Hossan Abul, quarantined on a cruise ship, found it was no vacation. He couldn’t get just about anything he needed. Delivering even the smallest items required herculean logistics.

By Mizue Sauco, a member of TWC2’s Executive Committee, and one of the leaders of the Small Essential Needs team

Migrant workers in Singapore are housed in densely populated dormitories that are a natural environment for the spread of the Covid-19 virus. In response to early infections in migrant worker dorms, all dormitories were locked down to avoid spreading the virus to Singaporean citizens. In early May 2020, in response to the Government of Singapore’s draconian restrictions on migrant workers, TWC2 formed a team called Small Essential Needs (SEN). SEN’s mission – funded by donations from the individuals and organizations who supported TWC2’s cause during this Pandemic –  was to deliver essential items requested by migrant workers who were confined to dormitories and other isolation facilities.

Requests from 900 groups of migrant workers

Between May and November 2020, SEN responded to requests received from 900 different groups of migrant workers, representing 5,000 people in total. Each had their own story to tell:

  • Firoz was taken to isolation with only the clothes he was wearing. He had to wrap himself in a towel each time his clothes were laundered during his three month isolation in a hotel room. SEN sent him two sets of new clothes to help him.
  • Mamun lost 5kg of his body weight due to gastritis during his long isolation in a cruise ship cabin. His employer wouldn’t buy him the special milk powder recommended by the doctor for his recovery. SEN sent him the needed milk powder four times during his isolation.
  • Prokash was desperate when the lockdown of his dormitory prevented him from refilling his medication for chronic gastritis. Even after SEN helped him obtain a prescription from the dormitory’s doctor, he had no means to purchase the medication from outside. A SEN volunteer bought alternative medicines from pharmacies and delivered the medicines to Prokash four times.
  • Ismail was one of many workers isolated in a hotel room. He had been isolated for four months and was feeling depressed. SEN sent him a bag of snacks and chocolate on Hari Raya which made him tearful with joy.

In order to limit transmission of Covid-19, many migrant workers were confined for months during the pandemic without the ability to access shops for food, toiletries, and medical supplies or to attend medical appointments. Those who were housed in hotel rooms or on ships had it far worse as they were completely isolated during their confinement, without others to help or share the experience. Many who were isolated faced mental health challenges. Migrant workers earn low salaries — an average of $600 a month — and pay high agent/recruitment fees for their employment in Singapore, which leaves them deeply in debt.  Most workers lack savings or a credit card necessary to utilise online delivery services. To make matters worse, many workers reported receiving reduced salaries or no salary at all during their months of confinement.

Most of the workers made requests to SEN shyly; some were embarrassed or apologised for asking for help. They wouldn’t ask for more than what they needed. We often heard: “My boss never replied to my request for medicines.” or “I didn’t ask my boss for shampoo and toothbrush because my boss would get angry at me.”

Since a migrant worker’s employment and ability to work in Singapore is tied to a single employer—similar to the kafala system of the Middle East—a migrant worker’s fate in Singapore is highly dependent upon their relationship with, and the whims of, their employer. Employers can terminate a worker’s Work Permit at any time without providing a reason. During Covid-19, MOM advisories often emphasised that the welfare of migrant workers was the responsibility of their employers. Yet workers reported being reluctant to ask bosses for pay or food to avoid upsetting them and thus risk losing their jobs. As migrant workers are generally isolated from the rest of Singaporean society due to their low social status and their remote dormitories, this meant they usually had no Singaporean friends to turn to during the pandemic. As a result, many were left alone without the most basic supplies.

Tight quarantine was no holiday

Throughout the SEN team’s many conversations with migrant workers, we were often struck by their remarkable resilience and humility. Those of us “in the community” felt there was no way the same hardships would be tolerated by any of us—the Circuit Breaker we spent with our families in the comfort of our own homes was more like a holiday compared to the migrant workers’ bleak and isolated experience.

The SEN team listened, and we tried our best to meet the workers’ individual needs. Gradually, we all became experts in finding popular items at the best price and even learned some Bengali-English words like lodus (noodles). Requested items ranged from basic toiletries like shampoo, soap and toothpaste, favourite snacks, fans, and hair clippers, to essential items such as medicines and medical devices like blood pressure monitors. Other items included sweatshirts, water bottles, phone chargers, pillows, and nail cutters. SEN volunteers purchased most items from supermarkets and pharmacies, filling up shopping carts with requests from groups of up to 30 people while receiving curious stares from other shoppers. SEN also used online shops like Ikea, Giant and RedMart. It was a time-consuming task and became a full-time commitment for SEN’s most dedicated volunteers. Our work was often frustrating – when some dormitories and hotels refused our deliveries – and emotionally draining – when we heard about the workers’ isolation and poor living conditions or family hardships at home – but we kept going knowing that the men were waiting for our deliveries.

These are just a few examples of ways the migrant workers suffered during Covid-19 in Singapore. Migrant workers made up the vast majority of Covid-19 infections in Singapore during 2020, due primarily to their crowded housing conditions. While some Singaporean citizens may argue that migrant workers should be grateful for what the Singapore Government did for them, and that if they don’t like their confinement they should go home, we must acknowledge that Singapore’s system is what made them vulnerable in the first place. Migrant workers are housed in densely populated dormitories that are a natural environment for the spread of the virus.

Singapore’s laws contain protections for migrant workers in order to reduce their vulnerability. Singapore must honour its commitment to protect these workers who have come to Singapore to build and maintain its infrastructure. Singapore owes its migrant workers a duty of care. As the post-lockdown shortage of workers has proven, Singapore needs migrant workers as much as (if not more than) the migrant workers need work in Singapore.

SEN is not a solution

SEN’s work made us feel good most of the time, but we kept reminding ourselves, SEN is not a solution to the workers’ underlying problems. Coffee, biscuits, and toiletries provided a small and temporary comfort, but they will not solve the issues at the root of the migrant workers’ difficulties—exorbitant agent fees required to work in Singapore, unequal bargaining power since workers can be fired without cause, the inability for migrant workers to change jobs, their inability to prove that employers have failed to pay them fairly and their second-class resident status. SEN was merely an avenue to view and recognise the injustice and inequality that underlies the lives of many migrant workers.

SEN ceased its operation in November 2020 having fulfilled more than 900 requests and helped more than 5,000 workers. It has now been ten months since the first dormitory lockdown, yet migrant workers’ struggle continues as their movements still remain highly restricted by employers and the Government.

Recently, the Government announced that, “MOM will be starting a pilot scheme in the first quarter of 2021 to allow migrant workers in some dormitories to access the community once a month”. How many workers will actually meet the conditions and will be allowed to leave their isolated housing once a month, remains to be seen.