“Owned them like a Father": Labor Contractors, Port Workers, and the Makings of Ethnicity in Singapore

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Laura Yan


Despite the importance of ports to the Indian Ocean world, labor contracting systems in ports remain understudied. By focusing on ethnic divisions of labor among port workers in colonial Singapore from the 1930s to the 1950s, this article shows how labor contractors constructed these divisions and how social organization in modern Singapore is rooted in labor contracting at the port. Past scholarship has explained merchants’ propensity to form partnerships within the same kin or ethnic circles with the notion of trust: that those of the same kin or ethnicity could be trusted more easily. However, this article argues that labor contractors often recruited migrant workers from the contractors’ home villages and regions because shared kinship and ethnicity allowed contractors to better control workers’ laboring, social, and cultural life. Performances of shared kinship and ethnicity gave contractors power as both employers and community leaders. After World War II, port workers also solidified ethnic divisions by organizing into unions along the lines of ethnicity, and they secured benefits as ethnic blocs, rather than for all port workers. This post-war moment of organizing labor by ethnicity has shaped labor activism in Singapore today as migrant workers continue to strike in ethnic blocs to protest disparities in working conditions between workers of different ethnicities.

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Special Feature: Port Cities in the Indian Ocean World (Articles)