By Fatima Ying
I was given the opportunity to intern for TWC2 and the experience allowed me to interact with migrant workers, most of whom are Indian and Bangladeshi nationals. Through my conversations with them, I got to find out more about their culture and lifestyle here and gained some interesting insights into the world of this bunch of new found bondhus (friends).
So let me share the top five that made me go “Whoa, I didn’t know that!”
1. They’re supportive of the alcohol ban
Since the Little India riot in December 2013, the ban on sale and consumption of alcohol in public places of Little India has been in force every weekend, public holiday and the eve of a public holiday. These are days when most migrant workers get their days off. This partial ban on public drinking in Little India has reinforced racist stereotype of migrant workers – that they love drinking. From my experience in TWC2 however, I found out that most of them do not drink – “Bangladeshi men no drink, maybe 5 – 10%, because we’re Muslims.”
The misconception that locals have about migrant workers who hang out in Little India is that they are all “Banglas” (Bangladeshi nationals), and since this group of migrant workers consists of Indian and Bangladeshi nationals, we have unknowingly ignored the distinction between the two races. There are tensions between the different races and therefore do not like to be associated with each other. Said one of my Bangla interviewees: “Indian men ah, many many drink, if no drink water can tahan, no drink alcohol cannot tahan.” The colloquial term ‘cannot tahan’ has the meaning of ‘unable to bear it’
But to my surprise, most of the interviewees (made up of both Indians and Bangladeshis) support the alcohol ban imposed in Little India. They told me, “no drinking better ah, because if people drinking, fighting already and no money to send back [to family].” Contrary to the stereotypes, these migrant workers are actually sensible individuals who understand the implication of alcoholism.
2. Some migrant workers keep their parents in the dark about their occupation
I was taken aback when I first heard from one of them that his parents were not aware that he was employed as a construction worker in Singapore, “My family thinking, my son come Singapore do office work. So every day, I call them at 5 o’clock and tell them I finish work already.” Continuing, he said, “If my mother know I come here hard job, she cry.”
I also discovered through my 20 interviews that some of them have actually been to university and are degree holders.
They also mentioned that in Bangladesh, people are hired based on their financial background – and therefore with the prevalence of bribery, it is extremely difficult for the less well-off to get a job. He gave me an example “You see, bank ah, they need ten people, but hundred people apply for job. So those who pay more money to the interviewer will get the job lah. Bangladesh this country, many alibaba (dishonest) people.”
Burdened with the responsibilities of providing for their family, they have no choice but to search for opportunities elsewhere, thus easily falling prey to employment scams and having to endure a journey full of risk.
3. They visit the casino on their days off
I randomly asked a few of the migrant workers where they would spend their days off. Almost all them said “Marina”. After a bit of enquiry, I found out that what they meant was actually Marina Bay Sands’ Casino. They said, “of course, I go there before lah, you (referring to me as a Singaporean) go $100 but Bangla men go free, I just show my work permit, Special Pass (given to those with an ongoing case with MOM) also can go in.”
This struck me: If Singaporeans and permanent residents are made to pay a $100 levy to enter a casino – because the government is worried about the potential harmful effects of gambling – then shouldn’t the government be worried about those work permit holders as well? Some of these workers owe thousands of dollars to agents back in their hometown, a debt incurred in order to work overseas. But being paid an average of merely $20 a day, these workers are under pressure to clear off their debts as soon as possible. Otherwise, the growing interest might make their financial situation worse. Yet, despite a small chance of winning, some of these migrant workers still find gambling worthy of a shot. But I am sure that many would have their hard-earned money gambled and gone in a day or less.
4. They want more overtime work
According to regulations by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), employees are not allowed to work more than 12 hours a day or accumulate more than 72 overtime hours a month, unless the employer makes a request to MOM and MOM approves the request. After helping TWC2 social workers with several salary cases, I found out that most workers have exceeded the maximum of 72 overtime hours a month. Some even ran up as many as 120 hours. My initial impression was that their employers were abusing the workers unscrupulously. However, the workers themselves told me that they actually want more OT. “I like OT because my basic pay little money only. I work in Singapore for eight years. My basic salary increase by $1 only, from $18 – $19, how to survive? Last time, kopi (a cup of coffee) 60 cents can buy, now $1.20 but my salary no change. So if every day, I OT till 10pm the best, I can earn more money.”
Working overtime till 10pm meant that this migrant worker would have worked for about 13 hours a day (minus an hour for lunch). Such a practice increases the risk of them getting injured through fatigue. For example, jobs such as welding or flame-cutting require a lot of concentration. One wrong move and their finger might get chopped off. But in order for them to cope with inflation, they need the longer hours.
5. They love Singapore
Despite all the atrocities they’ve been through – employment scams, injury at work, horrible bosses that refuse to pay salaries (to name a few) – most of the workers I spoke to told me that they do not regret coming to Singapore, and in fact, they love Singapore. “If government give me PR here, of course I want to stay here forever. Singapore Good! ” Most of the workers complained about corruption in their country and how no justice could be done there. One of the them said, “Bangladesh ah, police shooting people on the road.” Another added, “in India, you make police report, you give money first, no money you need to wait one month, two month. Sometimes even police don’t care. Not like Singapore, everyone helping me, no money no problem I just need to give my statement to the police.”
Some of these workers have even brought their family over for a visit. “Last time, when I am on special pass, my wife come here, I show her Marina, Sentosa, Chinese Garden, All Singapore I show. She also always ask me when am I going to bring her back to Singapore again. But that time she coming $3,000 no more already, how to bring again?”
Glancing at the infrastructure and housing developments around, I was curious about their feelings towards the completion of construction projects they’ve worked on before, such as HDB flats and MRT lines. One of the migrant workers told me, “Sometimes when I look at the HDB I build I crying, happy cry because I know some family is staying there now. I make their home.” Another said “I feel like I am part of Singapore because I have contributed to the country. But I know, government rule, I cannot stay here.” Despite their contribution to the development of Singapore, most of these workers know that it is impossible to be citizens of Singapore.
P.S. the content above is not representative of the entire population of Singapore’s migrant workers as it is based on conversations with a group of twenty with whom I had the chance to speak to up close and personal.