By Rachel Hui. Photos by Alex Tay.
On 26 August 2012, TSMP Law Corporation sponsored a trip to the zoo for a hundred Bangladeshi and Indian migrant workers receiving assistance from TWC2, along with ten TWC2 volunteers.
Arriving early at the designated pick-up location on a Sunday morning to ensure their registration, many of the men came in their Sunday best. TWC2 volunteer Lucy Theodas noted that it was a special day as many were making their first trip to the zoo – one of Singapore’s best-known attractions – despite having worked in Singapore for several years. While waiting for the buses to arrive, TSMP lawyers distributed goodie bags packed with useful items like battery operated mini-fans, energy bars, and water bottles, as well as $10 phone cards that would provide the men with up to 180 minutes of talk-time with their families at home.
The men were divided into different teams, marked by their coloured wristbands, and were greeted by TSMP lawyers upon their arrival at the zoo. The lawyers were easily identified by their red polo-shirts emblazoned with shark mascots. As one lawyer explained, “people like to compare lawyers with sharks, but we’re sharks with a heart!”
Together with the lawyers and volunteers, the teams charted their routes through the zoo. Israfil, a Bangladeshi national currently waiting for a salary dispute with his previous employer to be settled, said he was curious about the zoo’s collection of exotic snakes. Many of the men were most impressed by the tiger exhibit, where they were able to get up close with two prowling White Bengal Tigers – the national animal of both India and Bangladesh.
Anxious to make the most of their time, the teams hopped on and off the trams in an attempt to cover the most ground. It was flurry of excited photo taking and video recording as the men whipped out their camera-phones at every opportunity to take photos and videos with the animals. Workers seeking assistance from TWC2 while pursuing their salary or injury claims have no income and a trip to the zoo – or to any of Singapore’s other major attractions – is certainly a luxury most of them can ill-afford on their own. This sponsored visit was a precious chance for them to have a change of scene and to bring home a few happy memories of their time in Singapore.
The members of the teams forged a strong sense of rapport with one another, as a constant stream of jokes and laughter could be heard among them. When it came to the crowded elephant show, there were shouts of “pink!”, “yellow!” and “orange!”, as members strove to help each other get the best seats in the house.
In the course of the day, the lawyers got to know the men and the unfortunate circumstances that had led them to seek assistance from TWC2. Several lawyers expressed disquiet over the systemic challenges that continue to prevail for migrant workers in Singapore. “I hope that more employers and Singaporeans will take time to get to know and understand these foreign workers who work hard to earn their keep,” said TSMP lawyer Nicole Wee. “A little time spent can go a long way in building bridges to understand another culture present in our nation.” Nicole said she was struck by how kind and thoughtful the men in her group were, and was especially grateful when one man took out his battery-operated fan and held it up for her when he thought that she might be getting uncomfortable in the heat.
After a morning of exploration, the teams reconvened at the Shaw Amphitheatre to be entertained by the “Rainforest Fights Back” – an animal show featuring lemurs, orang utans, otters, and pea fowls fighting back against a greedy land developer bent on destroying the rainforest.
The day concluded with lunch and a lucky draw, with prizes ranging from FairPrice vouchers to a grand prize of a digital camera sponsored by TSMP Law Corporation. The lucky winners were grateful for the vouchers, and said it would help them with paying for food and other necessities. In fact, some of the men were in such high spirits by the end of the day that a spontaneous medley of song and dance broke out to much applause and laughter, and to the amusement of many curious onlookers who hurried into the amphitheatre to check out the unscheduled performance.
For Jeten, a Bangladeshi worker recovering from a wrist injury, this day at the zoo was bittersweet one. It was accompanied by a sense of nostalgia, as he was reminded of home. “Like near my village in Bangladesh, many animals around!”, he said, inviting this volunteer to visit his village outside of Dhaka.
On behalf of the men and volunteers, TWC2 President Russell Heng thanked TSMP Law Corporation Director Ian Lim and his team of lawyers for their generosity and time in making this special event possible. He also noted that TSMP’s support and pro bono legal services had been significant to TWC2’s advocacy work. “In the course of TWC2’s work, we come across many sharks,” he said, referring to employers who resort to exploitative practices, “but it’s good to have sharks with heart on our side.”
This trip to the zoo would no doubt be a treasured memory for the migrant workers and TWC2 volunteers who were there.
Photo credit: Alex Tay. See more of the pictures he took of the event at http://www.flickr.com/photos/