By Sun Hanchen

Every day, tens of thousands of foreign workers begin their day in the wee hours of the morning. They are employed to do blue-collar work shunned by Singaporeans – construction, maintenance and transport amongst others – and are often treated as faceless economic factors. But they have families, and it is in the hope of providing a better life for them that thy have chosen to go abroad to work.

Here are profiles of two of them.

Razib, who goes by only one name, sits down in front of me and introduces himself. His jovial mood and bright smile is infectious; he maintains his friendly demeanour throughout the interview. The 23-year-old has been in Singapore for two  and a half years, coming from Mymensingh, Bangladesh. He left for Singapore right after graduating high school. Back home, his parents are retired, and he has three brothers and a sister who are working.

Razib (pictured above) is not the first member of his family to come to Singapore to work. All three of his brothers have also been employed here as shipyard workers, but have since returned home. Razib, like them, also works at the shipyard. “Singapore like, Singapore working,” he says, appreciating both the place and the economic opportunity. Remuneration is the chief reason – he earns far more working in Singapore, over other places like Malaysia or the Middle East.

Most of Razib’s salary is remitted to his family in Bangladesh. The S$300 they receive monthly is used mainly to fund his parents’ and grandparents’ expenses. That money has gone far, both literally and figuratively – Razib’s (and his brothers’) hard work has allowed his parents to retire early, at just 50 years old. It is not without cost though – he has not had a chance to return home at all to see his family in 30 months. His only mode of communication is through audio calls, which he does religiously every third day. While not completely cut off from family, voice alone can never compare to being physically with them.

In Singapore, Razib visits Little India on his days off with his friends like many other foreign workers. They have meals together at restaurants, and spend the day walking around the area, before having supper and returning to their dormitories to prepare for another work week – no different from the average Singaporean family, dwelling type and recreation venue aside.

We next speak to Govindaraj Palanivel. Palanivel hails from Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu, where he previously sold home-cooked food by the roadside for a living. Five years ago, he made the decision to work in Singapore instead, and has been here since. Unfortunately, he suffered a workplace injury on 13 January this year that left him with 17 stitches above his knee.

One of many pictures of his daughters Palanivel keeps on his phone

Unlike Razib, Palanivel is considerably older at 43. When asked about his family, Palanivel’s face lights up as he mentions his wife and two daughters – one in primary 4, the other primary 2. He eagerly unlocks his phone and opens his photo gallery, which is filled with photos of his children. Returning to the home screen, we notice his wallpaper is also a picture of his daughter – but that is to be expected from a family man who puts in twelve-hour days, six days a week to ensure they have sufficient money for their education. “Doctor, engineer… need money,” he tells us of his concerns in funding his children’s tertiary studies.

Being the sole breadwinner of the family, Palanivel used to remit S$200 a month to his family, but now he is only able to send half that amount, from the dribbles of payout he is currently getting. Having been cut by a saw during work, he has been unable to work since. Palanivel has to first go for surgeries and physiotherapy sessions to ensure he is able to completely recover – and only then can he even think of recommencing work. Given that his accident happened five months ago and he is far from done with his treatment, it is no question that his income has taken a gigantic hit.

Razib’s and Palanivel’s stories illustrate how Singapore still remains an attractive destination for foreign workers, in spite of how they are treated or even scammed over here. The fact is that the wages they receive are so low, it would be impossible to feed a family here in Singapore, but the comparatively lower cost of living in their home countries makes that possible.

Even so, it is a precarious life. When the foreign worker is the sole breadwinner, any workplace malpractice or accident will have a serious impact on said worker’s family, as their only income source will be gone or severely reduced. We can see this in Palanivel’s recount, making  a strong case for proper safety oversight at workplaces.

Yet, even with the strictest oversight, accidents will happen, and that’s where an efficient and compassionate provision of medical care for quick recovery, and fastest possible compensation process make a difference. Currently, workers are often stuck in limbo for months or years: no income support, yet not allowed to work nor allowed to go home. TWC2 sees these occurrences regularly.

We see foreign workers all around us in Singapore,  upright breadwinners doing their jobs in order to put food on the table for their families. But do we treat them as mere objects?