers, and from the ethnic Indian community in Singapore community towards the migrant workers from India, and from the Chinese Singaporeans towards the foreign workers from China.




Re: MagNet discussion on public attitudes to migrant workers

Posted by Amarjit Kaur at August 09. 2011

Hi John and the others,


I research mainly on Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand as labor-receiving countries.

In my opinion, only “some” employers acknowledge migrant workers’ valuable economic contribution –others have ambivalent attitudes towards them.


Generally, migrant workers are regarded as dirty, dishonest and lazy. I am always amazed that employers often believe that Migrant Workers don’t need a living wage, don’t require holidays and are incapable of looking after themselves on their days off.


When the new MOU for domestic workers was being negotiated in Malaysia, the  Star Newspaper ran a quick survey  on whether domestic workers should be given a weekly day off. The survey results revealed that a majority of employers didn’t believe they needed a break.  They were more concerned with how they would without the domestic worker.


Migrant workers are also blamed for the bulk of crimes committed in Malaysia – even though this has been disproved by official figures.


I was surprised to read about the discussion on fishermen.  Tenaganita has published a booklet on the abuses suffered by fishermen in Southeast Asia. Can and will employers change?


Some of my work, which includes attitudes to migrant workers is available online on the following websites:


Re: MagNet discussion on public attitudes to migrant workers

Posted by Aurelio Estrada at August 09. 2011

Dear John,

Thanks for inviting me in this discussion.

In Hong Kong right now there will be a judicial review on the right of abode of foreign domestic workers (FDWs) starting on August 22. The HK gov't and its adherents are once again using scare tactics addressed to the HK public to deny this right to FDWs.

And we would want to appeal to the public to be more objective on this issue and not to get carried away by said tactics which are basically racist and do not adhere to international labor and migrant instruments. If you would allow me to include below an article made by the Mission For Migrant Workers (MFMW) which is intended to be published in a Filipino community newspaper here.

Know Your Rights

August 011


Fear the terror of discrimination


At the rate narrow-minded politicians, the HK government and charlatans are going, it seems like that the world – well, Hong Kong, at least – is going to end if the right of abode is granted to foreign domestic workers who wish to have so.


They create a picture of a flood of FDWs queuing up to get permanent residency. They whip up ridiculous numbers – up to more than half a million – of family members of FDWs rushing to get into Hong Kong to enjoy an easier and better life.  They picture Asian migrants and families parasitically sucking on the social services of Hong Kong and taking away the jobs from the Hong Kong people.


They predict a chaotic society given that, they say, Hong Kong will not be able to afford the needed additional budget to sustain such a drastic increase in the population of permanent residents.


Scared already? We are not. For who really are afraid of FDWs getting the right of abode?


For sure, not human rights advocates who believe in respecting the fundamental rights of people including the right not to be discriminated in the economic, social, political and civil spheres. Not advocates for the rights of migrants who believe that FDWs should be given what is due to them as workers, as women and as part of the Hong Kong society.


So who are really afraid of FDs being granted their rights?


They are the politicians who believe that FDWs are punching bags for all exploitative and discriminatory policies that they can think of. These are the same people who think that being an FD in Hong Kong should be a debt of gratitude owed by the migrant workers to the Hong Kong government.


They are those who uphold the New Conditions of Stay as a rightful policy even if it has been criticized for decades and questioned even by the Committee that implements the UN Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.


They are the politicians who proposed and approved the exclusion of FDWs from the Statutory Minimum Wage. They are those who maintain the ban on Nepali migrant workers. They are those who only give a pittance to FDs and dare call it wage increase.


Those who oppose the rights of FDWs and project FDWs as nothing but disposable labor are those who hide the real causes of the woes of the Hong Kong people. They divert the blame for the social and economic problems of the society – unemployment and dwindling social services – to the presence of migrant workers instead of looking at the intrinsic problems of the policies of neo-liberal globalization and free market economy that Hong Kong has.


The issue here is about rights and the struggle against discrimination.


International agreements and conventions such as the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families, Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, CEDAW and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, guard against violations of the rights of migrants. These however have been conveniently overlooked by the government in their policies and even snubbed as shown by its inaction in the call for a review of the NCS by the CEDAW committee. 


Instead of looking for ways to uphold the rights-based conventions, they even think of means to worsen the condition of migrants like the threat of putting a cap on the number of contracts that of an FDW. This will put them in a position more vulnerable to abuses. Such threat goes even beyond the driving a wedge between FDWs and the HK people through the creation of phantom conflict of interests but also aims to divide the ranks of the FDWs themselves.


This is even more ironic given the fact that only recently the International Labour Organization has approved the Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers that is based on the spirit of non-discrimination. If the government’s reaction to the Right of Abode issue is any indication, there is very little hope that the government may even attempt to adhere to the new agreement once it is ratified.


The issue of the Right of Abode opens up a Pandora’s Box of issues of migrant workers.


FD organizations can take this opportunity to launch education actions among migrant workers on the various human rights-based instruments that cover migrants and how these are violated by the policies of the Hong Kong government.


This is also a good time to further conscientize the public on the need to uphold the human rights of all people in Hong Kong especially those who have long been denied of such. It is an opportunity to correct misconceptions about FDs on the condition of migrants that the system created by the policies of the Hong Kong government has perpetuated.


We should send the message to the Hong Kong people that migrant workers are people who have rights. We should make them understand that migrant workers are not the free loader in the Hong Kong society that those espousing discriminatory ideas wish to spread. We must send the message to that like most of the local people, migrant workers are also affected by societal issues and are not the cause of such issues.


It is not the granting of rights of FDWs that is scary but the culture of intolerance, discrimination and hate that the Hong Kong government wishes to create. Such culture is dangerous and even fatal as proven by the tragic cases of terror and hate crimes targeting migrants and immigrants that have happened in various countries, most recently in Norway.


The rights of migrant workers are not scary. But a society ruled by politicians who have no qualms violating these rights and even whipping up a frenzy of discrimination: that is really terrifying.




Re: MagNet discussion on public attitudes to migrant workers

Posted by Hope Workers' Center at August 10. 2011

Dear John, dear magnet members,

here just a quick response from Taiwan.

In Taiwan the attitude towards migrant workers is rather hostile. Already the foreign labor policies seem to assume that migrant workers will become a “social problem” if not regulated properly and their human rights are often overlooked.

Immigration of migrant workers is not wanted and integration very limited. MW need to stay in dorms the employer has to provide. For reporting an undocumented MW you can receive a reward of NTD 5000 (ca US$ 150). Especially tabloid newspapers and TV channels tend to reflect a negative image of MW. There were stories about a Vietnamese caregiver who slapped her patient or of a Filipina, leaving the patient in his wheelchair in front of restaurant while she goes in to have lunch. Of course a behavior like that is not correct. However, these stories do not further discuss the circumstances of a MW in Taiwan. On the other hand stories about exploitation and/or abuse of MW are quite rare.

The opinion that MW take away jobs of local workers is widely shared, also under college graduates. Lately, after the Taiwan Government decided to raise the minimum wage, the Federation of Industries representative argued that this would only benefit MW and that local workers might experience lesser wages because the employer needs to pay a higher minimum wage to the MW.

In the last two years the Govt took up some initiative to improve the integration of “new immigrants”, mainly women from PRC, Indonesia and Vietnam married to Taiwanese men. On its peak around 20% of the yearly marriages involved a foreign partner. These women faced and still face discrimination, also do their children. The Govt started to stress their positive influence for Taiwan’s society and there are numerous reports in the newspapers.

I totally agree with Ellene: MW have to promote their image by themselves and it is helpful to have local advocates who might be able to influence the opinions - be it media’s, the public or the governmental. While the “new immigrants” are quite well organized the MW are not. Only since May 2011 they are allowed to form their own unions.


Thanks for the interesting discussions,

Regina, Hope Workers' Center


Re: MagNet discussion on public attitudes to migrant workers

Posted by Junjia Ye at August 10. 2011

Dear all

I would argue that much of the public sentiments towards migrant workers (here, I refer to workers that have officially entered the Singaporean labour force on the work permit) are first and foremost based upon class, which take on a racialized and gendered dimension. It is first class-based rather than any other social category that undergirds people’s attitudes towards migrant workers precisely because they have been (non) incorporated into Singapore as workers. The Singaporean public tends to view migrants with fear, distaste and suspicion.


This is primarily fear of migrants stealing jobs. This is sometimes  difficult to justify as most migrants take on jobs that locals reject. While it is true that some migrants are performing work in industries, such as service sector jobs, that locals would do as well, it must be noted that it is not that businesses are pro-migrant. Rather, it is pro-business – it is about who is vulnerable to accepting lower wages and poorer working conditions. It is perhaps understandable that Singaporeans are anxious about their livelihoods as well because of this so-called “increased competition” (I use the quotation marks because I do not think the playing field is level for everyone. Migrant workers give up a lot more to come to Singapore for a work permit job, whether it is their social support network or hefty agents’ fees) in the service sector. Yet, it bears reinforcing that it is the labour laws which are pushing down wages and work conditions, rather than migrants themselves.

By fear, I also refer to the popular discourse that migrants, both male and female are dangerous and “on the prowl”. While I do not have statistics, I would also note that crimes are being commited by locals as well. Much of the law, however, serves to criminalized – that is, make criminals out of – migrant workers such as making it illegal for them to work while on Special Pass or making it illegal for them to change jobs, leaving many of them to rely upon the employers stipulated on their work permits. The public’s attitudes towards migrant workers also tie in with their gendered and sexualized bodies. Male migrants are often seen as “loitering” (indeed, at the Little India MRT station, there is a sign in Bengali and Tamil – languages of two of the dominant male migrants in Singapore – which prohibits the act of loitering. It is also, I should note, the only place in Singapore where I have seen a public sign in Bengali.) and therefore up to no good or as harbouring predatorial intentions towards Singaporean women. 

As part of this discourse of keeping migrants away from locals, there have been self-contained dormitories set up. Dormitories such as Simpang Lodge in the northern part of Singapore and SCAL located in the far western part include amenities such as provisions and barber shops as well as recreational facilities like basketball courts, canteens, television rooms and gymnasiums ( Another premise housing workers is the recently converted old school compound in Serangoon Gardens, an upper-middle class neighbourhood. This conversion was hotly debated mainly amongst neighbourhood residents, grassroot leaders and the Member of Parliament for the area. While there is no space here to discuss the NIMBY sentiments, it must be highlighted that dormitory operators have been instructed to install surveillance cameras and implement rules on noise levels. The facility will also have adequate amenities, including provision shops, so workers will have “little reason to leave it”. Finally, the site area will be reduced, setting it further back from homes along certain roads and creating a “buffer zone” between residents of the Gardens and the foreign workers (Straits Times, 4th Oct 2008, These measures serve to contain and regulate workers by creating an enclave that is quite different from its surroundings. Aside from eliminating the chances of interaction with people who are not in the same work as they are, the installation of CCTV cameras and increased police patrols around the dormitories also extends controls over the workforce of the presumed heterosexual, single, foreign male workers on a day to day basis. As the marketing director of Simpang Lodge says,


I want to make the police presence felt to keep the residents on their toes … In other dorms, they can't cook, so they'll go out and explore... They may not approach girls, but girls may approach them… We have two guards, one going around, one just outside checking people. No girls can go in…Sex (work) in workers' dormitory happens infrequently, but this could be because of the workers' physical needs. This must be properly managed within the law instead of allowing them to prowl in our neighbourhood residences. The dormitories' security system (CCTV, entry passes), guards, patrolling, strict discipline enforcement and working with neighbourhood police to deter such cases would help to prevent such things from happening…

-       (The New Paper, Jan 2009,


This above quote illustrates that while there continues to be a stigmatization of female sex workers, it is the closely regulated masculinity of the foreign worker whose sexuality must be kept in check, “to be deter(ed)” especially since he could easily fall prey to feminine lures, even if he does not proactively solicit for sex. His intrinsic “physical needs” as a foreign, heterosexual male appear normalized yet under the gloss of this rhetoric, these qualities pathologize him as a subject for close surveillance. Containing workers within the company’s dormitory allows for policing and remote supervision through the CCTV to prevent “unlawful” acts – linking workers to problems is a way in which efforts to decrease problems in production hinges upon the problems associated with single, male workers. These housing regulations therefore recreate the low-status male foreign worker as a person that needs to be disciplined, controlled and kept subordinate, reaffirming unequal relations of power and hierarchy embedded within the intersections of an individual’s gender, sexuality and class.

There is also the fear of female domestic workers seducing the men and/or boys in the household or on the streets. It is possible to argue that these fears are validated and reproduced by the state which made it mandatory for domestic workes who become pregnant to be repatriated to their sending country. It is this fear, that, again, takes on a classed, gendered and sexualized dimension that employers often use to justify their not giving their domestic workers day off.

 /Junjia Ye


Re: MagNet discussion on public attitudes to migrant workers

Posted by John Gee at August 11. 2011

Dear MagNet members,

The three weeks of this dialogue seem to have passed very quickly. I hope that everyone who has read the exchanges has found at least something of interest in them, and maybe ideas or questions that you'd like to follow up. It would certainly have been valuable to have had contributions from more people, and I am left wondering whether it was holidays, busy schedules or the subject of the dialogue itself that resulted in the number of participants being less than I had hoped at the beginning. That said, those who did write in raised some good points and offered useful information.  I wish to thank those who have written in and taken part: your contributions are much appreciated. 

I will look through the whole exchange now that it has come to an end and try to summarise what has emerged.

Thank-you once again,

John Gee

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