ISIS is recruiting foreign domestic servants in Hong Kong and Singapore

Christian Patterson
Underground Mall

Tampines Mall, Singapore

Recruiting Indonesian domestic workers abroad might seem like a strange choice, but will likely become a larger trend, as rich countries continue to import low-cost labor from poor countries.

Foreign workers are becoming increasingly important to countries with a small, rich domestic population. These workers are proletarian, just as any other worker, but usually, their labor is exploited even more than native national labor. Sometimes, this is under-the-table exploitation of migrant workers, and sometimes it’s written into codified labor laws. This means that as this class of people continues to grow, it will become a more globally, politically important class.

CNN published a very interesting article about Indonesians working as domestic servants in Hong Kong and Singapore becoming radicalized by ISIS. I will quote heavily from that article in this post.

CNN writes:

“For six days a week, the three women worked as domestic workers in homes across Singapore. But in their spare time, they promoted ISIS online, donated money to militants overseas, and became so radicalized that at least one was ready to die as a suicide bomber in Syria.”

This might seem bizarre and unlikely, but consider a few things. The domestic workers in this case come from Indonesia, the most populous Muslim majority country in the world. They live in countries that either have very few Muslims, or in the case of Singapore, make up a small percentage of the population.

Not only are they isolated from their culture, but they’re isolated from the new culture they migrate to. They work for very low wages in countries with a very high standard of living. The only way they can sustain this lifestyle is by living in the home of a rich family. Because of their job, they can’t go to cafes, restaurants, social events etc, either because the job doesn’t pay enough to sustain regular living, or because they’re obligated to stay at home most the time.

Orchard MRT Station, Singapore

Most of these domestic workers are honest, simple people – and I mean that with as positively as possible. They find meaning in religion and live basic, hard-working lives. When socially isolated and underpaid, they may search for more meaning in their life. And considering they’re isolated and, statistically, probably not political activists to begin with, the main way to find some broader meaning is through religion. In this tenuous socio-economic position, that can lead to radicalized religiosity.

CNN elaborates on this:

“The radicalization can be extremely rapid. […] One Indonesian domestic worker from Hong Kong who went from a secular fashion enthusiast to ISIS devotee in less than a year.

“They either go through a divorce, get into debt or suffer from the culture shock of moving to a place very different from home, which are all common issues encountered by migrant workers,” Nuraniyah said.

Living far from home in an unfamiliar environment, sometimes exposed to ill-treatment by unscrupulous employers, they are especially vulnerable to indoctrination online.”

CNN then gives an interesting anecdote that illustrates the banality of right-wing radicalization. It’s easy to draw parallels between how Muslims can become radicalized, and how Christians (and “new atheist” types) in the western world can become radicalized by similar means:

“I started listening to Salafi podcasts while cleaning the house,” one Indonesian maid from Semarang working in Singapore told IPAC […] “On Facebook, I followed people whose profiles seemed very Islamic because I needed friends who could guide me.”

CNN continues,

“The tipping point usually comes after the women forge personal relationships with militants online who become their “boyfriends.” [..] They are then invited to join dedicated chatrooms on encrypted apps.”

I will get into analyzing this story more, but there’s one other interesting bit from the story I wanted to include:

“The two women had also been encouraged by their online contacts to migrate to the southern Philippines, according to Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs. Experts say ISIS has strengthened its foothold in Southeast Asia, and ISIS sympathizers — including radicalized domestic workers — have recently started setting their sights on the Philippines as a destination.” After 2017, once ISIS started losing territory in the Middle East, its message shifted,” Abuza said. “It started encouraging militants to travel to Mindanao, in the Philippines, and establish a caliphate there.””

Mindanao is not only the only part of Philippines with a Muslim-majority, but it’s also the main stronghold of the Marxist (mostly Maoist) Filipino rebels. The Filipino Maoists have been leading a protracted people’s war for 50 years against the government, and with an increasing amount of Islamist radicals growing here, it seems ripe for future political conflicts.

Inn near bus terminal in Davao City, Mindanao, Philippines

This is a small snapshot of the growing and unique class dynamics involved with importing foreign labor. In other countries, the exploitation of foreign labor is already much more accelerated.

For an extreme example, foreign workers make up 88% of the population of Qatar.

Qatar just reformed their kafala system, which is also used extensively by all Gulf Cooperation Council countries (basically the entire Arabian peninsula except Comrade Yemen), which is also used by ISIS to recruit members (like the domestic workers in Hong Kong and Singapore).

Under the kafala system, the employees are kept in a contract with the company and answer to the company, and the company’s internal labor policy. This is very similar to how under feudalism, peasants answered to vassals, and the vassals were empowered by lords (in this case, lords are equivalent to the government). This is bleakly feudal enough, but add on the fact that before Qatar’s reforms, there was no minimum wage at all. (You can read more specifics on that here)

The reforms transform the foreign workers from a feudal, sometimes enslaved, class that exists within a capitalist context, to conventional employees, who can change employers at will.

You can look at other countries too. Saudi Arabia has at least 9 million foreign workers, most of them from Asian and African countries in similarly poor conditions. About 90% of UAE residents are foreign workers. About half of Bahrain residents are foreign workers.

In 2018, a Filipino domestic worker in Kuwait was discovered dead in the home where she worked, with evidence of extreme and prolonged torture. This provoked rightful outrage in the Philippines, which signified a much broader issue of Filipino domestic workers in Kuwait being enslaved, sexually assaulted, etc.

To prevent Duterte from banning Filipinos from working in Kuwait, they changed the labor laws to allow Filipino workers possessing their own passports, to have twelve-hour workdays, to have one day off a week, etc. Pretty stark that those are their labor laws to appease Philippines. (More on that here)

Doha Metro, Doha, Qatar

So far, all these countries I’ve highlighted (except for Saudi Arabia, which is a whole other can of worms), are relatively small, borderline city-state countries in Asia. But foreign workers work in every wealthy country, it’s just especially noticeable in a country like Qatar, when they make up 90% of the country.

This type of labor relations is different than employing immigrant workers, who usually move to a country to live there permanently, or if not, have plans to go back to their home country years later. We can see this because Hungary is looking to build their foreign labor workforce, in spite of Prime Minister Orban’s anti-immigration stance.

International Business Times writes:

“Faced with a growing labour shortage which threatens their economies, Romania and Hungary are courting Asian workers, going against Hungarian nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s anti-immigration rhetoric.”


“This year [Hungary] is issuing 75,000 permits, mainly for workers from Ukraine but also some from Vietnam, China and India, up sharply from 13,000 in 2015.”

Kálvin tér station, Budapest Metro, Hungary

As history continues, I see this type of foreign worker becoming more and more important. As capital becomes increasingly concentrated into smaller places, they will have to increasingly import a workforce.

This means that this class will also become more politically important. But that creates an issue: in the same way peasants didn’t have the ability to revolt against their feudal lords, due to being fragmented, disorganized, and isolated from their fellow class members – isolated to farms with only their immediate family and villages – with little grasp of their class position in relations to other workers, these foreign workers will have a hard time organizing anything.

This is especially bleak when the domestic working class in many parts of the world is already highly disorganized.

But when a class of workers is put in such a precarious and unfair position, they do seek to become more “active” in other ways. This paves the way for radicalization, and unfortunately, right-wing extremism flourishes when people are socially isolated.

I’m not sure how to fight against right-wing radicalization in this growing class. But, the only hint I can work off of is the domestic worker in Singapore who became radicalized by Salafist podcasts. Maybe the war for the future of ideology really is taking place online.

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