By Paul M

As a society we can often measure our progress by the attitudes, ambitions and actions of our youth. So one of the more hopeful signs is the increasing interest of youth and educationists in the treatment of migrant workers.

Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) has a programmme called ‘Day School’ in which 2 or 3 senior volunteers take a group of junior college or polytechnic students on a learning tour of Little India. The objective is to introduce Singapore students to the often atrocious environments and attitudes, to which migrant workers are subjected.

Saturday, April 14, saw a group from St Andrew’s Junior College take this tour. Unfortunately, rain clouds wanted to join in too.

Upon arrival, the students, ranging in age from 17-19, both Singaporean and foreign, were greeted by Dr. Noor (TWC2 Vice President) and Ms Shelley Thio (Executive Committee Member) and invited to enjoy a Bangladeshi meal. Aside from being a quick introduction to the Bangladeshi palate, this exercise provided an empirical understanding of the worrying need and colossal effort required to provide such meals, feeding over 300 workers daily at the Cuff Road food program.

Bellies full and epicurean enquiries satisfied, our group made its way to a space above the restaurant known as Dibashram, which serves as a drop-in centre for migrant workers. Here in the lofty and airy sanctuary, workers can come to receive consultation or to simply lie down on a couch and relax beneath the high ceilings, as many workers happened to be doing when we arrived.

We had interrupted a moment of tranquility, rare in the lives of these men who normally work 14-hour days.

Roughly 25 students were ushered in and sat attentively while Dr. Noor and Ms. Thio described in detail the myriad ways in which TWC2 is engaged with the community, the government and the migrant workers in pursuing their mission. The weather’s mood was not reflected by the students, as they were engaged, inquisitive and respectful of the somber subjects and heartbreaking stories unfolding during the discussions.

At intervals, videos were shown, the first being a short documentary produced by SMU Students concerning Bangladeshi workers. The video can be viewed here: http://twc2.org.sg/2012/04/02/smu-students-create-video-sensation-from-little-india-interviews/. The video”s intimate interviews and emotional exchanges were given countenance by the many faces looking on, this writer included. The worker’s projected tears make it impossible not to contemplate their lives had they simply remained in Bangladesh. As the teenagers considered the countless offences against the men’s dignity, questions were asked: Who is responsible? What are the cause of these ailments and diseases? Are there any consequences for breaches of regulations? Why do they keep coming? And many more questions, all in a similar vein.

A second video was shown concerning maids. An Australian current affairs program threw a rare light upon the agencies and the aggressive employers, creating a saddening story for an alarming proportion of the 200,000 domestic maids in Singapore. Student reactions on learning of the maids’ harrowing tales and sometimes abusive conditions were visible and audible. Ironic laughs were drawn at a point of the video that explained that a maid must ask for permission to use the phone in order to make a complaint. The absurdity of this reality not lost on the young audience.

Exploring such evocative and emotional themes is heavy going on a rainy Saturday afternoon, so the next part of the programme would let the students stretch their legs, hit the streets and bear witness to some of the conditions that had been discussed during the afternoon, in particular, that of cramped, stuffy worker accommodation. The rain gave no quarter, but the message remained undiluted and the group tried to press on. In the end though, a few harder-ro-reach destinations had to be cut out of the programme.

The view the students had was from the street, glad not to have to venture inside. The students listened as Dr. Noor explained that as many as 20 workers can share an unhygienic, dark, dank room. Visible through the small opened window were skeletal beds stacked to the ceiling, revealing the strangled time spent when not working. Plenty of comparisons with school accommodation offered a degree of levity, but the window told a sad story.

Stopping at a void deck below an HDB housing block, Dr. Noor explained some of the geography of stereotype. Acknowledging that stereotypes exist, the students listed to some of the preconceptions held of migrant workers, such as: “dirty”, “lecherous”, “dangerous” “untrustworthy” and many more unsavoury adjectives.

Nat, an 18-year-old from Thailand observed: “Singaporeans seem to look down on migrant workers. They don’t seem to understand the importance of helping them to maintain a better life, and this attitude is then passed onto the children”.

His colleague Nee, another exchange student, but from Vietnam, added: “These problems stem from ignorance.

“We need to develop a common dialogue in order to create an attitude of understanding, to sit down and listen.”

In these and other brief conversations with the students, it was clear that the road their own lives had travelled was a vastly different one from the workers’. Despite being aware of a vague problem, the extent of the dichotomy between their experience of the world and the workers’ was a shock.

The group agreed that the Day School initiative had made them aware of a much deeper and pernicious problem. They understood better that the work of TWC2 is not only to react to a problem through providing charity, but to change the systemic causes of these problems. And the first step to that is to prick people’s conscience.

Photos by Sinyee