This was the slogan that Robbie McEwen used to advertise last year’s Tour de France on Australian television. His point was, instead of a passionate devotion to football players of all codes, Australians should realise that professional cyclists, though small and puny in their upper bodies, are far superior athletes than any AFL or Rugby player, and spend some time watching the Tour de France.
Certainly the year that they wore heart-rate monitors, the cyclists turned in some amazing results. Drug-assisted or not, they were reporting heart-rates of 120 – 150 b.p.m. consistently for four or five hours.
I seem to remember that Robbie went on to crash into a fence-post on a mountain-descent stage, breaking a number of ribs, sternum, and collar-bone, and puncturing a lung. That’s pretty tough alright!
A migrant worker takes a shower in his quarters.
However this post is not about professional cyclists. It is about an even tougher breed of tough-guy called the Singaporean migrant labourer. In fact all foreign-labour-force indentured labour anywhere on the planet. But especially here in Asia and in the Middle East.
Just for some perspective: Two hours on my bike in this climate and I have consumed a litre of water and am starting to show signs of heat-exhaustion (cramping, nausea, headaches…) I find it hard to imagine how I might spend eight hours a day outside doing construction work with only a bottle of cordial to sustain me.
Almost all of the labourers here are imported from Indonesia or India. The employer holds their work-permits, and if things don’t work out, or the boss doesn’t like them for some reason then they get sent home. Most families seem to have a Filipina maid that does the housework under a similar arrangement. Mostly these workers can’t speak Mandarin or English. Usually just sufficient to understand the orders. So, for example, they can’t speak to the end-customer.
Construction usually proceeds around-the-clock in Singapore. They install halogen lamps on the site and work through the night as well. If, for some reason work cannot proceed on the site, then the labourers just find a bit of shade under a tree and go straight to sleep. They must be permanently knackered. There are reports (and pictures) of unsafe practices and squalid conditions. I have observed similar arrangements in the Middle East.
Not that anyone is complaining. The workers are grateful for the opportunity to make money and send it home to their families. They keep their heads down and get on with it. Real tough guys.
I would have to say that cheap labour is one of the key components of the economic miracles occurring in these countries. A Western democracy could not show the amazing growth figures of a Singapore, a China, or a Dubai since labour is so expensive there.
Or is it? I have had a couple of reports recently from people in London to say that all of the service staff there these days seem to come from Estonia, Latvia. Lithuania or other Eastern members of the E.U. One friend could not find anyone in his hotel that spoke English. He said that they just say ‘Yes’ randomly when they think that you have asked them a question. Britain finally got a minimum wage in 1999. Tony Blair brought it in as a part of the requirements of the European Union Commission on Human Rights. And of course the US has their Mexican workers.
The antipodean countries of Australia and New Zealand are known as some of the most fiercely egalitarian cultures in the world. The belief that ‘Jack is as good as his master’ is a matter of fierce pride in these countries.
NZ has taken a bit of a battering in this regard since the Employment Contracts Act in 1991, and since the Chinese take-over of Hong Kong caused a surge of migration into New Zealand in the late ‘90s. There has been a subtle long-run ‘down-pricing’ of labour over the years. But at the heart of the ECA is the requirement for “good faith bargaining” so any unfair or predatory award-circumventing practices are hammered pretty hard by the Employment Court.
Australia is by far the most admirable bastion of egalitarianism. Politicians of all persuasions often say that their bedrock value is “A fair go for all.” This can lead to some odd circumstances where politicians try to be tough on illegal immigration, but soft on boat-people, for example. There is a large percentage of the electorate that believe that a ‘fair go for all’ should extend to any refugee who happens to wash up on Australian shores.
In Australia there was never a Thatcherite breaking of the unions. Labour and construction are still heavily unionised and there is an award and practices for almost everything. For this reason service jobs are still done by Australians in Australia, and they are paid award wages for their efforts.
But Australia pays for its principles with low rates of growth in GDP (0% projected for 2009) and can only afford to live by its principles because of huge resources of mineral wealth. The nations around it are surging ahead on the back of cheap labour (among other things, low corporate taxation rates and strong foreign direct investment also help).
In the 21st century, egalitarianism might prove to be a very expensive principle to hold dear. And that scares me a bit. This approach to migrant labour is almost slavery. It certainly creates a layer of second-class non-citizen in society, and fits quite naturally into the high-power-distance cultures of developing nations around the globe. It worked for Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome, but haven’t we moved on since then?