There were two types of cream cake and several slabs of banana cake

By Francesca

A crush of more than 230 out-of-work migrant labourers crowded in and around Isthana Restaurant in Little India Thursday night, March 15, 2012, to celebrate the fourth anniversary of Transient Workers Count Too’s Cuff Road Project. The programme provides hundreds of free meals every day to migrant workers who are stranded in Singapore without incomes as their cases of on-the-job injuries or salary disputes wind through the bureaucratic system.

The birthday celebration was a hectic affair with cake, gift bags, singing and dancing. But TWC2 treasurer Alex Au described the event as bittersweet: “This project shouldn’t exist! The fact that we have to feed anyone at all is an embarrassment to us as Singaporeans.”

John Gee did the honours, cutting the birthday cake

TWC2 immediate past president John Gee said, “We want not to be needed anymore.”

And yet, the need persists. Bimol Chandra, who injured his knee in a shipyard accident in 2010, clutched the gift bag volunteers handed out at the party. “I no money now. Anything to give, I can take,” he smiled. The gift bag he received — bags came with different mixes of contents — contained a towel, a shaving kit, a tube of toothpaste, bath soaps and snacks. For a lucky few, their gift bags held the most sought-after item of the night: a new sarong.

Volunteers help pack gift bags before the event

Au says the public’s response to the online Facebook appeal for donations for the 4th Birthday Party was far greater than expected. Some donated cash, others donated in kind. Whole cartons of goods came into the office in the days leading up to the party. “Increasingly, people understand that the plight of migrant workers is an issue and that everyone must chip in a little bit,” he said.

Chipping in by being there to help hand out the goodies was volunteer and migrant domestic worker Vilma Corpuz. The 40-year-old Filipina says she volunteers to help these men because she remembers what it was like when she first came to Singapore for work and wasn’t given enough to eat. “I can see their pain. I need to do something about it,” said Vilma.

32-year-old M D Moshin from Bangladesh said TWC2 is, “Awesome! It’s very nice. We are so many problems. Now I suffer less. You solve my ‘makan’(meal) problem.” Moshin, who has lodged a claim against his former employer for unpaid salary, says volunteers at the Cuff Road Project have “nice behaviour; they always smiling and talking.”

A K M Mohsin addressing the crowd before the show

After dinner and dessert, many of the men streamed upstairs to the drop-in centre Dibashram, run by TWC2 executive committee member Debbie Fordyce and A K M Mohsin, publisher of Bengali newspaper Bangla Kanthar. A K M Mohsin had singlehandedly arranged a show, featuring a famous actress and five other dance artists from Bangaldesh. Before the main act however, Bangladeshi workers in Singapore provided the crowd warmers, reciting poetry they had composed themselves, that told of homesickness, aching bodies and longing hearts. Another worker was invited several times to sing and some of the songs he chose were obviously popular, with other workers mouthing the words along.

TWC2’s free food program started four years ago in 2008 when TWC2 volunteers saw migrant men sleeping on the streets of Singapore. “We couldn’t provide accommodation or employment for them,” explains John Gee. But food? That was possible. John says The Cuff Road Project, “always tries to link direct services with advocacy. Rather than pick up the pieces (of a bad policy), it’s better to stop the crises from arising in the first place.”

Consequently, the Cuff Road Project has never been about food alone. Based on the data and real-life stories TWC2 records, the organisation makes proposals to the government for better policies aimed at preempting problems.

And for the workers, TWC2 volunteers are there to listen to each man’s experience, then to offer advice as to his rights and the options he may have in pursuing his claims. The more senior volunteers help by writing to the Ministry of Manpower, hospitals or the police to expedite cases.

Hard choice for workers tonight: Food, gift bags, cake, singing, dancing. . . or tell volunteers my sad story?

So, even as goodie bags were being handed out, and huge slabs of banana cake and cream cake were being cut and pressed into eager hands, several workers were sitting with volunteers Muni Roger and Jill Ratnam, telling their stories and asking how they could get fair resolution.

The two women stayed cheerful throughout the evening, even as they were swamped by throngs of men eager for free meals, cake and gift bags. “Everyone likes presents every once in awhile,” said Muni. “There isn’t much inside, but it’s the thought that counts. They are not forgotten.”