By Sanjana Jayaraman
Sometimes because of the very nature of life and development, we tend to sideline people. No one deserves that kind of treatment because it is unfair and that person could very well have been one of us. Foreign workers are as much human as we all are. This article highlights the very basic and often forgotten fact that what they need is exactly the same as what we need.
Sometimes this just takes a friendly nod or a warm smile. This is to let them know that we acknowledge their presence and that they mean something.
Life as we know it is ephemeral; filled with transience, crowds, impermanence and ignorance. We pass by thousands of people every day. We either do not look at them at all or look right through them. But after the bustle, we usually have a home. The metaphorical home refers to a person, or people, who fill us with warmth, understand us and love us the most. These people make us understand the meaning of family, relationships, friendship and love.
For migrant workers, all these are probably feelings and relationships that they sacrificed or left behind back in their homeland when they made the decision to work in a foreign country. More often than not, besides their co-workers, no one else knows them and they do not know anyone else too. So that one nod or smile goes a long way to welcome them into our society and let them know that we acknowledge and accept them.
Existence is never enough for anybody. We all want to be heard. No one wants their life to be spent in silent cries suppressing hidden, unexpressed hopes.
We all have at least one person who will take our calls in the middle of the night, take their time off to meet us and even share a lot through silence. We all know how much that helps. Maybe that person may not solve our problems but they listen to them. We draw strength to carry on.
For workers, that five or thirty minutes that we spend listening to their sorrows and hopes make a difference. Some workers do not share their problems with their loved ones because they fear that their folks will be worried. One worker even said that his parents will give up their life if they knew about the problems he is facing. In situations like this, our genuine interest in their lives and problems is much appreciated. Their catharsis sometimes helps them to realise that they are not alone and reminds them that their loved ones back at home are always thinking about them.
Friendship is easy, but sometimes we are stingy with it.
In an unknown, foreign place, to find friends is like finding an oasis; someone who can share a little sorrow, joy, tension, laughter and comfort.
Workers are like anyone of us. Cultures and backgrounds differ but the common thread of humanity exists that makes it only natural that friendships can be formed between any two people, if only we let go of our prejudices and preconceptions. These 3 weeks spent mingling with workers has been an amazing experience. They recognise us, wave out and update us on their cases and lives in general. Some tell us about their lives back at home and let us in on their hobbies, likes and dislikes.
And the most amazing thing about friendship is that it is selfless and sometimes the happiness we get out of it is purely because we have made someone else smile and laugh.
“It’s going to be alright.” We have heard that line many times. I may not be able to speak for everybody but that line goes a long way for me. Some may think it’s trite, overused, overrated and hardly ever helpful. But I still hold that the line has value. Things may not in fact be “alright” but it helps when someone tells us that, because it gives us hope that things might turn around for the better. Bleak times cannot possibly last forever. That assurance is much needed for workers, who face dire problems in many facets of their lives. This is not to say that false hope or empty promises are the way to go. Definitely attempts should and are made to solve their problems. However, the assurance helps and motivates them to seek help and keep trying.
At the end of life, what matters the most is what we have left behind in terms of our deeds and memories. What they need is what we take for granted in every day life. Sometimes it’s only small steps that people need to take to make a big difference.
For three weeks of December 2013, four first-year law students from the National University of Singapore were attached to Transient Workers Count Too, and given a project to interview migrant workers — those with jobs, and those without. Their Work Report is summarised at Informed consent, wages, kickbacks, termination and transfers. Their full report (pdf) can be downloaded from that post.
The writer of this opinion article, Sanjana, was one of the four students. Here she provides a free-form reflection on the time she spent with us.