By Ashley Loh
“Step out of your middle-class mentality” — this was one of the first few things said to us on our first day of attachment. My experience with TWC2 has definitely opened my eyes to a world that was rather different from my own.
I was given many opportunities to meet people and see places I would never have done on my own. Daily interviews were conducted with migrant workers of different nationalities at locations such as the TWC2 Soup Kitchens in Little India, as well as on various curbs in Geylang areas. These areas which were once foreign to me became my second home over the past three weeks.
These experiences have increased my awareness of many problems migrant workers faced, of which I was ignorant of before. It has also enabled me to think of societal problems in perspectives I had never considered before.
Many migrant workers faced problems that included cramped and overcrowded accommodation, lack of sanitary facilities and so on. I never realized that such problems were so common and rampant amongst the migrant worker community. Their living conditions were usually rather poor as juxtaposed to the average Singaporean. However, many of us (me included) have been guilty of the occasional complaints and lack of contentment with our comparatively luxurious living abodes. Furthermore, it was also very humbling to see the strong sense of gratitude and good faith a few migrant workers had towards their employers for the job they had. This was despite the difficulties and mistreatments they faced. My increased awareness of such situations has served as a personal timely reminder to stop focusing on the things I did not have, but instead to count the blessings I already had.
My interactions with the migrant workers not only allowed me to better understand their culture and mentalities, but also altered my perception of them. I was pleasantly surprised to find them to be extremely friendly and sociable. Their friendly disposition helped me to overcome my initial hesitation towards approaching and conversing with them. Furthermore, the strong sense of camaraderie between the migrant workers of similar nationalities was also admirable. Fellow Bangladeshi migrant workers would enthusiastically help each other in translation during the interview even if they were complete strangers at that time.
Our daily interaction with the workers opened my eyes to not only the harsh realities of the migrant worker landscape, but also the positive realities. Contrary to common belief, many migrant workers have reflected that xenophobia is not as rampant as it seems, as they generally do not receive any form of prejudiced from citizens around them. Instead, some of them have received acts of kindness from our very own Singaporeans. This refuted the blanket assumption of our society to be generally increasingly xenophobic towards foreign workers.
Our work at TWC2 was closely related to the Submissions they had made to MOM on 30 October 2013 in response to MOM’s call for public submissions in connection with the second phase of its review of the Employment Act and the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act. The exercise of cross-referencing TWC2’s Submissions with the current legislations revealed many areas of the law on which the legislations were either ambiguous or silent on. After much interaction with the migrant workers, I believe that many of their current problems would be less rampant if our legislations addressed them or were less ambiguous. As a first year law student with much to learn about the legislations of Singapore, I have learnt that striking a healthy balance between respecting the laws of Singapore while questioning the adequacy of the law from the perspectives of various stakeholders in related legislations (i.e. the migrant workers with regards to the EFMA) would be extremely helpful for a more holistic contextual application of our laws.
In addition, I was able to immerse into and understand the operations of an NGO. An NGO like TWC2 generally operates on limited resources and donations from the public. Efficiency and effectiveness is of the utmost importance. These qualities were emphasized and practiced during our limited daily interview sessions of about 2 hours. We learnt to ask more directed and focused interview questions in order to achieve both a high quantity and quality of interviews.
During my time with TWC2, I observed how their social workers handled their casework and interacted with the migrant workers themselves. I was heartened by the dedication and effort constantly put in by the social workers to help improve the overall welfare of migrant workers, one worker at a time. A senior social worker had shared that while his 10 year experience as a social worker was fulfilling as a whole, there were also frustrating and disheartening moments where he felt helpless and his best was simply not enough. Despite their tribulations, these social workers trudge on relentlessly in helping the beneficiaries. Their dedication and perseverance towards serving the community has inspired me to become more involved in community work in the future.
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, Ashley, was one of the four students. Here she provides a free-form reflection on the time she spent with us.