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Work Men on the Move

A web-exhibition by Srikhoon Jiangkratok and Simon A. Peth

There are 257.7 million international migrants around the world and the vast majority of them are labour migrants. Behind this number there are millions of untold stories and this is one of them. This is the story of Thai migrant workers leaving their villages to work in Singapore. They work as construction workers on one of the countless construction sites or in the shipyards to keep the world trade running.

This exhibition was developed in the frame of the PhD research by Simon A. Peth (University of Bonn) focusing on transnational labour migration in South East Asia.  For his research Simon started moving himself by following different migration trajectories from rural Thailand to the  destination places such as the city state Singapore.

In the 1990s Singapore was one of the top destinations of overseas migration from Thailand and I wanted to learn more about it.

During his journey Simon met many different people such as migrant workers, their families,  business owner, ambassadors or smugglers. Most impressive was it for Simon to talk to the migrant workers who spent their precious and scarce free time with him. During the 8 months of interviewing all these different people Simon heard stories about hard working conditions, work injuries, even torture, and homesickness, but also of joy, love and pride.

One of the men Simon met was Srikhoon a former migrant worker who had returned to his village in Northeast Thailand. 

I met Srikhoon in front of his house. When I told him that I wanted to learn more about Thai migrant workers he walked into his house and came back with a box filled with photo albums. He opened one and started talking about his time in Singapore. At this moment I knew that something more should happen with these photos as they give a unique and unseen insight into the harsh but also joyful moments of the migrant workers.

The idea for this exhibition was born. Scroll through this exhibition take a careful look at the photos not to miss the interesting details hiding in some of the pictures. This exhibition gives you a unique insight of what it means to be a migrant worker.

HINT: it is best to watch this web-exhibition on a desktop computer

Srikhoon Jiangkratok

Former Migrant Worker & Photographer

Srikhoon was born in a small village in Burriram province. After he got married he left his village for the first time to work as construction worker in Bangkok. Srikhoon stayed for over 8 years and became a foreman. In 1994 his company send him to Singapore where they were building the famous Ritz Carlton Hotel and he stayed there for 3 years supervising a group of 15 workers mainliy involved in concrete casting.   

But Srikhoon did not go alone. He brought his new photo camera with him and documented his stay in Singapore. At the end he had an archive of over 900 photos which give a unique insight into the migrant workers life between hard work and drinking nights, which should make forget the long separation from the family and homesickness.

I took these photos because I wanted to show what it means to work abroad. It is tough.

- S. Jiangkratok

In the Village

The dream of success
Like many young men Srikhoon always dreamed of having his own motorbike. Especially young men leave the villages in rural Thailand with the dream of returning with a lot of money. 

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

The son follows the father
In many cases sons have seen their fathers working abroad and migration decisions are often socially reproduced.   

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Those who have money are like the king in the village

– S. Jiangkratok

Left behind
But migration always has a price. Migration is not only about people who are going somewhere it is also about people who are not there anymore. This photo shows a daughter waiting for her father to visit the family once a year. The TV he brought last time is a constant reminder of his absence.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

The Journey


The journey

This map shows the routes Thai migrants to Singapore. While in the past the over-land rout via Hat Yai and Malaysia was cheap and popular today most workers take the airplane.  The map shows that most workers (65%) originate from Northeast Thailand. The red dots in Singapore show the location of the dormitories for foreign workers and it illustrates that they live at the edge of the city.

Skyline of Singapore 1994
Coming from the countryside most migrant workers were impressed by Singapore’s skyline.  

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

17 years later
The skyline of Singapore changed significantly. This was only possible with the help of millions of migrant workers from around the world.

Photo: W. Zhang, under CC BY 2.0

Arrival at Changi Airport (SIN)
While in 1990s most Thai migrants travelled overland foreman and skilled workers could take the airplane. Today with the rise of low-cost airlines every worker takes the airplane.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Arrival in the container camp
In the past foreign workers in Singapore slept in over-crowded container camps.
About 25 men shared one container.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Question: where could you stay and sleep in Singapore?

Well, how to call it?… It is a box.

- Migrant worker from Udonthani


The dormitories

In Singapore migrant workers cannot decide where they live. The employer put them into dormitories with almost no privacy.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Single bedroom
Only foremen have the privilege of privacy. Srikhoon often invited his new crew members for dinner to his cabin. 

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

The Work

Tough work at lofty heights
Foreign workers often do the dangerous, difficult, and dirty work the so called triple-D-jobs.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Preparing the concrete casting
Migrants are usually organized in groups and specialize in specific work steps.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Working gangs  
The helmet color indicates not only the hierarchy, but also the membership to a working gang.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Supervision
Srikhoon the foreman monitors his gang raising the first levels of the 5 star hotel Ritz Carlton.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Taking a break  
A group of Thai migrant workers takes a break from the exhausting work under the sun.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

The rebar crew 

An Indian crew is preparing reinforced bars (rebar) for a loadbearing wall. For better communication the groups often consist of one nationality. 

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Exhausted from work
Migration is only worthwhile through overtime (OT). Thus foreign workers usually work 12 to 14 hours a day.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Concrete formwork  
Thai workers prepare cast walls. For some of the workers this is an ever-repeating work for years. 

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Concrete casting  
Workers fill the formwork with concrete. Due to the climate this work needs to be done quickly and precise.  

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Concrete vibrator
The foreman showing a concrete vibrator to get air pockets out of the concrete walls.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

The floor is ready 

A worker standing on the concrete formwork after it has been lifted off. In the background the skyline of Singapore.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok


Provisional canteen 
Only on lager construction sites of the big companies workers get basic facilities like this canteen.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

People who go to Singapore have been trained like soldiers, if it is not the time you don’t get to eat (…) if it is not the time to sleep you don´t sleep

- migrant worker from Udonthani

Welding  
Besides basic skills such as concrete work also specialized skills are done by Thai workers such as welding.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Worker on scaffolding  
Accidents at work are inevitable on the sometimes chaotic construction sites

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

A Translocal Community

Work injuries

… often mean the end of labour migration, as employers are hardly willing to pay for workers unable to work.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Narrow camp life
The community is important as the fellow workers are not only colleagues but also a replacement for the family. In the background of this sleeping container you can see the photograph of the Thai princess.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

After work
After work the workers often cook together and spend time talking.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

The segregated community
In most camps, workers are separated by nationality to avoid conflicts. It is also part of Singapore's immigration policy to avoid the mingling of the migrant workers with the citizens. 

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Payday   
A day to celebrate. Once a month the workers get paid. Time to eat Thai food and to drink. In the background a worker exhausted from work.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Work men karaoke  
A group of workers singing local country songs such as Molam from Northeast Thailand.   

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Excursion to the city
Seldomly migrant workers spend their scarce free time in the city. But if they do, they'll do it dressed up.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Reading news from home 
A worker reading a Thai news paper. In the past it was difficultto get news from home as sending letters needed time. At least Thai news paper was available. Nowadays the internet changed everything.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Eating in the Park

Then as now: Thai workers meet at Kallang Riverside Park to eat and drink together.  

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Living In-between

Calling home

Phone calls in the past were expensive and precious. There were often long ques at the public phone booths and it was never sure if someone would pick up the phone in the public booth back in the village.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Merlion symbol of Singapore
Srikhoon next to the old Merlion. In the background the Ritz Carlton he was building with his fellow workers.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Singapore's glittering world
Life in Singapore is often in strong contrast to life in rural Thailand.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Absent life
At home, children were born and people died. But only rarely the workers could visit home. If they have a good work contract they can go home once a year.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Together alone

Many workers told of their homesickness and how important it was to have other Thai workers as friends.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Returning home successfully   
Srikhoon posing in front of the company car in Singapore. The dream of economic success is for many the driver for migration. But the emotional price is high.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Thoughtful workers
Many relationships struggle as the migrant workers often stay abroad for many years.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Pin-up Girl
A pin-up girl found in one of the migrant workers' dormitories.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Caught in the system
Labour migration bears many risks such as scams. Some migrants work for years to pay back the migration costs. 

Photo: S. Jiangkratok

Self-portrait I

This photo portraits Srikhoon as a successful foreman on the top of Singapore.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok


Self-portrait II

This portrait expresses the tiredness and vulnerability of the migrant workers.

Photo: S. Jiangkratok


I stayed in Singapore for almost 22 years but Thailand is still my home. Singapore is a place to earn money, but here in Thailand I am happy, I get what I want to eat , go where I want to go .

- return migrant from Burriram.

The End