During this Covid-19 pandemic, TWC2’s social workers and volunteers stay in regular contact with our clients. We hear innumerable stories from these workers each giving precious “on the ground” snapshots of what life is like under the lockdown. Here are our choice stories:
30 men to a toilet
Worker Bairo-G (a pseudonym) stays in what sounds like a factory-converted dorm in the Sungei Kadut area. While helping him solve some issues with his medical appointments and prescriptions, we learn that there are 30 men in his room, in 15 double-decker beds. It’s hot and stuffy, he says. He’s only glad that he is on the third floor, whereas it is the fourth floor with Covid-19 cases. The cases have been moved to Expo; they are not in the dorm now.
As in so many factory-converted dorms, the shared toilets and showers are down the hallway. There are 10 toilets for the entire floor, but his is not the only room on the floor. Bairo-G reckons that there are a total of about 150 men staying on the third floor. That would give a residents-to-toilet ratio of 15:1, which is the bare minimum under our building codes.
However, in the name of social distancing, the dorm operator has sealed off half the toilets, so there are only five available toilets for the floor. The effective ratio now is 30:1.
He also has comments about the food he is getting. There’s a strange difference in the quality of dinner versus lunch that remains unexplained. The dinner is okay, but the lunch that is catered is “lousy”. Bairo-G cites an example of fish that seems as if it was cooked several days before.
Food complaints continue
Comments about food vary a lot from one dorm to another, so it’s probably due to the management decisions made regarding the food supply arrangements. Some make better decisions, others not. Until now it’s still not clear to the men who is in charge of arranging for food. Is it the employer, the dorm operator or the government?
From time to time we get photos of food they are given. If readers are familiar with Bangladeshi food, the pictures below will strike you as totally un-Bangladeshi.
They like to have loads of dahl and gravy over their rice. There also seems to be insufficient vegetables and fibre, and boiled cabbage (as in the first picture) is something that’s quite alien to them. Portion size is also a problem, and at some dorms, there is a lack of fruit.
Serangoon Road eerily quiet
TWC2’s field operations are centred in the Little India area. The Cuff Road Project, our free meals programme, continues under a Circuit-Breaker exemption. So, our volunteers have to get there at mealtimes, though we have massively reduced our volunteer numbers for the period.
We come out of Farrer Park MRT station and have to cross Serangoon Road to our field station. It’s a strange sight we get, with the normally busy Serangoon Road now virtually empty of traffic. The shops are closed; the sidewalks deserted where once they were crowded with tourists and workers on their day off. And it’s not even nightfall yet.
The above photo shows how different our Cuff Road Project is during the lockdown. We only have one volunteer out front keeping a distance from workers whereas previously we’d have as many as eight sitting with them and discussing their problems. Now, we only issue meal tokens and don’t do any case consultation. This is to keep the interaction brief. Instead, case consultation is done via WhatsApp during the lockdown, which can be very taxing on workers’ phone bills if they do not have wifi in their dorms or rooms.
Once in a while, we collate the donations we get and give them out at the evening meal. We prefer donations in money because that way we can buy the correct quantity of the really useful items. Donations in kind are logistically difficult for us — we have no place to store them till distribution day — and often come in mismatched quantities.
As can be seen from the photo above, we give things that the workers really need, such as consumables like soap, toothpaste and hand sanitisers, and nutritionally helpful fruits. There’s also a box of dates, appropriate for Ramadan. Of course, these would not have been possible if not for generous donors who’ve been replenishing our funds.
Some of our clients are stuck in their rented rooms because they still have valid Work Permits and they are construction workers. For this period, they’ve all been put on Stay-home Notice.
One might think that if they have Work Permits, they must have employers responsible for looking after them, but in fact many workers fall through the cracks. For example, they might have been injured at a workplace accident just prior to the lockdown and been thrown out of the dorms. The injured worker would have filed an injury claim against the company which the boss might have taken as an affront. So, even though the Work Permit is still valid, the worker is effectively abandoned. And now, they’re confined to their rooms under the law.
The ruling from the government is that employers are supposed to organise food delivery to their employees, but we know this is not always done and no bureaucracy can move fast enough to compel employers to deliver food by the next mealtime. Thus, the men still rely on TWC2 for food.
But they cannot come out to collect their packed meals. They have to rely on friends to collect their dinner for them. These friends would be those men on Special Passes (i.e. whose Work Permits have been cancelled) and they are not under any Stay-home notice. The photo below is of a guy collecting the donations for two other friends; he will later be collecting meals for the friends as well.
Another man in another crack
Another worker came by one day, let’s call him Bairo-H, with neither a valid Work Permit or a Special Pass. He’s fallen through a crack of his own.
It turns out that he filed a salary claim against his employer which remained unresolved when the lockdown came. Two weeks before the lockdown his Work Permit was cancelled by the employer. While, normally, he should consequently be issued a Special Pass, Bairo-H either didn’t know the Permit was cancelled or he was a bit tardy in making his way to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM); possibly a bit of both.
Once the lockdown came, MOM suspended its counter services. Not knowing how else to reach his case officer at MOM, Bairo-H simply let things be for much of April until we queried him as to his exact status.
We helped put him in touch with his MOM officer who confirmed that in fact he has been put on a Special Pass and gave him a text message on his phone stating this. For now, that’s all Bairo-H has to prove that he’s not an overstayer. We’re not clear about the expiry date of the Special Pass, as this detail is not included in the text message. We can only assume that since his salary claim is not over, the pass will be rolled over until it is.
The lockdown is a period when everybody has simply to play it by ear, and somehow manage.