Chinese indentured labour in the colonial Asia Pacific region, 1919–1966

Julia Martinez, Claire Lowrie and Gregor Benton

Chinese indentured labour in the colonial Asia Pacific region, 1919–1966, Australian Research Council Discovery Project, 2018-2020 (DP180100695)

This project aims to investigate the abolition of Chinese indenture in the Asia Pacific region after 1919. It intends to investigate whether labour standards set by the International Labor Organization (ILO) were able to influence and overcome the European colonial preference for coerced migrant labour. The project expects to generate new knowledge about Australian, Chinese and global attitudes towards labour migration, by combining a comparative regional approach with detailed case studies of Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Specifically we aim to:

* investigate the extent to which indenture survived calls for its abolition;

* understand the role the ILO played in mobilising international abolitionist movements; and

* revise the historical literature on Chinese indenture which currently renders indenture workers all but invisible in the years after 1919.

The project will be in two parts: locating empirical evidence of indentured labour after 1919; and exploring the discourses and debates in favour of its retention or abolition. Case studies include Malaya, North Borneo, the Netherlands East Indies, Nauru, Western Samoa and New Hebrides. Analysis of these colonies will be situated within a broader comparative framework of regional and global indentured migration.

The debates concerning indenture will be framed by international lobbying by the ILO, the League of Nations, and the United Nations against indenture, to facilitate a global rethinking of the evolution of labour migration practices. The project spans the last decades of the colonial era, starting in 1919, when the system of indenture was supposedly shut down and ending in 1966, by which time the British, French and Dutch colonies under consideration were independent or self-governing.