Labour in British Malaya

Covid-19 has hit many of us hard. Whether you are a job seeker, an employer or employee, Covid-19 is likely to have affected you in one way or another. Manual labour work is no exception and is one pool of the Singapore workforce that has been facing an intensive labour crunch due to the Covid-19 restrictions. For many years, we have depended on and continue to depend heavily on foreign manpower for this line of work and this can be traced back to even before Singapore gained independence. 

Back then, in the 1923 publication Labour in British Malaya, Singapore was still part of British Malaya and British Malaya did not have sufficient native workers to assist with all the manual labour work needed to be done. This manual labour work consisted of agricultural work, tin mining and essential public service work such as that of roads and railways. To make up for this labour shortage, foreign manpower was recruited from India, China and to a lesser degree, from Java and Sumatra.

Labour in British Malaya examines the labour systems relating to the 3 aforementioned manual work categories and below are some lesser known but noteworthy points.

  1. Chinese and Indian migrants made up the bulk of workers in the tin mines and agricultural estates respectively. A minority of workers there were Javenese or Malays.
  2. When it came to public servicing work, the Chinese migrant workers were involved in the initial construction work while the Indian migrant workers assisted with the follow-up maintenance work.
  3. The wages for manual labour work differed depending on the type of work involved, location and the ‘class’ of workers who were recruited. This class of workers could refer to one’s race, gender and/or age group. For example, among Indian migrant workers working in agricultural estates, men could earn 30 to 45 cents a day while women could earn 25 cents to 35 cents per day. Many agricultural estates allowed the workers’ children who were at least 10 years of age to take up light work and  the children were paid 10 to 20 cents per day.
  4. Not all the migrant workers could keep or receive their full earnings. Indian migrant workers generally could keep all of their earnings but Chinese migrant workers had to use part of their earnings to pay off their creditors who had helped finance their migration while Javanese migrant workers could only keep half of their earnings.
  5. One of the reasons why Indian migrant workers could keep more of their earnings compared to their Chinese and Javanese counterparts was due to the existence of the Indian Immigration Fund that was applicable to eligible Indian migrant workers in the whole of British Malaya excluding Trengganu and Brunei as of 1923. This fund covered labour importation expenses (e.g. travelling, food, quarantine upon arrival expenses and recruitment agent fees) and supported the day to day living and housing of Indian nationals who were no longer fit for work, unemployed, awaiting repatriation or in need of help as well as the children and orphans of Indian migrant workers who had accompanied them to Malaya.

The easy-to-read 48-page book offers readers some quick insights into British Malaya’s foreign labour systems in the 1920s.

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