S'pore: Play Explores Migrant Workers Suffering

Posted by Melanie Lee under Labour Watch on 26 June 2006

The economic vulnerability of the migrants exposes them to social problems which form the crux of "Mobile." About 150,000 women work as maids in Singapore, most of them from impoverished villages in the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Mailes Angeles Kapani stands on the edge of a sparsely decorated stage, glare from the lights casting her face in shadow. "We are human! We are human!" Kapani, 37, cries, her features contorted. Leaning towards the audience, she yells: "Don't treat us like things!"

Kapani, a Filipina, is one of nine actors from four Asian countries to perform in the play "Mobile", which made its debut recently with a two-day run at the Singapore Arts Festival that ends tomorrow.

Weaving themes of culture clash, class differences and alienation, the play explores the dilemmas faced by migrants who travel overseas for work, usually as domestic helpers, in an effort to support their families. With Thai, Japanese, Filipino and Singaporean writers, the play is a multicultural kaleidoscope of views, controlled by its two directors - Alvin Tan from Singapore and Tatsuo Kaneshita from Japan.

"I wanted to question the meaning of true prosperity," Kaneshita, 42, says through a translator. "It is people from poor countries that move to the rich countries," he explains.

About 150,000 women work as maids in Singapore, most of them from impoverished villages in the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

An even larger number of maids work in Hong Kong while in Japan, more than 100,000 Filipinos are employed mostly as nightclub entertainers. Large numbers of Thais also travel overseas in search of employment.

The economic vulnerability of the migrants exposes them to social problems which form the crux of "Mobile", the directors says. "They need some protection, some laws," Tan, 43, argues.

A veteran of the Singapore theatre scene, Tan says that in his research for "Mobile" he interviewed Thai sex workers who were abused and trafficked to Japan.

The theme of clashing cultures is translated onto the stage through Kapani's character, Elena, a Catholic Filipina who flies to Singapore to work as a maid, only to learn that she is pregnant. Faced with an ultimatum from her Singaporean employment agent, she makes a tortured decision to abort the foetus rather than pay back the high placement fees she paid to secure her job.

Tan says the mental anguish endured by Elena is an example of the hardship sometimes suffered by migrant workers.

"They would rather take the risk (of abuse) and still earn more money than if they stayed behind and earned a pittance," he says.

In a report last year based on in-depth interviews with 65 maids of various nationalities in Singapore, New York-based Human Rights Watch said the domestic workers suffer abuses including physical and verbal aggression, threats, restrictions on movement, abuse by agents, exorbitant debt payments, long work hours and lack of rest days.

Singapore's ministry of manpower called the report a gross exaggeration and said foreign domestic workers receive full protection under local laws.

It stressed the government does not tolerate any abuse or exploitation, and said the domestics choose to work in Singapore because conditions are better than in their homelands.

"The incidence of substantiated maid abuse cases has declined from 157 cases in 1997 to 59 cases in 2004 and to 59 cases in 2005," a ministry of manpower spokesperson said.

Kapani, one of two Filipino actors in the play, says she understands why her poor compatriots leave home to work overseas despite stories of abuse.

"We can't even afford the education there," she says. "Mobile" also explores the "second-class" status of migrants through the story of a Thai worker who gives birth to the illegitimate son of a Japanese man. When the Thai confronts the father's Japanese wife with the newborn, she is asked contemptuously, "Do you understand the Japanese I'm speaking?" "In this case, language becomes a power position," says Tan.

Kaneshita sees a distinction between migrant-employer relations in Japan and Singapore. In the city-state "there is a caste thing going on, but in Japan it's different, there is not much difference in class". A sociologist with the Singapore Management University, Chung Wai Keung, agrees.

"Singaporeans have a strong sense of ‘class', that those who belong to a lower class have to be treated differently," he tells AFP by email. Chung says the problem is not as prominent in Hong Kong where more conducive working conditions make for less tension between workers and employers.

Bridget Lew, who runs a Singapore migrant workers' shelter, says her society needs to change."There should be a transformation of social values, of mindsets and the formation of core values of how we treat people different from us," she says. In the meantime, the hundreds of thousands of "Mobile" workers like Elena will continue to tear themselves from their families and plunge into an alien world fraught with the risks and conflicts portrayed in Kaneshita and Tan's play. To the fading strains of a Filipino Tagalog folk song, Japanese actress Reina Miura, 32, playing a village child, floats dreamily across the stage, flying atop the shoulders of four other cast members.

"I'm leaving on a jet plane," she sings. "I don't know when I'll be back again. Oh babe, I hate to go."

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AFP Things no different in Singapore 25 June 2006

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