Enduring Forms of Indenture Chinese Domestic Workers and the use of Penal Sanctions in Colonial Singapore, 1920s-1930s | Amsterdam University Press Journals Online


This paper aims to shed new light on the history of the abolition of Chinese indenture by analysing the relationship between domestic service and penal sanctions in Singapore. In response to international pressure, legislative reforms designed to abolish Chinese indenture were introduced in Singapore from 1914. The reforms brought an end to long contracts and criminal convictions for breach of contract. In the period after the First World War, the global campaign against indenture stepped up pace, spearheaded by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Seeking to assess whether indenture had indeed been abolished in British Malaya, the ILO commissioned a report in 1927. In their assessment of Singapore, the ILO concluded that “labour is free” except in the case of domestic servants who could be fined or imprisoned for leaving their place of employment without giving notice, or, for being wilfully negligent or disobedient in their duties. This paper explores why it was that Chinese domestic servants in Singapore were treated as a special category of labour for whom the provisions of indenture remained necessary. I argue that one factor in the continued use of penal sanctions was the perceived need to discipline a group of workers who were renowned for their collective bargaining and individual acts of rebellion.


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