Twelve students, aged 15 to 18, spent about eight hours with TWC2 on Sunday, 24 Nov 2013, on a multipronged programme. Comprising nine boys and three girls from St Joseph Institution and St Joseph International, the activity was meant as a lead-up to the annual Lasallian camp for student leaders, this year to be held in Ipoh, Malaysia in December. The camp leaders wanted participants to understand disadvantaged communities, of which migrant workers was one.
The programme that TWC2 designed for the Sunday had four parts:
1. Early afternoon: General introduction to migrant workers’ situation; briefing with respect to leaflet distribution and survey-taking.
2. Late afternoon: Fan out into the streets of Little India — distribute TWC2 information leaflets in Tamil, Bengali, Telugu and Burmese, and conduct a survey about salary payments.
3. Dinner — South Indian food.
4. Evening: Tabulate survey results and analyse, followed by a wrap up session in which students discuss what they learned today.
The general introduction was conducted at Dibashram in Little India, where some injured workers were also on hand to answer questions.
This was followed by a half-hour of briefing about the aims of leafletting and surveying, the meaning of key terms, and role-play learning how to approach workers, and how to speak in ways that are intelligible to foreigners who do not normally speak English.
There were hiccups at the start; it wasn’t easy remembering the sequence of introductory phrases, at the same time adjusting to the broken English that puts workers at ease.
Meanwhile, it was raining outside, but fortunately, it stopped by 4:30 pm when the students were ready to fan out.
Organised into four teams of three students each, they were assigned recommended locations for leafletting and surveying. They were also guided to make sure that they do not confuse tourists with foreign workers when going about their work. Knowing that two locations would be predominantly Tamil and two were predominantly Bangla, the stacks of information leaflets given to the teams were adjusted for language proportions.
The students later told us they were amazed how crowded some places were.
TWC2 underestimated their ability. On hindsight, we issued them with too few leaflets. Although given 90 minutes to do distribution, the teams exhausted their stock of leaflets with 20 – 30 minutes. They had next to no trouble approaching workers and asking for half a minute of their time.
Survey-taking was a little harder; it needed more time — though it was only a one-page form — and more conversation. Nevertheless, the students returned 52 completed survey forms, exceeding our expectations. Questions included whether last month’s salary was fully, partially or not paid, and whether they were paid by cash, cheque or electronic bank transfer.
One of the boys had injured his leg recently and was largely wheelchair-bound. TWC2 was impressed that Dan wanted to participate all the same. He was unable to move around like the others to distribute flyers but we found a spot for him to sit where lots of workers passed by. Stuck at one spot, he wasn’t as successful as the others, but we applaud his coming and helping out.
We were going to take refreshments and dinner at a shopping mall foodcourt, but the educator in charge of organising the camp, Ms Ed-Linddi Ong, asked that we change it to a place serving Indian food. TWC2 vice-president Alex Au, who took charge of TWC2’s side of things, proposed a fast-food-type place at the corner of Kitchener Road and Serangoon Road. It would be cheaper for the kids, it had pictures on the menu board, so they could see what the meals looked like, and the process of ordering and collecting would be familiar to that fast-food generation. It turned out that many kids had never tasted a thosai, vadai or idli before. So even a simple thing like this was an adventure.
To wrap up, the group reassembled at the school in the evening where the 52 survey results were tabulated. Actually these 52 results would form part of a larger ongoing survey about salary payments and promptness that TWC2 is conducting, but in order for the students to have something to present at their Ipoh camp in December, it was useful to look at how the data from this subset of responses panned out. Alex pointed out how the numbers indicated that most workers did not receive a proper itemised payslip, without which there was no way they could know whether the salary they received was accurately calculated. In fact, a substantial minority of the respondents indicated through their answers to other questions in the survey that they had doubts about accuracy or that their employers were making arbitrary deductions.
The students also shared with each other the gist of conversations they had with workers. One reported how he now understood the pressures that young men faced to come here to work; the factors were not only economic, but included gender as well: Women in those countries are expected to be at home, and so it is the men who have to go afar to earn money. Another student reported meeting a couple of workers who were holding university degrees, but had no choice except to come here to work in construction.
A third student reinforced this point, saying that the worker she was doing the survey with virtually took the form from her, read all the questions (in English) himself and pointed to the appropriate multi-choice answers. She expressed surprised that he was more than literate in English.
TWC2 does not normally accept student groups. Our time and other resources are extremely limited and with so many workers’ cases to deal with, playing educator to students is not what we can afford to do.
We made the exception for this group from St Joseph because they met some key criteria.
1. There was substantial involvement of teachers. Not only did Ms Ong assist in organising the programme and logistics, she ensured that on the day itself, there would be four other teachers around. Each three-student team going out into the field had a teacher accompanying it. This reduced the personnel input from TWC2 to just one person, though social worker Nor Karno was also present at the start.
2. The students gave back to the organisation as much as they gained, in this case by going out into the field to distribute flyers and conduct surveys — work which would otherwise have to be done by other TWC2 volunteers.
3. The students covered their own costs.