BlogMobilities & Digitisation

“I call several times per day”. How new communication tools shape the connectedness of people on the move.

Simon A. Peth

Geographer, University of Innsbruck

9. March

2020

DOI: https://www.doi.org/10.34834/2019.0010

Key Words:

Migration
Smartphones
Communication

During the 1990s and early 2000s, Singapore was one of the major destinations for Thai migrant workers. Young men and fathers left their families at home in order to send money back for daily expenses and educational costs of children. In the early 1990s, this often had far reaching consequences for the cohesion of the family. Family members were gone for many years in most cases. Today, more than 20 years later, this situation has changed.

The emergence of mobile phones, in general, and smart phones, in particular, has changed whole migration systems. When I met Srikhoon, a retired migrant worker who worked for many years as foreman for a transnational construction company in Singapore, he explained what it meant to leave a family behind: “We had to send letters and it took several weeks till the letters arrived and again the response needed time“. It was difficult to stay in touch with the family at that time. “What else could we do?” This has been a common question for many migrant workers I have talked to. Most of the people who decided to migrate back in the 90s as well as today, feel and felt the obligation to take care of the family by earning and sending money from abroad. At the same time, it meant leaving their family behind. To afford travel costs, agent fees, and work permits, many young men mortgaged their land or relatives’ plots, increasing their obligation towards relatives and families. Not only migrant workers, but also their wives back home, had to deal with this challenge.

A phone booth in Singapore in 1994. In the past migrant workers in Singapore had to call their relatives over landline phones (Photo: Srikhoon Jiangkratok)

When you go you lose your rice field, when you come back you lose your wife

It was during this time that a famous country song from Northeast Thailand expressed what many migrant workers thought and felt: When you go you lose your rice field, when you come back you lose your wife.

Today, it is still a difficult decision to leave your family back home. The costs for migration are still high and the regulations to obtain a skill certificate and work permit in Singapore are even more complicated. Nevertheless, some things have changed. After a period of time, letters were not the only means of communication, there were also phone services and phone booths that enabled migrant workers in Singapore to reach their families in the village. “I was lucky my house was right next to the phone booth in the village so it was easy for my wife to come to the phone and talk to me,” explained Shajagon, who spend eight years abroad. For others, it was a bit more complicated. They had to hope that someone would pick up the phone and then was willing to go to their house to find their wife, if she was not busy on the fields. These waiting periods were expensive and the time talking to loved ones was precious.

Nowadays, this situation has changed tremendously. In Thailand, most phone booths are out of service and there are now more registered mobile phones than inhabitants. Almost all migrant workers in Singapore have a mobile phone. Welcome to the 21st century. Today, workers in Singapore are almost constantly connected with their villages, relatives, and families. “I call several times per day to my village and I know everything that is going on and also my wife knows everything about my life here in Singapore.” Ponchai, a young foreman, shows me his tablet. On it he has installed the communication apps Line and Facebook. It is much better like this, stated most migrant workers. There is now the possibility to call via video and to share pictures.

It´s very good to have this new technology,” confirms a group of migrant workers from Udon Thani, sitting at the Golden Mile Complex, which is an old shopping mall and the meeting place of Thai workers in Singapore. “We feel more close to our families but sometimes it is also difficult because you feel close but still you cannot be there. If we could choose and earn enough money at home, no one would be here in Singapore“, said one.
Another example of how the emergence of new information and communications technologies (ICTs) has changed the connectedness of people at different places is demonstrated through Arthit, a worker in a shipyard in Singapore for the last 20 years. He is a member of the village committee in Udon Thani, despite the distance. Without his mobile phone, this role wouldn´t be possible. The villagers can call him when there is any issue and, in urgent cases, Arthit can take the plane to his hometown. However, in most of the cases he can organize his work and tasks by phone.
The above mentioned cases are just view examples that show how ICTs increase the connectedness of migrants and non-migrants extensively and that this leads to new sorts of translocal connections.

Learn more about the daily lives of migrant workers in Singapore in the online exhibition “Work Men on the Move

DOI: https://www.doi.org/10.34834/2019.0010

This Blog is published under a CC BY 4.0 license. You are allowed to share and adapt this content under these conditions.

NOTE: This blog is a crossposting and was originally published on the TransRe Blog “Connecting the Spots“.

Simon Peth is a research associate and lecturer at the University of Innsbruck. He studied Human Geography, Agricultural and Development Economics, and Anthropology and has more than 8 years of research experience focusing on climate change adaptation, human mobility and migration theories. He has conducted empirical research in Ethiopia, Bangladesh and recently focuses on Thailand, Singapore and Germany.

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Simon A. Peth

Geographer, University of Innsbruck

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