Would teenagers be able to understand the travails of working life? Especially those of migrant workers? At their age, they had never had any taste of work, nor would they have had much contact with migrant workers, except perhaps foreign domestic maids in their homes. These concerns weighed on Alex’s mind as December 10, 2011 approached.
That was the date for the treasurer and communications leader of Transient Workers Count Too to give a talk to members of Ang Mo Kio Methodist Church’s Youth Camp.
It turned out to be three talks, each of one hour’s duration. Alex was on his feet for a total of three hours with hardly a break. “Far from being tired, I was energised by the opportunity to work with young people. I usually am,” he said.
The group of about 100 — led by group leaders in their late teens and early twenties, but comprising mostly boys and girls in their mid teens — were split into three rooms in the annex building of Barker Road Methodist Church. The group leaders explained that they wanted smaller groups for better interaction with the speaker and subject matter.
“They were right about the sizing,” said Alex. “Similar to a classroom, it was a size the kids were comfortable with, which meant that they were quite spontaneous in engaging with the topic.”
Even so, there were surprises and it was a learning experience for him too: “They understood injustice far more readily than they understood poverty.”
With situations like not being paid a salary as promised or on time, or an undercalculation of overtime pay, “the kids got all riled up.” With domestic workers being locked in and denied food, these stark abuses didn’t need further explanation. They knew it was wrong, and many verbalised their feelings.
One girl became quite emotional. “This is so unfair!” she said in an outburst.
It also helped that in every class, Alex got a few kids to act out a scene in which a worker with a salary claim was manhandled by repatriation agents and deported out of Singapore, so that the employer would not have to cough up the salary arrears — a fairly common occurrence in Singapore. Every class loved the fun moment, but also understood the gross inequity of it, raising their voices to protest.
“Originally, the idea was simply to break the monotony of a one-hour class,” said Alex, explaining why he chose to get students to act out the scene. “You can’t make kids sit 60 minutes without fidgetting. But participation turned out to be an wonderful way of getting the message across.”
While most kids took sides, one sixteen year-old boy showed he understood in his own mordant way. Patting his friend who had played the role of the heartless employer on the back, he said, “Well done, Singapore is proud of you!”
Poverty and the consequences of poverty were harder for the teenagers to absorb. Why workers chose to pay so much in placement fees, why they got into debt doing so, were not issues immediately accessible to them. Most likely this was because, like the average Singaporean family, they largely came from the middle-class, and had never been exposed to poverty. Unless they were older, understanding poverty would probably require an immersive experience.
It was the same with injuries. Some in the class got quite involved with questions of prompt treatment and adequate medical care — questions that keep arising among migrant workers that TWC2 sees — but a majority were not demonstrably responsive to such issues. Once again, this has probably to do with life experience; not having suffered or seen major illness or injury themselves, the issue is relatively remote.
Or possibly it was because Alex chose not to screen any graphic images of injury, considering their ages.
One class left him staggering for a moment. As he spoke about inhuman housing conditions for male workers, he raised this slide:
Several boys quickly spotted that the picture had been taken inside a shipping container, which would mean it could be life-threateningly hot and stuffy if exposed to the sun outside. But several others asked, “Why is there no bed?”
For a moment, it seemed that the kids didn’t recognise a double-decker bed even if they saw one, which didn’t make sense to Alex, because surely, some of them would be sleeping in one themselves? A few seconds later however, one girl clarified the question by exclaiming: “Oh my God, there are no mattresses!”
Little things like that moved them. The class thought it was extremely heartless of the employer not to provide mattresses and pillows.
“I quickly made a mental note of that,” said Alex. “In our outreach, we need to be able to tailor our messages to different audiences for maximum impact.
“Different audiences will approach the subject in their own ways. Certain aspects resonate more than others, and that’s to be expected. For example, even when poverty was an issue relatively remote to them, it was enough that the teenagers grasped that justice was at the heart of TWC2’s mission; it explains the social gap we attend to and the response we work towards.”
TWC2 thanks the organisers of Ang Mo Kio Methodist Church Youth Camp 2011 for the opportunity to discuss this subject with a younger generation.