Invisible lives: the ‘place’ of migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic

Invisible lives: the ‘place’ of migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic

Alice Butler-Warke and Caroline Hood

Low-waged migrant workers hold together life and services in social, domestic and economic spheres. Their bodies are the labouring forces that build glistening office buildings, harvest the seasonal fruit and vegetables we enjoy, and care for the elderly and vulnerable. They are ‘essential but invisible. In this piece we specifically focus on what is generally termed ‘low-skilled’ or ‘low waged’ migrants as opposed to those economic migrants who move freely for professional, white-collar careers in a globalized world.

In the social construction of migrant workers, there is discursive ‘othering’ inherent in the division between ‘low-skilled’ and ‘professional’. But, as we shall show, the discursive choices of some governments and media sources to refer to skills has impacted on how, as a society, we socially stratify groups of people. This classification of people, which may present itself in subtle ways through language and discourse, is then used to both justify the treatment of and the marginalisation of vulnerable groups. This discursive classification has tangible manifestations and can be seen acutely in abuse of low-waged migrant workers by employers, the poor living conditions made available to migrant workers, poor working conditions, lack of access to food and healthcare, and a variety of ‘unfreedoms’.

In this piece, we consider the conditions endured by migrant workers and we highlight the precarious and largely invisible lives of migrant workforces in Singapore and the UK, drawing attention to the visibility of migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the discursive ‘othering’ applied to them. We suggest that both discursively and spatially, low-waged migrant workers are put into a specific ‘place’ in society.

Singapore’s migrant labour force
Singapore relies heavily on a migrant worker labour force drawn mostly from India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, China, Myanmar and Thailand. As of June 2019, Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM) reported a total of 1.4 million foreign workers in the island nation out of a total of 5.7 million inhabitants. Migrant workers are not well-protected by law and there is no minimum wage or legislation to limit working hours.

Worker housing, paid by the employer, has historically been subject to criticism by human rights organisations. A riot in Singapore’s Little India in 2013 following the death of a migrant worker led to increased attention on the accommodation conditions endured by workers and, simultaneously, created a desire to monitor migrant workers. Since then, a number of workers’ dormitories have been built across the island and migrant workers become organized into easily-manageable units, hidden from a native population that considers their presence bad for their community’.

Though praised in February and March for its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, April 2020 dealt Singapore a surge in cases. Some 96% of the new cases reported on 20 April affected migrant workers residing in foreign worker dormitories. The S11 Dormitory @ Punggol located on the north east coast of the island nation has seen a particularly high rate of infection. Reports from inside the dormitories, and from government documents, underscore the poor conditions endured. A single toilet and washing facilities are shared by up to 15 residents. Dormitories are shared by between 12 and 20 residents who sleep on mattress-less bunk beds. The crowded conditions and poor socioeconomic status lead to high levels of susceptibility to infectious diseases among migrant workers. Social distancing and isolation are not feasible in such conditions.

The spatial enclosure and isolation of Singapore’s migrant workers is produced—and reproduces—a polarizing narrative that sets migrant workers apart from Singaporeans and permanent residents. Cases of COVID-19 are divided by the Ministry of Health (MoH) into those in ‘the community’, which refers to Singaporeans, permanent residents and those holding work passes, ‘work permit holders residing outside dormitories’, and ‘work permit holders residing in dormitories’. This division is based on both the skill-level of the employee and their monthly income. Work pass holders must earn over $2,400 SGD (£1,360) per month. Work permit holders, on the contrary, are considered semi-skilled and may be seeking work in construction, manufacturing, marine shipyard, processing or services or females may seek employment as a domestic worker providing that they are from an ‘approved source country’. Work permit holders may reside in the aforementioned dormitories or, especially in the case of Foreign Domestic Workers (FDW), in ‘the community’.  However, regardless of their physical place of residence, the MoH discourse excludes them from being part of ‘the community’.  This is further echoed in media coverage that refers to ‘local cases’ that exclude migrant workers. This discursive polarization further excludes and brands migrant workers as outsiders, though they are the very bodies that make life in Singapore possible.

This discourse relies on a politics of belonging and of who is considered to be ‘local’. Nira Yuval-Davis explains that ‘belonging is about emotional attachment, about feeling ‘at home’ and, as Michael Ignatieff points out, about feeling “safe”. Any international mobility results in a bifurcation of belonging: to the symbolic ‘homeland’ and, simultaneously, to quotidian life in the host nation. In political and media discourse in Singapore, the discourse of belonging and community does little to repair this split and, instead reinforces a notion of ‘otherness’ that is operationalised in the physical conditions that are endured by migrant workers. COVID-19 has revealed the extent of the division.

The role of Eastern Europe in the UK’s agricultural economy
The fact that ‘[s]ome of Europe’s poorest citizens have been recognised as its critical workers‘ is nowhere more apparent than when considering the case of seasonal farm workers in the context of COVID-19. The seasonal nature of some agricultural work, and the inherent physical nature of the tasks, has seen areas of the UK increasingly reliant on a supply of labour from outside of UK’. In late March, media coverage began highlighting the need to source 90,000 seasonal workers to pick crops, specifically highlighting the need to bring migrant workers in from Eastern Europe both to undertake the work and to train a British workforce unaccustomed to the rigours of the role. More than ever before, we are seeing the contribution that migrants make to life in the UK; an economic reality writ large for the British who have long been ‘disassociated from the realities of low-paid manual labour’, a situation which undoubtedly contributes to the social stratification of migrant workers in the UK.

Yet, despite this increased visibility, the vulnerabilities of Eastern European migrant workers to exploitation in Western Europe are becoming increasingly apparent in this new COVID-19 era. In particular, the capacity for Western societies to engage in ‘othering’ when considering such groups is visible in relation the perceived disposability of migrant workers and their status as bodies ‘whose work matters more than their health, and whose health only becomes vital in relation to the domestic population, that is, only in terms of not contaminating them’. They are discursively classified in a manner where their value resides solely in the labour they provide, rather in their humanity.

The previous invisibility of these bodies has resulted in transgressions against migrant workers that have been identified as instances of modern-day slavery. Despite preventative measures operating in the UK, such as the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, different investigations have reported cases of long working hours, no rest days and poor living conditions. Given that it is possible, at least in Scotland, to rely on permitted development rights and accommodate seasonal workers in caravans on agricultural land without the need for planning permission, the spatial exclusion of these bodies is more than evident: essential yet invisible. Further, the potential for such crowded and basic living conditions to heighten the risk of COVID-19 infection must be acknowledged – social distancing and isolation are not possible in such conditions. It represents an uncomfortable manifestation of the ‘othering’ inherent in the division between ‘low-skilled’ and ‘professional’ and reinforces the belief that while we rely on the economic contribution of migrant workers, as a society we accord them a very specific, and precarious, ‘place’.

Concluding thoughts
Low-waged migrant workers are situated at both the discursive and spatial fringes of society. While we have highlighted the specific cases of migrant workers in Singapore and the UK, these stories are not unusual: migrant workers beg for food in Qatar , exhausted workers in India were killed by a train as they slept on the tracks. Low-waged workers are simultaneously placed in a spatial margin where they must live, and a symbolic or discursive margin from which there is little hope of escape. Their value is measured solely in their labour. They are distilled into expendable and exchangeable bodies and, by seeing their position in society as solely tied to their labouring bodies, we fail to see the humanity of these individuals. They are discursively constructed as an ‘other’ and placed symbolically and spatially at society’s margins. We face an era of uncertainty and as we rebuild our post-COVID world, we must consider how we construct our ‘community’ and ensure that we see the humanity of all who reside within.


Alice Butler-Warke is a Lecturer in Sociology at Robert Gordon University. Her research interests are in discourse and power, urban experience and marginality, and the process of stigmatisation (Alice can be found on Twitter @alice_butler31). Caroline Hood is a Lecturer in Sociology at Robert Gordon University. Her research interests are in mobilities practices and the marginalisation of vulnerable groups. ( Caroline can be found on Twitter @the_cat_said).