By Francesca

A striking new video of candid conversations between Singapore Management University students and Bangladeshi construction workers has become a YouTube sensation in Singapore. Between its release on March 7, 2012 and the end of the month, more than 37,000 people have viewed the seven-minute student film, “Unsung – The Invisible Workforce behind this City.”

Benjamin Chia, 22, one of the student filmmakers, says the movie is attracting eyeballs because “It’s uncommon, something that people don’t usually get to see.” He adds, “it’s shocking. It’s interesting. It goes against the stereotype of Bangladeshis as rowdy, uncivilized, lecherous men. Instead it shows a very human side of them.”

In the movie, Bangladeshi laborers speak openly about how their wives cry in their absence, their struggle to make ends meet on their $18 daily salary and their dreams of providing easier lives for their children. During the intimate conversations, the construction workers do their best press out smiles, but at least one man is brought to the verge of tears as he reveals that an on-the-job injury means he can no longer work or provide for his family.

Seven SMU business school students (six Singaporeans and one Chinese national) created the film as their community service project for a leadership class. Mr. Chia said the group chose to make a video because they wanted to make a sustainable contribution that would have long-term impact. They chose the topic because “Singapore is a first world society with a third world working class. The contrast is shocking.” When 21-year old student film maker Loh Zhen Yang told his parents about the project topic, he remembers them asking, “Why are you doing this? Is it legal? Are you going to get in trouble?”

To make the film, the group of three women and four men introduced themselves to workers at construction sites and at coffee shops in Little India. Some of the men were reluctant, but most were quite forthcoming. The students invited the men for dinner, and through the shared meal, barriers broke down and then workers opened up. “I can relate to them more personally now. One guy sold his house to come here!” said student interviewer Mr. Loh. “The amount of sacrifices they make to come here, we don’t realize because we don’t talk to them.”

The students made the video for the Singapore group Transient Workers Count Too, which directly serves migrant workers with food, classes and casework while simultaneously advocating on their behalf. According to TWC2, about half of all male work permit holders in Singapore (an estimated 350,000) are from Bangladesh, which makes them the majority of the construction workforce. To get to Singapore, many go into debt to pay the roughly $7-10,000 in agency and placement fees.

To launch the video, the group of three women and four men posted the film on YouTube and also looped it continuously for three days on a large screen monitor in the underground concourse at SMU, an area with high foot traffic. Students on campus stopped in their tracks to view the film, and then hand wrote comments about what they saw on post-it notes, which were displayed on a large poster.

Students could also try on hard hats and construction vests at the booth to get a sense of an alternate life.

To promote online viewing, the students simply alerted their friends through  Facebook and asked them to share it if they liked it. The student group posted the video on March 7, and within three days, the video had 20,000 hits. More than one hundred viewers have commented on the film on YouTube, most expressing sincere surprise at the pay and living conditions of Bangladeshi construction workers. Viewer whateverkumar posted, “Imagine if we have to build this city ourselves and earning $18 a day? We can’t survive a month in this country.” BoABEGINS wrote, “remember the hardship they face and remember.. that they are human like us too. Show them how compassionate and warm we Singaporeans can be towards them.” But the video did not stir open-mindedness in all viewers. One person wrote, “I empathize the bangladeshi workers in every way but they should stop staring at girls in their own creepy way cause it’s really freaky.”

For the student filmmakers, the video was a success. Mr. Chia said it helped him to see the men “for who they are, not what they do.” He added that the video “helped soften the views of people.” Mr. Loh recognized a change in himself and, “At the end, my parents empathized with migrant workers. Before the video, they had seen the workers in a different light.” Some viewers were so inspired by the film, that they asked how to help. Mr. Chia says helping isn’t complicated. To start, “Just say ‘hi’ and smile. Because they built your bedroom.”