Transient Workers Count Too has served half a million meals since our Cuff Road Project began in 2008. The milestone was celebrated on Monday 28 April 2014 with a boisterous lucky draw and contest.
Nonetheless, reflecting on its significance, TWC2 president Russell Heng suggests the event deserves mixed feelings: “Half a million — while we had a bash, I’m not sure it’s something that reflects so well on Singapore. There hasn’t been much improvement in the social safety net that the State provides foreign workers. That TWC2 is expecting to be providing at least another half million meals in the coming years should not be seen as anything flattering about the system we have.”
Recalling its beginnings, “TWC2 was moved to do something when we heard about men sleeping rough in Little India; workers so broke that they could not even afford to buy food to eat,” says Russell. “We didn’t have the resources to house them — there were just too many — but we felt that we could provide regular meals.”
That was in 2008. Six years on, we continue to register about 600 men a month for the meal programme. On a typical day, about 150 of the registrants take breakfast with us, another 250-300 take dinner. However, for the Indian and Bangladeshi workers with TWC2, the Cuff Road Project is more than just food. It’s their primary meeting point for meeting friends, getting some advice or help translating an English-language document from MOM or hospitals. It’s the focal point for the injured and out-of-work community. Says Debbie Fordyce, coordinator of the programme, “It’s an easy location for workers to get some case advice and a friendly ear.”
Moreover, the programme itself has gradually expanded to provide additional services. “The Cuff Road Project has grown well beyond food,” Debbie points out. “We also distribute EZ-Link cards to those who need to make their way to hospital for follow-up appointments.” The latter is TWC2’s FareGo programme.
On 28 April 2014, over 400 men showed up; most having heard of the ‘party’ and the fabulous lucky draw prizes, which included hampers and tablets. Lots of other donations were also distributed either through vouchers or in goodie bags There were 300 Fairprice shopping vouchers donated by Evelyn See and Melissa Eu from The Academic Workshop, plastic document bags sponsored by Arrow Communications, about 350 pairs of shoes donated by Jesslee Shoes Pte Ltd, toothbrush packs and soap from Marina Mandarin Hotel, and more.
Cash donations came in from many — thank you very much — with the largest three donors being Thomson Reuters Asia Pte Ltd, Camper’s Corner Outdoor Outfitters Pte Ltd and Parallel Paths Exhibition.
In addition to the usual dinner, another restaurant — Nandini’s — provided at their full cost snacks, ice-cream and soft drinks. The boss of Nandini’s, Mr Saravanakumar, was invited to be one of the judges for the talent and best-dressed contest.
Somewhere in the middle of the programme, a huge cake — cost discounted by Butter Studio — was brought out to cheers. Reflecting TWC2’s penchant for creative solutions to unusual problems, the lucky draw, contest and cake-cutting took place on a lorry that Hairo Trading and Supply Co kindly loaned us for free, which we then decorated to serve as a stage.
One among the over 400 men of that evening had to be picked as the half-millionth diner. It was not possible to identify the man through serial counting, because when the men arrive for dinner, they are processed in parallel. Another creative solution had to be found. We decided to put all the meal cards of the evening into a bag, and at 9 pm, draw a card to represent the half-millionth. The lucky “representative” was Abdul Malek.
The crowd around the stage was too thick for your writer to reach Abdul Malek for a comment, so we spoke to a few other workers instead. Bangladeshi worker Altaf, between licks of ice-cream, says he would have been lost if not for TWC2 and the Cuff Road Project. “TWC2 very good. If no TWC2 here, I don’t know how.”
Like Altaf, another Bangladeshi worker, Mannan, thinks TWC2 represents the side of Singapore he really likes. “Actually, Singapore very good, people very nice,” he says. “But I unlucky, have accident… so many, many problem.”
But, as Russell pointed out, the bureaucratic maze that workers have to thread their way through can be a daunting challenge. Says Debbie, who personally keeps an eye on at least twenty cases simultaneously, “Workers who are injured or who have not received their salaries face huge problems in Singapore as they’re not allowed to work and may wait months or even years for their cases to be resolved — the process is quite unfriendly to them — but we felt that hunger should be the least of their problems.”
Exhausted at the end of the evening, Russell adds, “This milestone would not have been possible without the generous support of the Lee Foundation and other donors to the programme over the years. Or without the time and dedication that countless volunteers have devoted to keeping the programme running like clockwork.”
Not least the subcommittee led by Sarah Norwood and Irene Ong who organised this Half-million Meals event.
Debbie chips in: “”I am also very grateful to many well-wishers who, from time to time, send in fruits, toiletries, phone cards and other useful things. The Cuff Road Project isn’t just a TWC2 project anymore; it’s a focal point for Singaporeans to demonstrate that they care.”