During this Covid-19 pandemic, TWC2’s social workers and volunteers stay in regular contact with our clients. We hear innumerable stories from these workers each giving precious “on the ground” snapshots of what life is like under the lockdown. Here are our choice stories:
No job, no money, and in a fancy hotel
Dipas-N (not his real name) arrived in Singapore in February 2020 full of hope for his new job, leaving behind his wife and a 3-year-old daughter in Bangladesh.
He had borrowed $2,500 from a bank to pay the agent for the job that promised a monthly salary of $520.
Soon after his arrival, he realised that his employer did not convert his In-principle Approval (see Glossary for explanation) into a proper Work Permit within the one month that the employer had to do so. When his IPA expired, Dipas-N found himself not only jobless without a valid pass to remain in Singapore.
Fearing that he could get into trouble with authorities, he immediately visited the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for help. TWC2 also wrote an email to MOM explaining his unfortunate situation. However, the lockdown kicked in before he was granted a Special Pass which is usually given to men in his situation by MOM.
Speaking to his TWC2 case worker in despair, Dipas-N says, “I no job have, what to do, why company like this.”
His bad luck didn’t end here. After his two roommates were tested positive for Covid-19, he was relocated to a hotel room under an isolation order, where he was told to stay through most of Ramadan month (until 19 May).
Says his case worker, “Now he is all alone in a fancy hotel room which stands in stark irony to his current financial status. He is unable to enjoy it because all he can think of is his inability to support his family. ”
“He is even afraid of using room service in a fear of not understanding the hotel staff and ending up with a bill to pay. He even washes his clothes by himself in the hotel room, not knowing if there is free laundry service.”
One day he called his caseworker in tears, “Maybe I die better for my family.”
As for Dipas-N’s supposed employer, he has never called to check on him.
His future is uncertain. Since his arrival in Singapore, Dipas-N has not been able to send a single cent to his family in Bangladesh. He has had to borrow money from the friends he knows in Singapore in order to get by. When the lockdown is lifted, unless MOM grants him permission to find a new employer, he will likely be repatriated to Bangladesh with no money.
What’s waiting for him there is harassment from debt collectors and social shame.
The Straits Times, on 23 May 2020, had a feature on how wonderful it was for the migrant workers whose isolation quarters were on board cruise ships. Here is the header picture for that article.
Screengrab from the above-mentioned Straits Times article.
The reality for TWC2 client Dipas-P was somewhat less memorable. Here’s what he told us:
“My room had little light. I felt suffocated.” His cabin on the ship had only a small porthole window which was sealed. “I cannot open it,” he said.
The dimness of room bothered him greatly as he kept referring to it. He said that he felt suffocated and had overwhelming, confusing thoughts which frightened him.
Although his Covid symptoms were mild, Dipas-N was plagued by persistent headaches and was prescribed Panadol (8 tablets each day). He was confined within the claustrophobic cubicle except for a daily half-hour break when he could walk about outside his room, but only on the same level. There were no visits to the upper deck for fresh air as mentioned in media reports.
Meals were delivered at his cabin door.
His symptoms worsened during his stay on the cruise ship. When he developed breathing difficulties, he was moved to a camp medical facility at Marina Bay and later moved to a hotel, Holiday Inn Singapore Atrium. There, he requested the authorities not to send him back to the ship!
When TWC2 first came into contact with him in early April, he was a resident at the Sungei Tengah Lodge. It was already under lockdown because the dorm had become an infection hotspot. A week later Dipas-N tested positive for Covid-19 and was admitted to Tan Tock Seng Hospital. From there, his Covid journey around Singapore has been quite extensive.
1. Tan Tock Seng Hospital: 15 – 22 April;
2. Changi Expo: 22 April – 1 May;
3. Army camp at Old Airport Road: 1 – 10 May;
4. Gemini cruise ship: 10 – 18 May;
5. Raffles Hospital camp at Marina Bay : 18 – 25 May
6. Holiday Inn Singapore Atrium: 25 May –
TWC2’s Small Essential Needs team is sending him a goodie parcel soon to cheer him up.
In the middle of May, well-wishers Nasreen Ramnath, Smita Wargantiwar and their families and friends got together to make home-made desserts for the workers who eat with our Cuff Road Project. It was the season of Ramadan, and the sweets were much appreciated by the men.
Nasreen, Smita and their group pose with TWC2’s Debbie and Alex. The table’s piled high with their sweets.
The gifts came with personal, handwritten greetings.
There were several different kinds of desserts, all thoughtfully prepacked into individual portions for easy take-away.
Thank you, say three of the hundreds of men who received the sweets.
Two working sisters, now one
Jenny and her sister are domestic workers from the Philippines. At the end of 2019, Jenny was working in Singapore and her sister was in Kuwait, both of them earning salaries that were significantly better than the average for their work. In January 2020, Jenny’s sister went home to Bacolod on leave, as planned, but later found that she could not go back to Kuwait because of travel restrictions. As the weeks stretched out, she started to run out of money and contacted Jenny for help. Jenny felt that she had to support her sister and so asked for a salary advance from her employer, which she was willing to give.
Stories had gone around that Singapore’s government would be giving employers $750 for each migrant worker they employed, and that the Philippines government was going to give each Filipino migrant worker $200, but these hopes came to nothing — at least not in the form of cash in hand for the workers.
Other news that Jenny received from home was that two workers who were ill had been repatriated from the Middle East to a neighbouring village and it had been confirmed that they had COVID-19. So far, the infection has not spread to Jenny’s village, but the thought that it might touch her family directly is a constant worry. She talks to them every day to reassure herself that they are safe. She feels torn — drawn to go back to her family to look after them, but realising that it is safer for her and more useful for them if she goes on working in Singapore.
Jenny misses her days off. She used to go out every Sunday and meet friends, and thinks it’s just not the same speaking to them on the phone. She does get the chance to run some errands, such as going out to buy food for her elderly employer, and these little runs, even for just half an hour or so, have become welcome breaks from very restricted routine.
Dipas-Q (not his real name) is quarantined at Tuas View Dormitory, distraught and feeling utterly helpless.
It’s not because of the food or the quarantine, though he tells us, “Here dormitory food infection my stomach three week ready. They give two simple medicine, but always pain. They saying waiting [for the lifting of the] lockdown. I asking change medicine, they saying no have.”
Cyclone Amphan has just hit Bangladesh and rivers and waterways have become swollen. Foundations of buildings have been destabilised.
He messages TWC2, “My house going [into] river. Few days ago rain, all broke.”
Dipas-Q’s house is too close to the river in flood, with softening banks. (2 photos stitched together).
Dipas-Q suffered a work injury nearly a year ago. He writes of persistent pain: “My injury now more problem. My left knee my back pain now. My two leg nerve problem.”
For some months, he received medical leave wages — which is usually only two-thirds of previous salary — and all of the money was sent back to support the family.
But now they have a crisis, and need to save the house by relocating it. “There a lot of water. Maybe I loss my house if I not remove the house.”
“Now every day feel pain my heart. Everyday crying. Any time my house going to river.”