Intersections: International Labour Migration in Southeast Asia: Governance of Migration and Women Domestic Workers
Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 15, May 2007

International Labour Migration in Southeast Asia:
Governance of Migration and Women Domestic Workers

Amarjit Kaur
  1. International labour migration (ILM) across sovereign national borders in Southeast Asia expanded rapidly in the 1980s. This expansion occurred in response to the economic and demographic differences between countries in the region, the role played by migration networks, transformations in communications, and lowered transport costs. Accordingly, new regional migration patterns have emerged, including: fast growth in the demand for skilled and less-skilled migrants in particular occupational categories; the creation of sub-regional labour markets; and the increasing feminisation of the migrant labour force. Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, which had been associated with labour immigration prior to the Second World War, have again become countries of destination for migrant workers. Singapore and Malaysia in particular—which are the two main labour-importing countries—have imposed immigration policies that are symptomatic of the increased governance of labour migration and the need to find a balance between the issue of sovereignty and a liberalised immigration policy. The immigration debate in these countries reflects the spread of individual rights and the global call to incorporate mechanisms that provide protections for workers. Nevertheless, domestic workers have consistently been excluded from most forms of labour protection, demonstrating the continuation of the longstanding ‘informal’ status accorded to domestic work, a situation that has existed since colonial times. This article examines ILM and the governance of migration in Southeast Asia. Central to my analysis are the many inter-relationships surrounding the ILM issue. I also seek to highlight the gendered dimensions of migration governance policies as they relate to foreign domestic workers in Singapore and Malaysia.

    Setting the scene: economic and political frameworks
  2. By the 1980s, the five newly-industrialising countries (NICs) of Southeast Asia—Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, which had formed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967 (with Brunei joining later) to promote common political interests—had achieved sustained levels of economic growth based on strategies of export-led industrialisation. Although the subsequent Asian economic and financial crisis of 1997–98 resulted in an economic downturn, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand have since recovered, with firm programmes for future growth. Indonesia, however, has not yet established a solid platform for recovery, while the Philippines has continuing political and security problems. Burma and the former socialist states—Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos—also embraced trade liberalisation strategies and joined ASEAN in the 1990s.

    insert map 1 here

    Map 1. Southeast Asia

    Source: Amarjit Kaur, Wage Labour in Southeast Asia since 1840: Globalisation, the International Division of Labour and Labour Transformations, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, p. 4.

  3. Together, the Southeast Asian states are engaged in multilateral efforts to promote freer and expanded trade through the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA).[1] The ASEAN Framework Agreement on Services (AFAS), which seeks to encourage temporary labour migration for services, trade and investment within the region, is a key regional agreement with the stated goal of moving towards an ASEAN 'economic community' by the year 2020.[2] Notwithstanding this, the large disparities between Southeast Asian states in levels of economic and social development have resulted in migration issues becoming an important focus in the ASEAN countries’ international relations with one another. Migration patterns—particularly irregular migration—have led to most governments in the region endeavouring to exert tighter control over cross-border movements through national policies and bilateral agreements and by linking their security interests to the wider Asia Pacific region in the ASEAN Regional Forum.
  4. Generally speaking, the national borders established by colonial powers in Southeast Asia during the period 1870–1914 have been both ill-defined and ambiguous. These colonial borders were also porous and devoid of physical markings; where they ran through transnational ethnic communities, for example, they had—and continue to have—little impact on local economic activities and movements. Additionally, labour supply and demand in certain occupations cross national boundaries, rendering borders somewhat meaningless. Nevertheless, given that people are 'less' mobile than goods, capital and ideas, the immigration policies of these globalised Southeast Asian states centre on the regulation of populations and the control of cross-border movements. The complexity of the many inter-relationships surrounding migration in Southeast Asia have in turn shaped its governance. These inter-related factors have included: the construction of guest worker/contract labour systems; residency policies; schemes for the facilitation of financial flows or remittances by migrant workers; and the implementation of detention and other punitive policies designed to control irregular migration.

    The Global Labour Market and ILM in Southeast Asia since the 1990s
  5. The rapid growth in ILM was a response to disparities in the level of economic development amongst Southeast Asian states, demographic differences, and the role played by migration networks. Given that labour migration is primarily an economic phenomenon shaped by income and wage differentials between countries and the financial costs of transportation and communication, there has been a strong incentive for people to move in Southeast Asia in recent times. The ending of a number of major conflicts in the region such as the Vietnam War also made it easier for people to emigrate. At the same time, however, poverty has not been the principal determinant of migration in this context. Although a large proportion of emigrants from Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar come from very poor areas, these migrants are not from the 'poorest' categories; indeed they must provide substantial amounts of money to reach their destinations. These migrants also have access to loans in their local communities and from intermediaries involved in the migration industry.[3]
  6. Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are the main countries of destination for migrant workers, while Indonesia and the Philippines are the principal source countries. Malaysia and Thailand are both source and destination countries, although Malaysia receives far more migrant workers than it sends. Malaysia is also the largest labour importer in the region. In Thailand, although official policy is opposed to the state becoming a destination for less-skilled migrants, periodic amnesties and special registration exercises continue to allow their employment in labour-intensive enterprises.[4] Overall, the preferred policy for migrant workers is the 'guest-worker' rotation system, which does not allow for settlement by migrants. Singapore, however, currently offers skilled professionals the option of settlement and residency in the state (see below).
  7. The disparity in the level of economic development between the five NICs is shown in Table 1 below.

    1975–1980 1980–1985 1985–1990 1990–1995 1995–2000
    Singapore GDP
    Annual Growth Rate (%)
    8.0 6.2 7.7 8.4 5.6
    GDP per capita annual growth rate (%) 6.7 3.9 5.6 5.5 2.7
    Malaysia GDP
    Annual Growth Rate (%)
    8.0 6.2 7.7 8.4 5.6
    GDP per capita annual growth rate (%) 5.2 2.5 3.8 6.4 1.6
    Thailand GDP
    Annual Growth Rate (%)
    7.4 5.3 9.6 8.2 0.4
    GDP per capita annual growth rate (%) 5.1 3.5 8.1 6.9 -0.6
    Indonesia GDP
    Annual Growth Rate (%)
    7.4 5.8 6.5 7.5 0.6
    GDP per capita annual growth rate (%) 5.2 3.7 4.8 6.0 -0.7
    Philippines GDP
    Annual Growth Rate (%)
    5.6 -0.4 3.6 2.5 3.4
    GDP per capita annual growth rate (%) 2.9 -2.9 1.3 0.2 1.4

    Table 1. Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines: Select Time Series Indicators (Development) 1975–2000

    Source: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs/Population Division, National Trends in Population Resources, Environment and Development: Country Profiles, pp. 201–373, online:, site accessed 20 June 2005.

  8. As shown above, the GDP annual growth rates for the period 1975–2000 indicate that Singapore and Malaysia recorded the best economic performance, followed by Thailand. Economic growth was associated with job expansion in these countries, though not at uniform rates. Within the context of the globalised world's more elastic demand for the services of unskilled and semi-skilled workers—and the fact that workers from other countries can be substitutes for these worker-categories more easily than others—these economic conditions spurred ILM in the region.
  9. Demographic factors also assisted migration in the region; indeed, demographic imperatives are becoming more important, effectively guaranteeing increased ILM in the twenty-first century. Southeast Asia may broadly be divided into 'labour-scarce' and 'labour surplus' countries. In 1995 the population of the five globalising countries was as follows: Singapore, 3.3 million; Malaysia, 20.1 million; Thailand, 58.2 million; Indonesia, 166.5 million and the Philippines 67.8 million.[5] These demographic differences amongst the countries have been crucial to changing labour circumstances in the region. Singapore and Malaysia, which had undergone demographic transition (followed by Thailand), experienced significant tightening of their labour markets by the 1970s. As a consequence, on the supply side the disparities in economic development and population between the 'more' developed and 'less' developed Southeast Asian countries created conditions of complementarity between the 'richer' labour destination countries and the 'poorer' labour source countries.
  10. The growth of the sub-regional labour market for domestic employment is particularly relevant for the feminisation of migration in Southeast Asia and is consistent with the demographic and economic factors discussed above. The elevation of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand to newly-industrialising status—and their concurrent transformation from lower-middle income (according to World Bank classifications) to upper-middle income countries—in a relatively short period coincided with the drawing in and reordering of women's labour in these countries. Women were increasingly absorbed into the formal economy, mainly in the manufacturing labour force where they could be paid lower wages compared to male workers so that these countries could retain their competitiveness in labour-intensive production processes.[6] At the same time, middle-class women's involvement in teaching, administration and other services, particularly in Singapore and Malaysia, also increased. The changing educational status of women and the breaking down of barriers to employment in managerial and executive positions and in the professions also accelerated this process.
  11. While migration by men has usually been in response to labour shortages in sectors viewed as undesirable by local populations in the destination countries (in agriculture or construction, for example), women's migration has been specifically promoted to facilitate the transfer of 'care' tasks from more affluent women to poorer migrant women. Factors influencing women's migration may be traced to both individual and family decisions. Although a number of women make autonomous decisions to migrate for work purposes abroad, a large number do so as part of family survival strategies. Thus the feminisation of the migrant labour force has coincided with the gender-selective policies of labour-importing countries and the emergence of gender-specific employment niches. This in turn has resulted not only in the self-sustaining feature of this migratory stream, but also in the emergence of particular female migratory linkages between groups of countries. Generally speaking, women workers have more possibilities of legal employment in West Asia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore compared to men.[7]
  12. The practice of women employed 'formally' as domestic workers in Southeast Asia/Asia is not new. What is new is that the current domestic workers have some form of education and undergo training in household skills prior to their employment. Inequities, however, remain. During the colonial period, Cantonese women from China migrated to Malaya (now Malaysia and Singapore) to work as live-in domestic workers or amahs, particularly in European homes or in the homes of wealthy Chinese (and Indian) Malayans. Most of these 'black and white amahs' were illiterate and became indispensable as domestic workers who undertook a range of duties, including care of the young and elderly.[8] In the 'middle' class Indian and Chinese communities, domestic workers were usually hired on a casual basis under informal arrangements. They helped with laundry and house-cleaning tasks and were often wives or daughters of urban working-class men. In the Malay community, divorced women were often offered a home in return for assistance with domestic chores. For both 'black and white amahs' and the casual domestics, wages and conditions of work were negotiated on an individual basis by the mistress of the house.[9] Thus domestic work did not form part of the formal economy, was not regulated by the state, and domestic workers never benefited from any employment regulations enforced by the state.
  13. This legacy continues to this day and domestic work continues to be relegated to the category of unskilled work (despite involving skills in childcare, cooking and the like). The marginalisation of domestic work by states in the region has ensured that only 'educated' women in possession of skills valued by the state, and where both spouses work, may be 'relieved' from domestic chores.[10] Malaysia and Singpore thus uphold and perpetuate the particular patriarchal values of most Southeast Asian societies. The state has also transferred governance of this group of workers to individual employers who are thus free to determine their employees' labour standards and are not required to conform to internationally-accepted labour standards.
  14. This movement of domestic workers in Southeast Asia currently involves at least two million women, mainly from the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand.[11] Malaysia recruits about 60,000 Indonesian domestic workers annually[12] and more than 90 per cent of the 240,000 domestic workers in Malaysia are Indonesians.[13] Singapore has been the second major destination for Indonesian migrants in the region and Indonesian labour migration to the island has been dominated by women since the late 1980s. There were about 150,000 domestic workers in Singapore in 2005 and between 8,000 and 9,000 new domestic workers arrive in the country each month. The Philippines embassy estimates show that approximately 63,000 of its nationals were domestic workers in Singapore in 2005; for the Indonesian embassy, the analogous figure is 60,000. Moreover, approximately one in every seven households in Singapore in 2005 employed a migrant domestic worker, a number which includes middle-class families.[14]
  15. For both men and women, much of the labour migration in the region does not operate spontaneously, but takes place within networks, within both the source and destination countries. Chain migration, for example, within family, extended kinship, or close-knit village-based groups, plays a key role in disseminating information about opportunities available in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Moreover, these networks minimise both financial and removal disruption costs that migrants may face. Nevertheless, less-skilled migrant workers are channelled into segmented labour markets that are characterised by wage discrimination and they and their families and prospective employers have to bear the bulk of the financial and social costs associated with migration.[15]
  16. Moreover, the institutionalisation of ILM by both labour-exporting and labour-importing countries has resulted in the emergence of a migration industry that has in turn led to increased migration and its perpetuation. The migration industry comprises several layers of intermediaries: official recruitment agencies, private entrepreneurs (licensed and unlicensed), and labour contractors and brokers, for example. It is also supported by network-creating and network-dependent relationships in source and destination countries. As a consequence, the risks of migration are effectively reduced by the varied forms of assistance from intermediaries in matters such as documentation, transportation and accommodation. Not surprisingly, however, the various layers and fees involved have also led to unauthorised or irregular migration.[16]
  17. Two characteristic regional migration systems are currently identifiable in Southeast Asia: the archipelagic ASEAN system and the Mekong sub-regional system. In the first, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei are the major destination countries, importing workers predominantly from Indonesia and the Philippines. The specific overseas labour deployment policies of Indonesia and the Philippines—along with their cultural and religious affinities with destination countries—have played a key role in this migration system. The export of labour has become an important part of these states' strategies for addressing poverty, easing domestic unemployment pressures, generating foreign exchange and fostering growth. Both Indonesia and the Philippines include targets for the number of workers they hope to send abroad in their economic development plans. These targets have increased over time. In Indonesia, the target in the economic development plan for 1979–84 was 100,000 workers. Ten years later, the target for the 1994–99 economic development plan had increased to 1.25 million workers and subsequently rose to 2.8 million in the 1999–2003 plan.[17] In the Philippines, the state developed a highly regulated overseas contract workers management system through the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). The POEA provides oversight over recruitment and deployment and monitors the working conditions of migrants.[18]
  18. In the second migration system, Thailand has emerged as the main destination for migrant workers from countries through which the Mekong River flows, namely, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Here too, cultural and religious affinities and geographic proximity have assisted migration into Thailand. In both migration systems, the influence of the mass media—of radio, television and news media—along with returned migrants' tales, play a key role in disseminating information about job opportunities. Many migrants thus have information about jobs in neighbouring countries and are able to choose among them.
  19. A third system, 'the Asia-Pacific' migration system, involves predominantly (but not solely) skilled migrants from India, Australia and developed countries. The demand in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand in particular for workers with specific professional and technical skills has determined the composition and magnitude of the market for these skilled migrants and also reflects changing national priorities. This has implications not only for those permitted to take up employment in these countries, but also the conditions under which these migrants may obtain citizenship.

    Governance of Migration
  20. The three principal labour destination countries in Southeast Asia—Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand—have embraced differing policy combinations that aim to balance the pressures between achieving their longer-term goals of industrial-upgrading and technological change on the one hand, and maintaining competitiveness in the shorter-term on the other. Their immigration policies differ significantly with respect to how adequately these have been integrated into the broader economic and social policy-making frameworks. Singapore stands at one end of the spectrum in developing a set of policies that are closely integrated into national development strategy through an elaborate arrangement of migrant levies on lower-skilled workers, incentives for highly-skilled professionals, and strict regulation of these policies. In Thailand, although policies have been developed for skilled workers, the state's policies for unskilled migrants are inadequate and made on an ad hoc basis. Regular registration and repatriation exercises have been utilised to stem the inflow of undocumented migrants from neighbouring states since the mid-1990s.[19] Malaysia lies somewhere in between and has made policy shifts in response to market demands.
  21. Malaysia and Thailand depend on bilateral agreements (for example, Memoranda of Understanding, or MOUs) with neighbouring countries as instruments for negotiating rules governing cross-border movements. The MOUs are 'elaborate systems' for the temporary employment of the nationals of one country in the other and require active participation and oversight by both countries. These MOUs specify the terms and conditions of workers and both governments are required to ensure the return of workers to their countries upon completion of their employment contracts. The MOUs are also revised as the situation requires in either country. The MOUs are thus a governance structure for recruitment and repatriation policies and also for the protection of workers in host countries.[20] Singapore prefers to rely on market forces for its labour recruitment.
  22. Broadly speaking, three regional migration flows or streams are dominant in Southeast Asia, consistent with labour market segmentation: skilled labour flows; unskilled and semi-skilled labour flows (including gendered labour flows); and undocumented labour flows.
  23. Workers who enter under the skilled migration category are considered to be professionals, whose skills are in great demand and who earn high salaries. These workers, who may be from the United States, Europe, Australia, Japan, India, Malaysia or Hong Kong, are at the high-end of the labour market. They are employed on employment passes and take up specialised technical or management jobs either on their own initiative through specialised recruitment agencies, or via recruitment in their home countries for overseas postings. In this category are included the managers, engineers, and other technicians who work for multinational corporations. They are closely associated with the expanding international trade in services, including financial services and communications.
  24. Workers who are recruited under the unskilled/semi-skilled category are employed on temporary worker schemes to perform a specific job and are employed on work permits. They cannot access the labour market directly and are recruited through private agencies and under specific bilateral agreements (MOUs) between the labour-exporting and labour-importing countries. These workers are employed primarily in the agricultural and fisheries sector and in the tertiary sector in manual (construction) and service employment, with little direct foreign capital involvement. Domestic workers are recruited under a system of sponsorship and the sponsor is normally a national citizen. Unlike other unskilled workers, who are employed in the regulated workplaces and who come under various employment enactments, the sponsors of domestic workers have a monopoly over that worker's activities in the host country.
  25. All 'documented' semi-skilled and unskilled workers have to pay hefty fees—including agency fees (including a one way air ticket), insurance fees and bank guarantees—in both countries of origin and destination. As 'guest workers,' they are not allowed to remain in the host countries on completion of their contracts, though most return on new contracts. They are therefore not allowed to make the transition from sojourning to settlement under the complex unskilled worker recruitment system. Employers 'pay' for their return tickets and face heavy fines if workers are not sent back on completion of their contracts.
  26. The strong incentives for people to migrate from low-income to higher-income countries in Southeast Asia, coupled with the high administrative costs of migration, including payments to intermediaries and labour agencies and the insertion of quotas especially for unskilled contract labour intakes, has resulted in illegal migration constituting an important migration stream. Many employers accept illegal workers even though there are strict regulations, breaches which can incur fines, gaol terms and physical punishments. This is principally because the illegal migrants are concentrated in labour-intensive industries shunned by local workers, paying very low wages. Consequently, illegal workers end up in certain low-paying segments of the labour market where they do not compete with local workers.[21]
  27. As stated earlier, Malaysia and Singapore are the largest employers of domestic workers in the region and have formulated specific policies to deal with this category of workers. Since there are no specific policies in place governing the recruitment and employment of unskilled workers (including domestic workers) in Thailand, this section focuses on Malaysia and Singapore only.

  28. Singapore faced labour shortages following its separation from Malaysia in 1965 and the state encouraged the entry of married women into the formal sector to augment the workforce. Concurrently, excess demand associated with rapid economic growth and the relatively cheaper cost of foreign migrant labour led to the growth of a large migrant workforce in the country. The recruitment of migrant workers also alleviated the upward pressure on wages.
  29. Initially, the matter of resident and commuting Malaysian workers to Singapore was resolved through the implementation of the Regulation of Employment Act 1965, whereby a one-year work permit scheme was introduced for unskilled Malaysian labour. Subsequently, an amendment was made to the Act in 1975, consistent with the state's development strategy and policy of reducing its reliance on unskilled labour. This amendment provided for the issuance of work permits for a period exceeding one year, and also included a provision for the imposition of a levy on foreign workers, although the latter was not implemented until 1980. The characteristic feature of this early labour migration flow pattern was that it involved Malaysians and was consistent with Singapore-Malaysian historical, geographical and (former) political ties. Following the 13 May 1969 race riots in Malaysia, there was another flow of Malaysians (particularly Chinese-Malaysians) to Singapore.
  30. By the 1970s the Singapore government was under pressure to widen its pool of migrant workers since Malaysia had also embraced an export-oriented industrialisation strategy and was experiencing labour shortages. Consequently, in 1978 the state permitted the recruitment of migrant workers from 'non-traditional' countries such as India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, all of which had previously been sources of labour supply during the colonial period. Another of Singapore's source countries at this time was Thailand. Labour flows from these countries thus reflected broad continuity with the past, albeit with some interruption.
  31. Turning to the demand for domestic workers, the labour force participation of married women in the formal sector grew from 29.3 per cent in 1980 to 40.3 per cent in 1989.[22] This resulted in an increased demand for domestic workers in families where both spouses worked. Foreign domestic workers had been employed in Singapore since 1965 when work permits became mandatory under the Regulation of Employment Act. These workers' status was regulated under the Employment Agency Act (which had been enacted in 1958 and was subsequently amended in 1984).[23] Subsequently, the state implemented a domestic workers' recruitment scheme in 1987 that coincided with a comprehensive migrant worker policy and levy scheme. This enabled Singapore to regulate both the size and composition of its migrant workforce following the recession of the mid-1980s.
  32. A vital amendment to the Immigration Act in 1988 empowered the state to have at its disposal three instruments to secure its borders and regulate the entry of migrant labour: the work permit system, the foreign levy scheme and internal enforcement measures. The work permit scheme, which categorised workers on the basis of their skills, race, and gender, allowed the state to manipulate labour supply in accordance with labour market demand. The foreign levy scheme enabled it to reduce its dependence on unskilled labour, consistent with its goal of becoming a predominantly high-tech country. The levy rates are higher for unskilled than for skilled workers, and employers who have more than 40 per cent migrants in their work force are subject to higher levies. The internal enforcement measures allowed the state to intensify controls throughout the state, rather than just at the frontiers. These instruments symbolised the state's 'stiff deterrent laws, effective immigration controls and stringent enforcement.'[24] More significantly, this policy introduced physical punishment (caning) and prison terms for illegal migrant workers. It also provided an amnesty for, and repatriation of, illegal migrants. The levy was also extended to Malaysian migrant workers.
  33. The enactment of the Employment of Foreign Workers Act 1990 later resulted in work permit holders being no longer governed by the provisions of the Employment Act 1965. This piece of legislation was designed to improve bureaucratic procedures for the legalisation and regulation of the foreign workforce through the comprehensive work permit system. The Act introduced quotas ('dependency ceilings') in the construction, marine, manufacturing and service sectors and was designed to allow for adjustments in labour market demand.[25] By 2000, according to Hui Weng Tat, foreign workers (inclusive of non-residents as well as permanent residents) accounted for 30 per cent of total employment in Singapore.[26]
  34. A large percentage of the migrant workforce in Singapore falls into the semi-skilled/unskilled category, and is employed on work permits in low-paying jobs such as domestic work and factory production. Of these, domestic workers experience the worst cases of exploitation due to the nature of their recruitment and employment. Following widespread criticism of the non-regulation of employment and placement agencies for domestic workers—which have gradually shifted most of the costs of recruitment, transportation, training and placement from employers to the domestic workers themselves—the state took steps to institute a process of accreditation of these agencies in 2002. In July 2002 the agencies formed the Association of Employment Agencies (ASEAS), which supervises agency practice. In May 2004 the Singapore government ruled that it would only renew licenses of accredited agencies.[27]
  35. Accordingly, Singapore's immigration policy and border control regime evolved in response to the country's changing labour needs. These policies have armed the state with various mechanisms, and shaped (and continue to shape) the bureaucratic administration managing migrant labour flows and controlling its borders. The state's Employment Acts, comprehensive levy scheme and imposition of quotas in various sectors have not only acknowledged the country's dependence on migrant workers, but have also resulted in gendered implications to border control and migration governance and the categorisation of workers into racialised hierarchies. This is evident in the diverse labour standards for different categories of workers discussed below.
  36. State policy relating to migrant workers in Singapore falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). The primary sources of legislation governing foreign worker employment in Singapore are the Employment of Foreign Workers Act 1990 and the Employment Agencies Act 2002 (amended 2004). The Foreign Workers Act regulates work permit holders and their employers. There are currently four main employment-related work permits or work visas: a P-pass, an 'employment pass' for professionals which is available to those earning $7000 a month; a Q-pass, an 'employment pass' for highly-skilled workers; an S-pass, an 'employment pass' for middle-level workers such as technicians; and an R-pass, a 'work permit' for semi-skilled and unskilled workers, including domestic workers. Under the multi-layered pass system, only those earning above S$2,500 are permitted to bring their families with them to Singapore.[28] Both workers and employers in the R-pass category are obliged to abide by a set of immigration and labour regulations. The regulations for this category of workers which relate to domestic workers are outlined below.
  37. Work permits are granted to semi-skilled/unskilled workers who fall below the maximum salary cap equal to S$2,500 per month. Workers are eligible for work permits for up to two years and these can be renewed up to a total of four years. Employers of workers in this category are also required to post a security bond of S$5,000. The bond is used to guarantee repatriation of workers upon expiry of the work permit. Failure to do so will result in forfeiture of the deposit.
  38. The Employment Agencies Act functions primarily to ensure that employment agencies do not charge job seekers more than 10 per cent of their first month's earnings. These agencies are also prohibited from charging employers more than the stipulated registration fee (S$5) and 80 per cent of the worker's first month's earnings. However, these stipulations do not extend to those employees recruited under the work permit regulations, who are primarily domestic workers. The state has argued that the charges levied by domestic worker agencies (who bring workers under a sponsorship system) are not agency fees but are private loans to cover recruitment, airfare and placement costs. In making this distinction, the Singapore government has perpetuated the discrimination faced by female migrant workers and continues to deny basic safeguards to women domestic workers.
  39. The country's main Labour Laws, namely the Employment Act and the Workmen's Compensation Act, apply to skilled and unskilled workers but exclude protections for domestic workers. Since 2004, the Employment Act has set the standard legal work week at 42 hours and provides for two rest days each week. The MOM also enforces laws and regulations establishing working conditions and comprehensive occupational safety and health laws. Given their status as non-formal workers, however, none of these apply to domestic workers. Most domestic workers thus work six days per week from early morning until late in the evening. Although many contracts allow one day off per month, Indonesian domestic workers appear to be the exception. Contracts often stipulate that, even when not working, a domestic worker is required to remain on the premises of the employer, unless on official duties or on her day off. Domestic workers are often not paid for the first few months as they have to work to reimburse their placement agents and employers. Domestic workers are also not eligible for the limited free legal assistance from the state.
  40. Along with lower pay, unskilled foreign workers (including domestic workers) also face additional restrictions in the form of limits to personal freedoms. Reunion of workers' dependants is prohibited, as is marriage to a Singapore national without the prior permission of the Singapore government. Workers also have to leave the country within seven days of permit expiry. Female domestic workers, who earn between S$200 and S$250 a month, are required to pay about S$600, or three months salary, to recruitment agents to get contracts. They must undergo mandatory pregnancy tests and are deported if they become pregnant. Skilled workers on employment passes, on the other hand, are granted access to subsidised health care, education and housing. They are also eligible to apply for citizenship after a period of two to ten years.
  41. Although the Singapore government prefers to leave issues such as labour standards to market forces, it has established a Foreign Manpower Management Division (FMMD) in the MOM to focus on the wellbeing of migrant workers. FMMD has approximately one hundred staff addressing labour policy, complaints, and management. It also provides free advisory and mediation services to foreign workers experiencing problems with employers and has allowed complainants to seek legal redress.
  42. Employers who abuse their domestic workers are liable to a fine. In 1998, the government amended the penal code to increase the penalty to employers for abusive crimes against domestic workers. The government also established a hotline for domestic workers. Moreover, foreign domestic workers who encounter employment problems (such as non-payment of salary) are advised to contact their embassies for help, or to lodge a complaint with MOM's Foreign Workers' Unit. Other measures include the provision of 'reliable intermediaries' that can be trustworthy sources for foreign workers.
  43. Amid widespread abuse of domestic workers (particularly Indonesian domestic workers) who are less well-educated and less competent in the English language compared to Filipino domestic workers, the Singaporean government has introduced new legislative measures to improve the working conditions of domestic workers. The Government's 'General Guide on the Employment of Foreign Domestic Workers' is a document that details employers' responsibilities towards their domestic workers. The guide stipulates wages, working hours and rest days, and also lays down the offences and associated penalties for abuse of domestic workers.[29] In 2005 the government also introduced legislation requiring new domestic workers to be 23 years old or above and to have had at least eight years of education.[30]
  44. Notwithstanding this, Human Rights Watch issued a report entitled Maid to Order: Ending Abuses Against Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore in December 2005, detailing the abuse and lack of rights of foreign domestic workers in Singapore. The report acknowledged the positive steps taken by the Singapore Government to provide security for domestic workers. These security protections included prosecutions of employers who beat their employees or did not pay them; the introduction of orientation programmes for new employers and employees; and an accreditation programme for employment agencies. Nevertheless, the domestic workers' exclusion from the Employment Act denotes their 'difference' from other workers, increasing their vulnerability and weakening their bargaining power.[31] In July 2006 the government introduced a new standard contract for domestic workers. However, while employers are required to provide three 'adequate' meals per day to their workers, the new contract 'recommends, but does not require that employers provide workers at least eight hours of continuous rest.' It also short-changes domestic workers because it does not 'guarantee a weekly day off for workers or cap excessive fees.'[32]

  45. The Malaysian state's immigration policy and labour recruitment strategies are shaped by its bilateral agreements with source countries, the political, social and cultural contexts of the migrants, and the lobbying power of various employer groups in Malaysia. Essentially, the state did not have any structures or mechanisms in place for the importation of unskilled migrant labour and permitted employers to recruit migrant workers informally through intermediaries from Indonesia and Thailand. Thus a regional migration system based on cultural and religious affinities developed with the tacit approval of the state. Following the 13 May 1969 race riots and the implementation of the New Economic Policy in 1970, the Malaysian state embarked on large-scale development projects that included land settlement schemes to reduce rural poverty among the Malays and an increase in its export-led trade liberalisation drive. Labour shortages in the country led to further foreign worker intakes and the increased visibility of migrant workers by the end of the 1970s prompted the Malaysian government to take measures to regulate migrant labour inflows. Since then, the state has alternated between tightening immigration controls and loosening them through bilateral agreements and amnesties.[33]
  46. Four distinct phases correspond with the state's regulation of migrant labour drives since the 1970s. During the first phase, 1970–80, the Malaysian government followed a liberal policy towards foreign worker recruitment. In the second phase, 1981–88, foreign labour recruitment was legalised, an official channel was created for labour recruitment, and bilateral agreements were signed with governments of source countries. In the third phase, 1989–96, a legalisation programme was commenced to halt illegal immigration. Growing public disquiet about the more pronounced visibility of Indonesian migrant workers prompted the state to implement this programme, which had its origins in the economic recession of 1985–86. Thus public sentiment and 'societal' borders led to a change of policy and in 1989 the further importation of foreign labour was frozen. Concurrently, the state implemented a programme to legalise/regularise the status of Indonesian migrants.
  47. The fourth phase, enacted since 1997, has been marked by three important developments. First, the financial and economic crisis of 1997–98 marked a turning point in state policy towards foreign labour recruitment and resulted in a refinement of policies on ILM. New measures were framed to control unauthorised migration and an amnesty programme was introduced that permitted illegal migrants to depart without penalty. Second, a work-permit system based solely on offshore recruitment was enforced, resulting in workers being categorised in a more rigid manner. Crucially, employment permits became both location- and employment-specific, and legislative and police action were strengthened to combat irregular migration. Third, the government enacted new legislation which officially formalised a diversified recruitment policy designed to reduce dependence on any one racial group.[34]
  48. The Immigration Department oversees, and the Immigration Acts of 1959 and 1963 provide the basis for immigration rules and procedures in Malaysia. The Department comes under the authority of the Ministry of Home Affairs. The inability of the Immigration Department to handle the influx of migrant labour in the 1980s and the absence of mechanisms to regulate this flow resulted in a slew of ad hoc measures, implemented in a disorganised manner, to deal with the issue. In 1981, the Malaysian Government passed legislation for the establishment of legal recruitment agencies for foreign contract labour. Various committees were formed to formulate policies relating to the recruitment of foreign labour by agencies on behalf of employers directly from source countries. The committees were also charged with stamping out irregular migrant inflows.
  49. Following illegal worker regularisation drives and amnesty periods between 1989 and 1992, a Cabinet Committee on Foreign Labour was set up in 1992 to examine the issue of migrant labour. Subsequently, a one-stop agency known as the Special Task Force on Foreign Labour was formed and all recruitment agencies (save those for domestic workers) were disbanded. Within a relatively short period, however, this task force was also disbanded and responsibility for foreign worker recruitment was handed back to the Immigration Department. Crucially, the Malaysian government also instituted a foreign worker levy system to reduce its dependence on less-skilled migrant workers. Like Singapore, therefore, the Malaysian state also had on hand three main mechanisms to secure its borders and regulate the entry of migrant labour: the work permit system, the foreign levy scheme and internal enforcement measures.[35]
  50. The Immigration Act was also amended in 1997. These developments coincided with the beginning of the Asian economic and financial crisis and there were massive deportations of illegal migrants. Nevertheless, in contrast to the situation in Singapore, the Ministry of Human Resources could only take action in concert with the Immigration Department. This led to a situation where conflicting policies and poor coordination between the Ministry of Human Resources and the Immigration Department resulted in processing delays and abuse of migrant workers, particularly domestic workers. Concurrently, legislative and police action to combat irregular migration was strengthened. New detention camps were established to hold unauthorised workers. Furthermore, amendments were made to the Immigration Act, particularly in 2002, that resulted in the imposition of harsh punishments for immigration violations. It thus became a criminal offence for foreign workers to work without a work permit or visa, and punitive measures, including caning of workers, were implemented. Documented domestic workers who had been abused or had run away from their employers were also regarded as illegal workers and detained in detention camps. Errant employers who employed more than five illegal workers were also subject to fines, imprisonment and caning.[36]
  51. In July 2005 the Malaysian Home Ministry, following lobbying by employers' groups, established a one-stop centre with the intention of reducing the processing period from a 'couple of weeks' to 'one day.' The former technical committee, which comprised officers from various ministries who met on a weekly basis to scrutinise applications for foreign workers, was disbanded. Under the new procedures, officials from the various ministries have been assigned to the one-stop centre to process the applications as they come in. In addition, from August 2005, levies for the workers, previously paid at the Immigration Department, are required to be paid at the Home Ministry, with approval letters issued within a day. The Immigration Department's premier role in the labour recruitment process has now been modified to that of granting visas only.[37]
  52. As stated above, Malaysia has had many difficulties coming to grips with its foreign labour recruitment policies. Notwithstanding this, the following procedures for a work permit system are in place for documented labour migration. Under this work permit system, foreign workers are recruited abroad and are issued with calling visas for entry into the country. Once in the country, the calling visas are converted into work permits, or visit passes for temporary employment. There are currently two main employment-related work permits or work visas: a work pass (Pas Penggajian) or an 'employment pass' for expatriates or professionals; and a 'work permit' or contract worker pass (Pas Lawatan Kerja Sementara) or Visit pass for the temporary (contract) employment of semi-skilled and unskilled workers, including domestic workers.
  53. The visit pass for temporary employment covers the manufacturing, construction, plantation, services and domestic worker sectors. Unskilled and semi-skilled workers receive one-year work permits, which are renewable up to five years (six years in total). There are age restrictions associated with these permits, and workers are prevented from bringing dependents into the country. Consequently, no resettlement of dependents is allowed. There are also restrictions on source countries for this category of migrant workers.
  54. Turning to the legislation affecting foreign workers, Malaysia ratified the Iinternational Labour Organisation Convention 1997 by which all foreigners employed in Malaysia are in-principle accorded the same rights as Malaysian workers. However, it was only in November 2005 that the Malaysian Human Resources Minister announced that foreign workers would be 'treated in accordance with the provisions of International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions.'[38] Migrant workers in Malaysia are therefore covered by the Employees Provident Fund Act 1951, Workmen's Compensation Act 1952, and the Employees Social Security Act 1969. Domestic workers, however, are not covered by these regulations.
  55. Domestic worker recruitment agencies in Malaysia are bound by the following conditions: they must provide a bank guarantee of RM100,000 and a security bond; they are required to be licensed with the Department of Manpower; and they must inform the Immigration Department if the domestic worker's employment is terminated. Employers also have to meet certain conditions, including: a joint average monthly income of RM4,000 per month; adherence to a standard employment contract; and the provision of a bank guarantee of RM1,000 to the Immigration Department. Only legally married couples with children are allowed to hire domestic workers. As in Singapore, domestic workers come under the jurisdiction of their employers, who not only retain the passports of their employees, but also determine their labour standards.[39]
  56. In 1987 the Malaysian and Philippines governments came to an agreement on a standard employment contract for Filipino domestic workers, after much-publicised reporting on the injustices suffered by these workers. This employment contract served as a legal document to protect Filipino domestic workers. Workers were hired under two-year contracts, were required to be paid a minimum monthly salary of RM540 (US$200 in 1987), had a working day of ten hours, and were to be given at least a continuous period of eight hours of sleep. They were also granted two rest days per month, a free return airfare, free medical services, and free board and lodging.[40] In contrast, Indonesian domestic workers earned between RM350 and RM400.[41]
  57. Domestic workers are usually paid lower wages than other migrant workers, and wages are often delayed. Few are allowed to have rest days, and their accommodation is sub-standard (some have to sleep on the floors of kitchens). They thus experience exploitative working conditions principally because they are not covered by employment regulations. Moreover, ethnic and class differences accentuate this situation. Given that they live in their employers' households, these workers are more vulnerable and often subjected to sexual harassment by men in employers' households, as documented in several studies conducted in Singapore, Malaysia and other countries.[42]
  58. Indonesian domestic workers are excluded from most labour protections stipulated under Malaysia's employment laws and recent bilateral labour arrangements with Indonesia. They are not entitled to any rest days nor is there a limit to their working days. Most of them work 16–18 hours per day. Following widespread publicity on the abuse of domestic workers, the Malaysian government blacklisted employers who mistreated their domestic workers. In 2000, the Malaysian authorities introduced measures that have enabled abused domestic workers to be routinely taken for hospital treatment by non-government organisations (NGOs) such as the Women's Aid Organisation, which operates shelters. The Immigration Department also set up a hotline for abused domestic workers. These workers also have recourse to the Women's Aid Organisation and Tenaganita, another Malaysian NGO. The Women's Aid Organisation is also lobbying the government to establish guidelines for employers of domestic workers in line with similar guidelines recommended by the state in Singapore.[43] In April 2003 the government also instituted a lifetime ban on employers who physically abused their domestic workers.[44]
  59. The Malaysian and Indonesian governments' want of duty of care to domestic workers was taken up by Human Rights Watch and resulted in the publication of a Report entitled Help Wanted: Abuses Against Female Migrant Domestic Workers in Indonesia and Malaysia[45] in 2004. This Report was extremely critical of both the Indonesian and Malaysian governments for not providing protections for Indonesian domestic workers. Following the publication of the report, the Malaysian Government initiated a number of policy measures to provide certain safeguards for domestic workers in 2005. These include stipulating an increase in their wages, new rules for payment to domestic workers from the first month of their service (rather than the withholding of their salaries for the first six months which enabled domestic worker placement agencies to recover the agency fees), and rules allowing domestic workers to change employers, which had not previously been allowed. The age limit for employment of domestic workers has also been raised to 25 years.[46]
  60. In May 2006, Malaysia and Indonesia signed an MOU setting out a standard contract for Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia. New domestic worker recruits are to receive RM400 (US$105) to RM500 (US$135) a month, with at least one day off a week. However, the Indonesian NGO Komnas Perempuan (National Commission on Violence Against Women), has argued that since the Malaysian signatory was the Home Minister rather the Manpower Minister, the issue of abuse of Indonesian domestic workers is regarded as a domestic affairs issue rather than as a labour issue in Malaysia. To quote Komnas, the MOU 'regulates how workers should be transported from Indonesia and how they should work,' but there is no mention in the agreement about protection for these workers. According to Tenaganita (Malaysian NGO), the standard working contract is a type of 'bonded agreement' that ensures that domestic workers will be forced to continue working even if they are abused by their employers. Komnas has stated that it will take the case of the Indonesian workers to an international human rights forum.[47]

    Regulation by Labour-Exporting Countries
  61. Although my discussion in this article so far has focused on the labour-importing countries, I would now like to turn briefly to the measures taken by labour exporting countries to provide security for their domestic workers. Within this context, three main measures may be identified: MOU agreements, the establishment of labour officers and consular services, and restrictions on worker movements either through pre-employment training or outright bans on travel. The Philippine and Indonesian governments have established overseas Labour offices in destination countries to supervise the welfare of their workers. Migrant workers also rely on their embassies and consular offices in destination countries to intervene in cases of flagrant labour abuse. Placing bans and restrictions on the movement of women, however, has generally been counterproductive. Movement bans have resulted in migration being driven underground; for migrant women, the risk of being undocumented has made them even more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Restrictions on movement have also tended to lead to corruption in both Indonesia and the Philippines. The training provided for women migrants is often routine and ineffective. This training is usually undertaken by recruiting companies in the major cities and not all female migrant domestic workers receive training in all areas relevant to their work.[48]
  62. Table 2 below lists measures taken by labour sending countries to provide security for their nationals.

    Recruitment and Replacement
    Emigration clearance to leave the country
    Ban/restriction on direct hiring
    Minimum standards fro work contracts
    Licensing/regulation of private recruiters
    Operation of recruitment agency by state
    Security bond requirement
    Ban/limit on recruitment fee charged to worker
    Contribution to welfare fund
    Restriction on Passport issue
    Regulation of job advertising
    Trade test requirement
    Compulsory use National Employment Service
    Restriction on selected occupations
    No onjection certificate requirement
    Compulsory service in the country before departure
    Ban on female domestic workers
    Specification of transport carrier
    Periodic inspection recruitment establishment
    Pre-departure briefing
    Restriction on country of employment
    Renewal of contract clearance

    * A=Bangladesh, B=India, C=Pakistan, D=Sri Lanka, E= Indonesia, F=Republic of Korea, G=Malaysia, H=Philippines, I=Thailand

    Table 2. Special Measures Undertaken by Asian Governments to Regulate the Labour Migration of their Nationals

    Source M. Abella, 'Overseas employment administration: a review of policies and procedures,' in R. Owen, Migrant Workers in the Gulf, Report No. 68, London: Minority Rights Group, 1985, cited in Malsiri Dias, 'Overview of mechanisms of migration,' in The Trade in Domestic Workers. Causes, Mechanisms and Consequences of International Migration, ed. Noeleen Heyzer, Geertje Lycklama a Nijeholt & Nedra Weerakoon, Kuala Lumpur: APDC, 1994, p. 137.
    As shown above, the level of intervention varies across the range of labour-exporting countries and mirrors each state's concern for its nationals working abroad. Only one country in Southeast Asia, the Philippines, has ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.[49]

  63. It thus appears that governments of both source and destination countries are responding to calls for reforms in labour recruitment and governance of migration. Indeed, civil society activism by national and international NGOs and other international organisations is currently providing a constraint on harsh and restrictive policies by states in the regulation of population movements across borders and discrimination against certain groups of workers, particularly domestic workers. This has arisen largely because human rights have become entwined with migration issues. Most of the national NGOs and civil society groups, however, have a continuing reliance on international NGOs not only for assistance on norms and organisational resources, but also for financial assistance. The establishment of the Global Commission on International Migration in 2003, with its focus on the well-being of millions of migrant workers and their families, is a step in the right direction and there is some optimism that things may change.

    Some Concluding Remarks
  64. International Labour Migration, which expanded rapidly in Southeast Asia since the 1980s, has become a major regional and global issue. New regional migration patterns have emerged and Southeast Asian labour-importing countries have enforced amended immigration policies in response to migration challenges that are symptomatic of the increased governance of labour migration and the utilisation of new surveillance techniques both at and across borders. The three major destination countries of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand continue to open sectors selectively to foreign workers and have revised their immigration policies largely in response to the demands of business and politicians rather than adopting a rights-based approach to the issue. The management of foreign workers is also premised on the basis of a guest-worker rotation policy that denies settlement to migrant labour. Overall, progress in providing mechanisms that uphold migrant workers' rights has been slow, and in the case of women domestic workers, has largely been left to market forces. At the same time, a desire to keep labour costs down and the slowness of some sectors to restructure presents a continuing dilemma to labour-importing Southeast Asian countries.


    [1] 'The ASEAN Free Trade Area and other Areas of ASEAN Economic Cooperation,' in US-Asean Business Council, 2003, online:, site accessed 1 September 2005.

    [2] 'ASEAN Framework Agreement on Services,' in ASEAN Association of Southeast Asian Nations 15 December 1995, online:, site accessed 1 September 2005.

    [3] Amarjit Kaur, Wage labour in Southeast Asia since 1840: Globalisation, the International Division of Labour and Labour Transformations, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, Chapter 9.

    [4] Kaur, 'Order (and disorder) at the border: mobility, international labour migration and border controls in Southeast Asia,' in Mobility, Labour Migration and Border Controls in Asia, ed. Kaur & Ian Metcalfe, Basingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2006, Chapter 3.

    [5] Kaur, 'Order (and disorder) at the border,' p. 28.

    [6] Kaur, 'The Global factory: cross-border production networks and women workers in Asia,' in Women Workers in Industrialising Asia: Costed, Not Valued, ed. Kaur, Basingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2004, pp. 99–128.

    [7] Geertje Lycklama a Nijeholt, 'The changing international division of labour and domestic workers: a macro overview (regional),' in The Trade in Domestic Workers: Causes, Mechanisms and Consequences of International Migration, ed. Noeleen Heyzer, Nijeholt & Nedra Weerakoon, Kuala Lumpur: Asian & Pacific Development Centre and Zed Books, 1994, pp. 3–29.

    [8] Kenneth Gow, Superior Servants, Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1991, Chapter 9. The numbers of 'black and white amahs,' so-called due to their distinctive attire, dwindled with the passing of new immigration regulation by the national states after independence.

    [9] Much of this information is derived from my earlier work on wage labour in Southeast Asia, and my personal experiences as a Malaysian-born academic living and working in the region.

    [10] Rita Raj-Hashim, 'A review of migration and labour policies in Asia,' in The Trade in Domestic Workers, pp. 119–33.

    [11] Graeme Hugo, 'Women's international labour migration,' in Women in Indonesia, ed. Kathryn Robinson & Sharon Bessell, Singapore: ISEAS, 2002, pp. 158–78, pp. 160–61.

    [12] 'Maids in short supply,' the Star (Malaysia), 7 May 2005.

    [13] Human Rights Watch, Help Wanted: Abuses against Migrant Female Domestic Workers in Indonesia and Malaysia 16 (19) (C) (July 2004):1–99, p. 9, online:, site accessed 24 July 2004; Human Rights Watch, 'Indonesia/Malaysia: household workers' rights trampled,' 22 July 2004, online:, site accessed 24 July 2004.

    [14] Human Rights Watch, 'Maid to order: ending abuses against migrant domestic workers in Singapore,' 17 (10) (C) (December 2005), online", site accessed 10 December 2004.

    [15] See J. Salt, 'The future of international labour migration,' in International Migration Review 26 (4) (1992): 1077–111.

    [16] See Graziano Battistella & Maruja M.B. Asis, 'Southeast Asia and the specter of unauthorized migration,' in Battistella & Asis, Unauthorized Migration in Southeast Asia, Manila: Scalabrini Migration Center, 2003, pp. 1–10.

    [17] Kaur, Wage Labour in Southeast Asia, p. 214; Human Rights Watch, 'Help wanted,' p. 9.

    [18] Kaur, Wage Labour in Southeast Asia, p. 227.

    [19].Patcharawalai Wongboonsin, 'The state and labour migration policies in Thailand,' in Mobility, Labour Migration and Border Controls in Asia, ed. Kaur & Metcalfe, Basingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2006, Chapter 13.

    [20] Kaur, 'Order (and disorder),' p. 47; Memorandum Saling Pengertian Mengenai Penempatan Tenaga Kerja Indonesia Antara Pemerintah Republik Indonesia dan Pemerintah Malaysia (Memorandum of Understanding Between the Government of the Republic of Indonesia and the Government of Malaysia on the Recruitment and Placement of Indonesian Migrant Workers), Government of Indonesia, Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration, 2004. Typescript provided by Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration, 25 April 2005.

    [21] See Battistella and Asis, Unauthorized Migration in Southeast Asia, pp. 1–10; Azizah Kassim, 'Alien workers in Malaysia: critical issues, problems and constraints,' in Movement of People Within and from the East and Southeast Asian Countries: Trend, Causes and Consequences, ed. Carunia Mulya Firdausy, Jakarta: Indonesian Institute of Sciences, 1996, pp. 3–38.

    [22] Hui Weng Tat, 'Foreign workers in Singapore: role of government, management and unions in cooperation,' unpublished paper, cited in Diana Wong, 'Foreign domestic workers in Singapore,' in Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 5 (1) (1996):117–38, p. 122.

    [23] Wong, 'Foreign domestic workers in Singapore,' pp. 117–38.

    [24] Chew Soon-Beng & Rosalind Chew, 'Immigration and foreign labour in Singapore,' in ASEAN Economic Bulletin 12 (2) (November 1995):191–200, p. 197; Pang Eng Fong, 'An eclectic approach to turning points in migration,' in Asian and Pacific Migration Review 3 (1) (1994):81–92.

    [25] For further details see the Government of Singapore and Ministry of Manpower website, online:, site accessed July 2005.

    [26] Hui Weng Tat, 'Foreign labour policy in Singapore,' in Singapore Economy in the 21st Century—Issues and Strategies, ed. Koh Ai Tee, Lim Kim Lian, Hui Weng Tat, Bhanoji Rao & Chng Meng Kng, Singapore: McGraw Hill 2002, pp. 29–50.

    [27] Dewi Anggraeni, Dreamseekers. Indonesian Women as Domestic Workers in Asia, Jakarta: Equinox and ILO Publishing, 2006, p. 107.

    [28] Government of Singapore and Ministry of Manpower website, online:, site accessed July 2005.

    [29] 'Procedures and guidelines, general guide on employment of foreign domestic workers,' in Government of Singapore and Ministry of Manpower website, online:, site accessed 3 March 2006.

    [30] Government of the Republic of the Philippines, 'Host countries of Pinoys issue new labor regulations,' Official website of the Republic of the Philippines, 27 March 2005, online:, accessed 30 March 2005.

    [31] Transient workers count too (TWC2), Debt, Delays, Deductions: Wage Issues Faced by Foreign Domestic Workers in Singapore, Singapore: TWC2, 2006, typescript 32 pages.

    [32] Human Rights Watch, 'Singapore: new contract short-changes domestic workers,' 20 July 2006, Email subscriber list:

    [33] Diana Wong, 'The recruitment of foreign labour in Malaysia: from migration system to guest worker regime,' in Mobility, Labour Migration and Border Controls in Asia, Chapter 11; Kaur, 'Order (and disorder),' Chapter 3.

    [34] Kaur, 'Indonesian migrant labour in Malaysia: from preferred migrants to "last to be hired" workers,' in Migrant Labour in Southeast Asia Special Issue: Needed: Not Wanted, ed. Kaur & Metcalfe RIMA 39 (2) (2005):3–30.

    [35] Azizah Kassim, 'Security and social implications of cross-national migration in Malaysia,' in Pacifying the Pacific: Confronting the Challenges, ed. Mohamed Jawhar Hassan, Kuala Lumpur: ISIS Malaysia, 2005, pp. 259–88; Government of Malaysia, Ministry of Finance Economic Report 2004/5, Foreign Workers and the Malaysian Economy, Government of Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur, 2005.

    [36] Kaur, 'Order (and disorder),' p. 48; Ambiga Sreenevasan, 'Obligations of labour contractors and agents,' paper presented at the Lawasia Labour Law Conference – Labour Migration: International and National Progress, Kuala Lumpur, August 2006 [typescript].

    [37] 'Move to speed up return of Indons,' New Straits Times, 17 February 2005; 'Long wait for workers,' Sunday Star, 6 March 2005.

    [38] Migration News, 13 (7) (April 2006), online:, site accessed 20 June 2006.

    [39] Kaur, Wage Labour in Southeast Asia, Chapter 9.

    [40] Raj-Hashim, 'A review of migration and labour policies in Asia,' p. 126.

    [41] Kaur, Wage Labour in Southeast Asia, pp. 225–26.

    [42] Kaur, Wage Labour in Southeast Asia, p. 222.

    [43] 'Malaysia's secret vice,' Asiaweek, 16 June 2000; Interview with Irene Fernandez, Tenaganita (NGO) Kuala Lumpur, August 2005.

    [44] Migration News 10 (2) (April 2003), online:, site accessed 20 June 2006.

    [45] Human Rights Watch, Help Wanted: Abuses against Migrant Female Domestic Workers in Indonesia and Malaysia 16 (9) (B) (July 2004).

    [46] 'Maids in short supply,' the Star, 7 March 2005; 'Desperately seeking Indonesian maids,' the Star, 7 July 2005.

    [47] 'Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the Republic of Indonesia and the Government of Malaysia on the Recruitment and Placement of Indonesian Domestic Workers' (electronic copy of a typescript—provided by Wahyu Susilo, Migrant Care and INFID, Indonesia on 19 June 2006); 'New deal for maids,' the Star, 27 May 2006; 'For the maids' sake,' the Star, 27 May 2006; Human Rights Watch, Swept under the Rug. Abuses Against Domestic Workers Around the World, 18 (7) (C) (July 2006), Malaysia and Singapore, pp. 50, 76-80, online:, site accessed 30 July 2006.

    [48] Interview with Migrant Care (NGO), Jakarta, April 2005.

    [49] Nicola Piper, 'Regional perspectives on the 1990 un convention on the rights of all migrant workers,' in Mobility, Labour Migration and Border Controls in Asia, ed. Kaur & Metcalfe, Chapter 15.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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