WLB came to church nearly at the end of my first interview. The first interviewee introduced us. I asked for his consent to be interviewed and he agreed. The first interviewee asked WLB if he came directly from the worksite and if he had had his supper. WLB said that he was from the site and he had not had his supper. The first interviewee, also the leader of one of the church cell groups, offered WLB some cake he brought to church. I also remembered that I had a French bread in my bag. I blamed me for overlooking such important part of people’s everyday living and offered him the bread. Quite frequently, we “the researchers” are in the privileged position of being researchers. So, with the label, we can assume a research position that is detached from many aspects of everyday living. “Forgetting” to ask about the interviewee’s daily living experiences, sometimes as mundane as whether he has had a meal, tells the presence of such a privilege. With this guilt, I started the conversation. ME: How long have you been in SG? WLB: I have been here in Singapore for about 5 months. I came here in July. ME: How do you feel about Singapore so far? Are there any difficulties in adapting to life here? What does health mean to you? WLB: There are several things that are difficult to me. The biggest difficulty is that there are no seasonal differences in SG. I am from Jilin Province, China and Jilin has longest winter in China. It is not uncommon for the temperature to go below -20 Celsius. After I came to SG, the first two months’ humid and hot weather was my biggest enemy. I had rashes all over my body and it was extremely itchy. I still have those.(LB rolled up his sleeves and showed me the pink rashes over this forearms. In his early thirties, LB does not look like one who has been exposed to years of hard manual work. The pink rashes look very obtrusive on his white skin.) Usually, after I stay in air-conditioned rooms for one day or longer, the rashes will gradually go away. But when I go to work again, they will come back. And this happens to more than half of my co-workers. Usually, the fairer the skin is, the more serious the problem is. (Another migrant worker was nearby and was listening to our conversation. After hearing this, he said to WLB): Maybe this is something you do not know since you have just been in SG for a short time. It happens to many construction workers, but almost all the MRT station construction workers. These “tunnel diggers” came to work early in the morning and leave for their dorms deep into the night. So, they do not have enough exposure to the Sun that the body needs. You (referring to LB) should go to the surface level during your break times to have a sunbath. It will greatly help with the rash problem. ME: How has your rash been treated? Did you ask the boss for a sick leave? LB: No one will ask the boss for leave with such a small problem. It will be a waste of time and money to go to a doctor for treatment. For such small problems like having a cold, a headache, and a stomachache, we use the medicine that we brought from China. I have been using “rash powder” to treat my skin problem. It helps with the itch but it does not stop rash from coming back. When I go to work for one day, the rash will come back. So I just used “rash powder” to relieve me from the itchiness. (“Rash Powder” is a white powder that feels smooth to the skin. It has certain effect on rash caused by hot temperature. From my memory, people in the countryside use it more generally for skin irritation. When I was little, my father used to pepper it to my head and neck after he cut my hair. The smooth powder makes it easier for him to brush off the cuthair from my neck. This is a common use in the countryside since it is very cheap and serves this purpose very well.) LB (Continued): I have not realized that the rash could be from lack of sun exposure. I have been trying to use powder and staying in the air-conditioned rooms. I also notice that once I start to demolish the old cement wall and floor, the rash will be more severe. The cement dust will be breathed in and will cover my arms and part of my chest. The company does give me gloves for demolishing cement walls, but it does not give us other protective clothes. ME: It is not very common to have air-conditioners in apartments, is it? LB: Some has it and some does not. My apartment room has 10 workers including me. 5 double-decker beds in the room and an air-conditioner helps well. ME: That’s a lot of people in one room? LB: It’s quite common after I have got used to it. The rooms where I live have cockroaches. That’s one of the things that I have to get used to. ME: If you have so many things to get used to, do you regret that you have chosen to come to SG? LB: I have 2 kids. My daughter is in junior high and my son is in primary school. In Northeast China, the winter is long and cold. So my wife rented an apartment that is very close to the kids’ schools and just takes care of our kids as a full-time job. She also sells fruits when kids are at school. Our whole family only has two people’s land. So, we cannot make a living by staying in the countryside and depending on the land. I will not be able to support the family expenses even when the kids’ tuitions are waived by the government. I have to work outside and one agent came to the construction company where I worked in China and he told me of the good things of working in Singapore and I decided to come. I came with two other workers from that same company and each of us paid more than 30,000 yuan for the cost of recommendation, recruitment, and work permission and all the paper work. ME: How long can you work here with the paid 30,000 yuan? LB: Two years. I make 6 SGD per hour. After I work for one whole year, I will have a raise. (The other worker was listening to our conversation from the beginning. He added): Your (LB’s) wage is not bad for a new comer. I heard that some workers earn 3.5 SGD per hour. But it was 6 yrs ago. And usually the boss will only give you a photocopy of the work permit and the passport. The boss will keep the original IDs so that you do not run away to find another position. For the contracted period, we usually refer to the duration as “1+1” “2+1” or “3+1” meaning that the contract will last for either 1, or 2, or 3 years with the following year after the contracted years subject to the bosses’ satisfaction with your performance. LB: Mine is “1+1.” The other worker: That’s common for the new comer. We are all from that stage/phase. ME: So, what does your daily schedule look like? LB: From 8 am to 7 pm as the normal hours. A break for lunch from 12 to 1 pm. And two tea breaks from 10 to 10:20 am and from 3 to 3:20 pm. ME: Do you work on weekends and do you have extra pay for it? Do you get to negotiate your wage? LB: I usually work on Saturday all day and half of day on Sunday. This is why I came to our cell group directly from the worksite and this is also why our cell group can only be at Saturday evening. I also work on Sunday morning. The work site only stops at Sunday afternoon and that’s the time for me to come to the church for evening Sunday service. I do not have extra pay on workends. Some (workers in other companies) have but my company does not. My boss is a woman and she is from China. I have never seen her all this time since I came to Singapore. The other worker: No. Your boss is not from China. She is from Taiwan. XX (another worker’s name) is at the same company with you and he knows it better since he has been in that company for much longer. LB: I was told that she’s from Jiangsu Province. I have never met her though. ME: A female boss, I am surprised. The other worker: Taiwan boss can be a third, or at least a second level subcontractor. The developer will give the contract to a “whole” contractor, who is usually a SGian. The second sub-contractor can be Korean, Chinese, or Taiwanese, who will find many third level subcontractors. ME: So, for the work, do you feel tired after work? LB: Yes. So usually the first thing after work is to wash my clothes and then, I will go to bed. ME: By hand? LB: Yes. The apartment does not have washing machine and it will be a mess if it has one. All the people will use it. ME: Back to your skin problem, if you go to see a doctor, who will pay for it? LB: I think the boss will but I did not ask. We probably have insurance. Again, I am not sure since I have not used it. The boss said so but I have not had a photocopy of any insurance card. And I do not think I need to go to the doctor for a skin problem. I had a cold for two or three times. It is so wonderful that now after 2 days, the cold will just go away. I had been praying a lot since I came to Singapore. The other worker: The skin problem is very common. At least half of the workers working under ground had that problem. These are well known to workers who know or have worked on the SG government building and SG Court renovation projects. No one bothers to go to the doctor for this. We all have our own medicine brought from China and we can also buy Chinese medicine from China town. ME to LB: So have you been to China town? LB: NO. The only time off for me is Sunday afternoon and that’s the time for me to come to church. So, I have not been out for traveling or for fun. ME: Then did you ask the boss or the foreman for a change of the work? LB: NO. I did not. But we have different work all the time. ME: How come? LB: The boss can have 2 or 3 contracted projects going on at the same time. So, you can work at one site for two weeks on a certain task and then can be reassigned to another task on another site for 10 days. It is always changing. So it is with the demands of the projects. I always worry about this change. With different tasks, there are different requirements. You have to learn from the beginning all the procedures so that you can work quickly and safely. Also, when the tasks change, the foreman also changes. You can cultivate a good relationship with one foreman and then have to do that again with another one when your work/task changes. The current foreman I am working under is very rude and tough to us. Usually, Chinese foremen are tougher. ME: Why so? It seems hard to understand? Aren’t you from the same country? LB: This is just my guess: The foreman pushes workers harder to secure his own position or carve favor from the boss. It’s actually easy to understand: If one foreman completes the same task within shorter period of time, then, he is in a better position for promotion. ME: Since it is time for cell group study, we need to wrap up. Thank you so much for answering all these questions. LB: Any time. I will always come here on Saturday and we can always discuss this. ME: Thanks again. So, in the end, after your first 5 months of stay here, what are your thoughts on living and working in SG? Anything different in your everyday life? What does health mean to you in all these differences that you have experienced in Singapore? LB: If health means not to have diseases, then, it is easy because I can take medicine that I brought with me from China to treat myself for the small illness. If health means safety, then, it is a bit hard because I always need to work in different environment. Also, the working pattern is a bit too packed for me. It is common for me to feel hungry after 2 hours of work. So for the first 2 months, I always have the urge to eat during the tea break times. But gradually, I can go without eating. The company let us have free lodging but we need to pay for our food. The second difference is now I have a stronger faith in Jesus. I was baptized in China but I do not have a strong faith. I said to other “I believe” but I do not have faith to walk in Jesus. But these 5 months have worked wonders for me. I need the love from God, from brothers and sisters. You cannot usually find this love when you are alone and away from home. No one really cares about you. But here (referring to the church) is different. You know, as a yong man, you have these biological needs when you are away from your family. I used to have girls around me and they like me. But this time, it’s already 5 months and I am able to stick to my principle and keep my integrity. I could not have done this without my stronger faith to God. I also had a better habit of washing my clothes everyday. It’s hard for you not to do this. The dirty laundry will smell unbearably if you do not wash it the very day you wear it. After I finish this first year, I will have a better wage and the boss will cover the airfare at the end of the second year contract. After that, I will have a one-month leave for every year I work here. So, I feel there is hope in all this.
Dec. 15th, 2012 Saturday Through a Chinese church in Singapore, I got the contact information of a migrant worker. I called him on Thursday, Dec. 13th and explained to him my interest in researching migrant workers’ health and their life experiences in China. Besides, I also told him that the director of my research institute, CARE, also would like to talk with him. Since the worker and I go to the same church and he already knows me, he said that he would be able to talk with the director and me on 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 15th, 2012, when he would be meeting with his Bible study (cell) group at the church. He said that he would be able to talk with us for a few minutes. On Saturday afternoon, he called me to suggest a change of the time. He said that since the Bible study starts at 7:30 p.m., it would make more sense to start on 6:30 p.m. I emailed Dutta, the director of CARE, and he replied to me that he would not be able to make it. So, I went alone. This Chinese church is a small one in a sea of Singapore churches. It has two Sunday services, the morning one starts at 9:30 am and the evening one starts at 6:30 p.m. As I learned later, since almost all the migrant workers work on Sundays, the only option for them to attend the Sunday service is in the evening. The church has about one hundred members of Chinese international students, company workers, a few people who have their own businesses, and several migrant workers who work in bus companies and construction in Singapore. None of the migrant workers have their family members with them in Singapore. We started our conversation at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday. I briefly introduced to the participant the project and explained to him the research protocol and PIS. He gave me his consent in participating in the interview and told me that I did not have to pay him. I expressed my thanks to his kind refusal of the payment as a fellow church goer and explained that the project requires 10 SG dollars to be reimbursed to every participant and I would appreciate it if he could sign and accept the money, which he later did. He was not comfortable with the audio recording. So, the following is a summary of what he shared with me: (I refers to the migrant worker himself.) When I think of health, I mainly think of being free from diseases and worksite accidents. Actually, according to my experiences of both working in Chinese construction sites and Singapore construction sites, each side for more than 10 years, I would say that Singapore government does a better job than Chinese government in accidents management. Unless workers do not pay attention to the rules, there are few cases in which the bosses will break the rules. If there is a safety breach, workers can refuse to work and even report the bosses to MOM (However, when I asked him if he knows how to report, he does not know the procedures, telephone, and the languages to use). In the sites where I worked, there are always personnel in charge of work safety. The safety net has to reach 1.2 meters. The only unsafe factors might be that we are not supposed to throw things down to the ground level except through a designated trash disposal tunnel. When there is an illness, we usually have our medicine brought with us from China. So, for cold and small diseases, we do not bother to go to the doctors. We can have our own medicine. But if there is serious diseases and injuries, the companies have issuance for us. With the sick leave proof issued by a medical doctor, we can have the treatment (He then told me that he had not gone to a doctor in these ten years of working in Singapore). (I then asked him to describe the everyday life to me so that I have a clearer framework about his daily routine:) “We work from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. That is the normal work hour. During that period, we have two breaks: one from 10 to 10:15 am and the other from 3 to 3:15 p.m. So, altogether, we will have 8 hours and a half to work and half an hour of break altogether. When the work load is heavy, then, we will be required to do extra time, from 5 to 10 p.m., for this period, my company is good because it gives me 1.5 times of normal hour payment. From Saturday afternoon to Sunday, supposed to be free time for us, if the boss wants us to work, the company will pay us twice the normal hour pay.” Usually, we pay the recruiting agent about 20,000 yuan for starting working in Singapore for one year. After that, we will be assigned to a boss. The boss may have many projects going on at the same time, so, it is not uncommon for us to change our working from one place to the next at very short notice. During the one year contract, it is illegal to change the company. But there are workers who indeed change companies because they are not paid well in their original companies. If they do so, they will become sangong (which can be literally translated as “separated workers,” or “unorganized workers”), as compared with us gongsigong “company workers,” or “contracted workers.” Sangong will be responsible for their own health and also finding works on their own. Of course they are illegal, and the Singapore government knows that. But if the government enforces its rules strictly, no work can be done on time. So, the government does not really care about whether Sangong is illegal. So, many times, you actually see these Sangong fires boss and finds another job if they are unsatisfied with the pay. We, as company workers, will be paid 6-7 SG$/hour with my work experiences and because I am in a good company. The average will be about 5-6$/hour. The newcomers are usually paid around 5$/hour. If you are with a SG boss, that boss is more likely on a higher lever among subcontractors, then, there is more room for you to get a higher payment. With Chinese permanent residents bosses, they usually are the third or even fourth level subcontractors, so, they might reduce workers’ payments or even refuse to give them their pay (I need to ask him more about the conditions/rationales that such bosses use to not pay their workers). There are also other safety procedures: We have work safety card and work safety training. Only after one completes the training can the work safety card be issued to him. And only with the card can one start to work. The one-day course is called “Construction Safety Orientation Course of Workers”. The teaching happens in the morning and exam in the afternoon and then the cards can be issued to the workers. The cards can work for either for two years or four years. (I asked him a follow-up question on whether an one-day course too short for the complex construction work safety issues). He added by saying that “all the workers have been working in China on construction for years, so we know all about these. The course is just to get the cards to be able to work.” Apart from the card, our worksite also has everyday meeting about the safety issues: PPE protocols about using safety caps and ear plugs, etc. (He also mentioned that Chinese construction workers are paid well because they “work hard and can adapt to different working environments quickly.” In comparison, he said that Malay, Indian, and other workers are paid 18 SGD for eight hours, with less than 3 SGD/hour. 20 to 22 SGD per eight hours will be considered good pay for these workers, whom he referred to as “black people” since they usually have darker skins than Chinese workers). (I asked him to tell me more about their living conditions. He evaded the question by saying that his living condition is much better than the so-called “Migrant Workers’ Camp,” or kegongying in Chinese, where 10 to 12 migrant workers can pack into one small room. He said that his company gives him 200 SGD for him as the compensation for rent and about 60 SGD for his monthly transportation fee. He mentioned that he needed to pay for his food). (I was a bit concerned that he did not actually cover much about health per se. However, I also considered that how health as freedom from accidents and diseases are connected to all these worksites and living spaces procedures and everyday life patterns. So I asked him if he missed his family and when he will go back home again and for the work and long working hour, whether he can bear the workload. He told me:) One thing is that once you are over 40, you feel that your body is going downhill. But I have our church. God is bigger than the world. I spend Sunday afternoon with brothers and sisters in the church. It really keeps loneliness and homesickness away from me. My daughter is in her second year at high school. She will be in a very good university in Shanghai next year with her constant excellent grades. I can remit money to my wife and my daughter. This is a comfort for me. When I call home, my daughter tells me that Dad, you need to spend more on you. eat better food. This is real comfort. I usually call them since with the phone card, one min calling from me will be only about 40 RMB cents. If they have to call me, then, they spend 4 RMB yuan/min for international call. When I come back home again, I will have my teeth fixed. (He pointed with his index finger to his speaking mouth with a smile. There, his two big upper front teeth are gone, showing a face that looks older than his age of 42 years old). We finished off our conversation by talking about small things of the church and several other church members had come. He pointed to another one and told me that he was also a construction worker. The new comer shook hands with me, with obvious caution and tension of sensing me as somewhat different. The first worker introduced me as a researcher doing research on construction workers. I followed his brief introduction with a more detailed one and asked the new comer if he could help me with my research. So, next is the New Comer’s Story.
There is an innate connection between power and knowledge production. We seek to understand particular issues and contribute knowledge on a subject but we are only given that space to produce knowledge by our inclusion in the dominant power structure. How do we stay accountable to the voices we are highlighting and in effect, the voices we may be marginalizing? Conducting research from a position in academia is not isolated from power politics and we must consider our position as researchers within the larger power framework. As Mohan explicates:
“If you were to look at the kind of projects that we as communication scientists/scholars work on, you realize very quickly that the positions from which we work are positions that are supported by the power elite and in that sense then, these positions are intrinsically tied to the political economy of knowledge itself. So the productions of knowledge is in and of itself built into a particular kind of politics that renders invisible the voices of the poor, the voices of the margins and at the same time draws its power from erasing the complicity of academic knowledge and its agendas.”