By Pat Meyer and Christine Pelly, photos by Low Yim Kuan

Over the course of two days in January, twenty migrant workers from Bangladesh and India talked about their lives with just over 200 students from over 40 different countries. The students were 14- and 15-year-olds from an international school in Singapore, United World College of South East Asia,  East Campus. Each year UWCSEA offers a writers’ fortnight, and this year the Grade 9 students interviewed migrant workers as a primary source for feature articles they would write on the situation of migrant workers in Singapore.

uwcsea_0363a uwcsea_0366aEach day began with a brief presentation on TWC2 by Cuff Road volunteers to a sea of Grade 9 students in bright blue shirts. The presenter reminded the students that the reasons their families came to Singapore — for work and to provide a better future for their families — are the same reasons migrant workers from Bangladesh and India come to Singapore. We are all economic migrants. And yet, how markedly different our work experiences can be. Migrant workers routinely pay more than a year’s wages to secure a job, salaries may be paid late or incompletely, workers are bonded to one employer, and their passports are retained by their employers. These issues highlight the level of disempowerment and potential for exploitation faced by migrant workers.

Then the assembly broke up into smaller groups of 10 to 20 students and several workers for a question and answer session led by the students. The students had prepared for the interviews by reading stories and watching videos on the TWC2 website.

uwcsea_0379a uwcsea_0368aThey asked the workers about their personal stories and experiences, including:

  • When did you last see your family?
  • If you had work in your home country, why did you give it up to come to Singapore?
  • Have you paid off your loan (for the agent fees) to secure a job in Singapore?
  • How were you injured?
  • Do you regret coming to Singapore?
  • What motivates you to continue working/coming back in Singapore despite the challenges and unfair treatment?

Although addressing groups of school students was a new experience for the migrant workers, the men were willing speakers, handling the questions calmly and confidently. Some group of workers were accompanied by a Bengali or Tamil translator; other groups conducted their discussions in English. Sitting together and talking face-to-face, language differences were not a problem; the students and workers were able to communicate well.

uwcsea_0395a  uwcsea_0409aSofigul and Javed Chowdhuary, two of the workers who attended, said they thought the experience at UWCSEA was outstanding. Javed explained it was “the first time students from many nations will know about me, my work, my country.” He said the workers were grateful for the opportunity to speak with the students.  Senthil spoke eloquently about his life, dreams and hopes. He said he felt very fortunate in having had the opportunity to share his life lessons with young people. And the day was a welcome change from the men’s usual routine of waiting and appointments with doctors and Ministry of Manpower. Another worker, Gowthaman, summed it up, “Today, I very happy”.

It was the first opportunity for many students and teachers to have a lengthy conversation with migrant workers in the construction and shipyard industries:

openquote I hadn’t understood that many migrant workers are educated, middle-class individuals who come to Singapore to be perceived and treated merely as domestic workers.  It was quite shocking to discover this — Chin Yew Yeoh (student)

I learnt that these are men who have come to Singapore with great hopes for a better future, but how little is done for them.  We’re all migrant workers, but the difference in how they’re treated for their different work permit is horrifying — Rohan Ahuja (student)

We walk past people like Imran every day, so to hear a voice from a usually silenced community, and to learn things about these individuals’ lives and be able to begin to empathise, was eye-opening for teachers and students alike —  Gemma Markham (teacher)

uwcsea_0399a uwcsea_0421aPersonally I felt quite humbled—in awe of the resilience of the men we met, and their positivity in spite of the difficulties, sometimes tragedy, of their circumstances.  His (Senthil’s) motivation to provide his daughter with the education he did not have, as the reason to continue working despite harsh working conditions was a very powerful point — Dani Townsend (teacher)

When asked by a student to identify one factor that was the cause of their hardship in Singapore, several workers identified an errant employer as the main, if not only, factor.

Sandhya, one of the Cuff Road volunteers accompanying the workers, noted that the students were quite interested and asked thoughtful questions. It was a good exchange. Even though the small groups had about 45 minutes together, they ran out of time before running out of questions.



TWC2 would like to express out thanks to UWCSEA-East for arranging transportation, meals and hosting the workers and volunteers. Thanks also to Shabdar Ali, Md Moinul Haque and the Cuff Road volunteers for their help with registration, logistics and translation.