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Precarious Work, Precarious Planet: Servicing Boundaries in/for the Air-Conditioned Nation

By Lioma Ghossi

Illustration with a side view of a multi-storey building on the left, with people watching TV, using a computer and sleeping under air-cons, coloured in blue. On the right, workers maintain the air-con units and deliver food on a bicycle while sweating in the heat, coloured in orange.

It’s November 2021. Singapore is witnessing a new flare of COVID-19 cases. With little surprise, the government has re-imposed restrictions on social interaction—among them, working (where possible) from home. Meanwhile, the main condenser unit of my home’s air-conditioning, having broken down several months prior, has caused all the air-conditioners in my house to malfunction. Although I had given little attention to the breakdown at first, the renewed work-from-home arrangements leads me to call up a servicing company. As many in Singapore might relate, working from home without air-conditioning, especially during warmer days, can be vexing. The prolonged exposure to heat and humidity, I felt, not only disrupted my workflow but also made completing important tasks difficult.

Interestingly, so too did Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, think this way. In a 2009 interview with The Wall Street Journal, the late Lee singled out the air conditioner as “a most important invention for Singapore”, suggesting that the technology “was key to public efficiency”, given that “mental concentration and with it the quality of work deteriorated as the day got hotter and more humid”. Given this, Lee Kuan Yew, upon assuming office as Prime Minister, took to installing air conditioners in buildings where the civil service work. For the former statesman, it was air conditioning that had “[made] development possible in the tropics”, an interesting supposition, even if the extent of its veracity has yet to be confirmed.

As scheduled, two aircon servicemen turn up to my flat to fix the broken unit. After checking on some wiring and gas, the men quickly identify the source of the unit’s malfunction and begin working on repairs. For context, the condenser unit of my home, like most other units in Singapore, is situated on the outside walls of the flat building, easily seen when looking over and downwards from the window edge closest to where it is located (mine being the master bedroom). After watching the servicemen work for a few minutes, I decide to move outside to the living room, lest I interfere with their repairs.

A while later, I check in again on how the service staff are doing. With little warning, however, I am quickly met with a scene that could only be described as stomach-turning. From the bedroom door where I stood, I see one of the servicemen seated in a most perilous position atop the broken air-conditioning unit, outside the windows of my third-floor flat. At this point, numerous questions begin to come up in my mind: isn’t that extremely dangerous? Is he about to fall? How come he’s just working there like that? Is this standard practice? Baffled with questions (but admittedly, also somewhat guilty), I head downstairs to get drinks for the guys.

On my way back, I run into one of the repairmen, the same one that sat outside earlier near the bedroom window of my house. He had gone down to his van to get some tools. As we enter the lift together, I decide to engage in small talk. Casually, I ask him about having sat so dangerously on top of the air-conditioning unit, and whether he had any worries or fears doing so. After all, I suggest, falling from such a height could be injurious, even if some might consider the third storey not that far off from the ground. Without giving it much thought, he replies, “yes, but I’m already used to it”. Curious, I ask again, had I lived on the tenth or twelfth floor, whether he would have to work the same way he did. Calmly, he replies, “I would, but I’d wear a safety harness”, as he gestures to me what seemed like him tying a rope around his waist. Somewhat anxiously, I interject, but what if you fall, would that not be dangerous? Turning his gaze away, the serviceman responds, blank-faced: “yes, but I try not to think about it”, adding almost immediately after, “[because] the more I think about it, the more afraid I become (yue xiang yue pa). As we exit the lift and enter my home unit, I inquire for one last time whether his employer had provided him with any form of risk pay or remuneration associated with the clear hazards of his work. In a sombre tone, he replies, “he doesn’t (mei you leh)”.

My encounter with the air-conditioning service staff was deeply unsettling. What I (and perhaps many others would have) had expected to be a quick, transactional, maintenance job had instead foregrounded complex issues of workers’ precarity, work risk and non-protection, but also economic inequality, class privilege, and their imbrications with environmental justice. And as it turns out, the dangerous work conditions ascribed to aircon repair, that which I myself had witnessed first-hand, appear much more pervasive than one might care to think.

The air-conditioner persists, if not for Lee Kuan Yew’s own fascination with the device alone, as a peculiar symbol of Singapore. In his seminal The Air-Conditioned Nation, media scholar Cherian George locates the air-conditioner as a metaphor of reading into the republic’s social and political arrangement. Advancing two principal claims, George suggests that an air-conditioned nation “is designed, first and foremost, for the comfort of its inhabitants”. These comforts, here in specific reference to material comforts (like the air conditioner), however are granted only to those who can afford them. In addition, George identifies “central control” as a hallmark of the air-conditioned nation, locating specifically the state at the nexus of Singapore’s development. Here, he notes of our comfortable habitat as one that “demands fine planning and constant management”, specifically by the hands of ruling elites, which comprises “covering up openings, providing adequate power supply, and ensuring regular servicing” of the city’s many systems. Implicit then in George’s account of Singapore is a sense of bureaucratic and infrastructural smoothness. Not only are breakdowns quickly attended to, maintenance work is also regularly conducted in ways that allow complex systems to function and operate as intended. Consequently, Singapore’s economically liberal but politically illiberal arrangement is of no contradiction but the very mechanism upon which the republic rests. In Singapore, as George notes, “comfort is achieved through control”.

There is little doubt that the historically authoritarian one-party government has played a significant role in the transformation of post-colonial Singapore. Yet by fixating on elite planning alone, George overlooks agents outside the immediate state government who actively partake in the realisation of the modern republic. Rather than thinking through ‘central control’, I want to draw attention instead to the everyday workers who, despite being reduced as faceless cogs, remain indispensable to the developmental machinery. Specifically, I want to consider in greater depth the labour of repair, servicing, and maintaining—that is, the workers who actually do the “covering up [of] openings” and other “regular servicing”. As it will become clear, many of these service and maintenance workers, like the air-con serviceman who sat atop the window ledge, engage in what can be understood as ‘boundary work’. This entails precarious work that straddles between nature and artifice, the ‘unruly’ outdoor and insulated indoor environment, spaces of unconditioned and conditioned air. In addition, this work remains indispensable, not only upon which the Singapore bureaucratic system and republic operate, but more importantly Singapore society (or rather, segments of Singapore society) remain ‘insulated’ from the outside environment. In this regard, maintenance work offers a different reading of Singapore politics and society beyond narratives of central control. As one sociologist astutely remarks, repair and service work “is not at the margins of order, waiting to be deployed if something goes wrong… [but rather] a practice at the centre of social order”. Crucially, it is here along precarious boundaries, where climate destruction and workers’ exploitation reveal themselves as being intimately intertwined.

Although work precarity is often understood and (and documented) as economic insecurity, concerns of great significance no doubt, I consider here the immediate risks of fatality and injury, as well as more gradual deteriorations of health, that emerge through hostile conditions of work. By its very arrangement, boundary work entails precarity of this sort. After all, the frontiers that separate the insulated inside from the uninsulated outside is predicated foremost upon the latter’s precariarisation. Neither stable nor fixed, the insulated and uninsulated are revealed as constructed spaces in which the comfortable ‘indoors’ are merely segments of the environment disciplined into insulated spaces, a form of boundary-making that renders the ‘outdoors’ a space of disposability. Notably, these demarcations between ‘indoor’ and ‘outdoor’ have emerged along several key lines, among them urban design (air-conditioned spaces/the unconditioned outdoors), national jurisdictions (Singapore/our neighbouring countries), and more recently, other planetary dimensions (the billionaire space colony/planet Earth). Where the uninsulated environment is subject to degradation, however, so too will those along the boundaries—in particular, the ‘boundary workers’ who maintain and service these frontiers—be subject to a similar precariarisation emerging from environmental destruction. In this light, the forms of precarity endured by workers and the planet are revealed to be intricately entwined with one another.

No doubt, the hazardous work conditions that air-conditioning workers face remain an undeniable, material, lived reality. Yet at the same time, the image of the air-conditioning worker sat atop the window ledge—etched deeply in my mind as memory, but documented also in the numerous photographs that have surfaced online—stands as a potent symbol of the many others in Singapore who work and exist along the perilous boundaries that delineate the insulated and outside environment. While the range of these workers (and the forms of precarity they endure) are wide and varied, three groups have stood out over the last several years, especially given conditions of the pandemic.

First, delivery workers who ferry food orders and groceries around Singapore, serving as extended networks that maintain, most notably during periods of pandemic lockdown, the logistical supply of indispensable, everyday products to households. In doing so however, these delivery drivers, operating between sheltered malls, offices, home addresses, and the open-air streets, are exposed to the vagaries of immediate weather conditions, including rain and fog that not only affect rider visibility, but also make sidewalks more dangerous to navigate. More concerning however is the fast-surging urban heat. As temperatures rise around the world (and twice the rate in Singapore), it is likely that many delivery workers, already subject to the varied forms of economic insecurity that accompany gig work, will have to face new forms of climate-related precarity. Already, experts have called attention to the adverse effects on health that follow from prolonged exposures to urban heat, including the exacerbation of existing medical conditions, as well as increased rates of hospitalisation and death—effects shown to be significant even at moderately high temperatures.

Second, healthcare workers who, especially under pandemic conditions, are situated everyday between viral, unrelenting pathogens and the uninfected body. Unlike the delivery or aircon service workers who traverse between literal insulated and uninsulated spaces, healthcare workers exist along a social boundary, working to preserve life by providing care for the ill as well as others who require such care, but also to stave off the ‘foreign’ and ‘unruly’ virus from the rest of the nation’s populace. Perhaps, it is within this frame why so many in our society, anxious about their own proximities to the boundary, have turned to stigmatising, discriminatory, and exclusionary attitudes toward everyday healthcare workers. Yet it has become clear that healthcare work cannot be decoupled from the persistent environmental degradation elsewhere. Over the last decade, human encroachment into remote areas for industry (e.g., mining, tourism, and infrastructural construction) as well as the persistence of hostile workings of factory farms, have all but accelerated the prevalence and spread of viral pathogens around the world—including the current COVID-19. Bearing the burden of this legacy, healthcare workers have become subject to precarity of various forms, entailing not only death by proximity to lethal infection, but also the more gradual wearing out owing to overwork and overwhelm, resulting in undeniable effects on their physical and mental health.

Finally, petroleum workers (technicians and engineers especially) who operate and maintain the refineries and plants, many of which are situated on the offshore Jurong Island. Today, the disastrous effects on the climate at the hands of the oil and petrochemical industries require little explanation, trends that scientists had long learnt (and warned) about decades prior. For Singapore specifically, these two industries alone constitute 75 percent of total emissions in the country. Just as worrying are the lethal work conditions that oil and petrochemical workers must endure. For this third group, the immediate risks of death and injury via fire burns, explosive blasts or direct exposure to toxins remain all but real. Further, their proximity to these plants, and exposure to its toxic pollutants generated, will likely entail gradual deteriorations in bodily health, including the emergence of respiratory-related infections, cancer formation, and effects on birth outcomes.

Photos by Hannah Sibayan, Mufid Majnun, sol on Unsplash

As the realities of boundary work reveal, the converse to comfort was never mere discomfort, but injurious, lethal precarity. Evidently, the impulse for climate discipline, predicated here on boundary-making, has relied (and continues to rely) on a similarly disciplined workforce who must be deployed to maintain and preserve these boundaries. Just as Cherian George underlines, that “comfort is achieved through control”, so then can we also say that ‘precarity is produced through control’. Rather than unfortunate, unintended, or aberrative outcomes, precarity (whether of workers’ or ecological health) remains indispensable to Singapore’s current system of development. In this view, it is perhaps of no coincidence that so many of those in Singapore who do, or are subject to, ‘boundary work’ are the country’s poorest and most vulnerable, in particular the city’s many under-protected and disenfranchised migrant workers.

It is not only ‘boundary workers’ however who live with precarity. By insulating ourselves behind artificial boundaries, we fail to acknowledge the forms of interdependency that inherently connect all life forms, human and non-human alike. Regardless of the vulnerabilities we expose ourselves through systems of precariarisation, we all depend on one another, distant or in proximity, to live and flourish. Because how could one live if not for the environments, farmers, and logistical workers who supply our foods, the neighbouring territories and treatment workers who provide us with potable water, the care workers (including domestic helpers, but also our family members and friends) who ensure that our health and emotional needs are adequately taken care of. Clearly then we exist, and could only exist, in a world ascribed by porosity, between ourselves and others, alongside the surrounding environment. Yet the impulse for ‘central control’—implying dominion over the natural, but also elite determinism over unsustainable outcomes—takes little heed of this reality. As the very liminality of ‘boundary work’ itself reveals, artificial insulants were never impermeable to begin with.

More than that, the fixation over insulative protection ignores the reality that ‘precarity’ remains intimately entwined with our more mutual sense of vulnerability, that which one thinker distinguishes as ‘precariousness’. Unlike the unequally imposed ‘precarity’, whether foisted discriminately along the lines of class or otherwise, precariousness pertains to a universal vulnerability that is shared by all sentient beings. No doubt, we all remain in one way or another susceptible to various forms of illness, injury, and death—universal conditions of frailty, fragility, and impermanence that no power in the world could ever overcome; that which not even the wealthiest or most privileged among us could evade. If to live and flourish is predicated on interdependence and porosity however, then the forms of precarity (imposed unequally among us) remains critically interlinked with this more equally shared ‘precariousness’. Again, nothing could make this clearer than the virality of COVID-19, along with the persistent waves of its variant offshoots, that had begun first in a small city elsewhere but has now become centred in a crisis of international proportions—Singapore no less. Perforating through national borders, penetrating the walls of maximum security compounds, and permeating between public and private spaces, the coronavirus has demonstrated neither preference nor discrimination for who and where it infects—even as demographic markers may somewhat temper with the virus’ spread.

Where boundary workers do not themselves constitute vectors, the forms of precarity they endure are unlikely to escape, at least not entirely, those among us lucky enough to maintain distance from the boundary. Like viral matter, toxins and effluents from petrochemical plants all contribute to contaminating our shared waters, airs, and living environments, entailing exposures and ingestions that will lend to the attrition and deterioration of our individual and collective health over time. So too will every resident of Singapore be subject to rising urban temperatures, as outdoor work, travel, exercise, and leisure activities become excruciatingly difficult, if not completely impossible, given the debilitative effects of heat stress on our bodies.

As it has become clear, neither pathogen, chemical particle, nor thermal energy can be so easily controlled, disciplined, or insulated out and away. Against this backdrop, what is urgently needed is not another attempt at creating or maintaining rigid boundaries, but rather a reconsideration of the existing system of precariarisation in its entirety. After all, if the twin challenges of unequal workers’ and planetary precarity cannot be divorced from our universal vulnerabilities, the harms imposed upon the most susceptible among us will only entail harms for all of us. In this light, rather than striving for the forms of comfort we are so often conditioned to pay attention to (the transactional, individualistic, and material), it is perhaps more prudent for us to agitate for a more shared sense of comfort. A shared comfort that takes seriously the vulnerabilities, both universally shared and unequally imposed, that runs through our individual bodies, body politic, and the larger ecological assemblage. Specifically, a comfort that can safeguard and account for the well-being of everyone—whether our workplace is at home, the hospital, or by a window ledge.

This is a guest post by Lioma Ghossi, an independent researcher in Singapore, under the SGCR bimonthly theme for March and April 2022: “Care”.