The surge of Covid-19 cases in migrant worker dormitories has drawn a lot of attention to the plight of the residents there, but TWC2 remains acutely aware that there is a group of workers in even more dire straits. At least the men in the dormitories have a bed to sleep in and a roof over their heads. At least they have employers who can be held responsible for ensuring food and accommodation, as directed by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
But there are migrant workers who have been turfed out of employer accommodation and left to fend for themselves. They have neither job, nor food nor lodgings. In pre-Covid times, this was the main group reaching TWC2 for help; this group of unemployed workers are still here and are still as needy as ever. As much as we try to help workers stuck in dormitories (e.g. with phone top-ups so that they can stay in contact with their families through the lockdown), we remind ourselves that we should not overlook the most vulnerable of the vulnerable right in front of our eyes.
The classic profile of such a migrant worker would be someone who had either been injured at a worksite accident or unpaid his salary for months. He would have filed an injury or salary claim at MOM against his employer.
Consequently, unlike workers in dormitories, his relationship with his employer would have broken down irreparably. Either the employer turfed him out of his lodgings or the worker would be so fearful of being beaten up at night by thugs called in by the boss that staying on in the dorm would be unsafe. Many workers thus end up in rented bedspaces in Little India or the Geylang area, borrowing money from friends or relatives to pay landlords.
A typical room with rentable bedspaces
The above photo is taken from one of these tenement “hostels”. Read more about this particular location in the article: In Bangladesh, we don’t live like this.
It is shocking how expensive bedspaces are. Typically, the men pay $250 – $300 a month. There might be 4 – 6 men in a room, which means the landlord makes $1,000 to $1,800 per room per month. If the house has six rooms (quite typical), he rakes in $6,000 to $10,800 a month — money extracted from the poorest of the poor.
We’ve long served this subset of workers through our free meals programme
These workers are known to TWC2 because they would have signed up with our free meals programme, The Cuff Road Project. Ordinarily (but see next paragraph), we do not have the funds to help them pay rent, but at least we can ensure that they get nutritious food. Donors often come aboard too to sponsor fruits to accompany a meal.
It is not that we never help workers pay rent. Occasionally we do. Occasionally we come across a worker with neither friends or relatives and is so badly injured, he cannot even beg on the streets. TWC2 has long had a programme called Project Roof to help the most desperate cases. We generally take in up to ten men a month, a drop in the ocean of needs. But ten is all we can sustainably afford.
When the lockdown was imposed in early April, hundreds of men on our food programme were thrown into crisis. Friends and relatives who might previously have lent them money to pay rent could no longer do so, as they themselves were unable to work. Even if they had cash to spare, if these friends and relatives were staying in dorms gazetted as isolation areas, they couldn’t even come out to lend money to our guys.
By late April, TWC2 was getting increasingly desperate requests for help. Men were rightfully afraid that if they didn’t pay the next month’s rent, they would be sleeping on the streets. There’d be nowhere to wash, no toilet to use. Landlords who think nothing of charging $300 for a bedspace are not likely to be softhearted. The prospect of homelessness was real.
We rushed to our donors and asked them to support a rent money programme — a temporary expansion of Project Roof. To our great relief, they came through unhesitatingly.
We drew on the May 2020 sign-ups for the food programme to come up with a list of rent money beneficiaries. Our list came to 284 men. Since they were still eating with us through April and into May, it was thus a good indicator that they were living in the Little India area, and not in faraway dorms. Those stuck in dorms would have temporarily disappeared from our Cuff Road Project enrolment.
Distribution Day (“D-Day”) was set for 11 May 2020
We disbursed the rent money in cash, since many men did not have bank accounts
When the men came for their dinner token at the usual time (6:30 – 8:30pm) they could check to see if their name was on the Project Roof list, and then get a collection slip with a collection time stated.
Each man would get $300.
Collection of rent money would be between 9:00pm and 11:00pm later the same night. We gave each man an assigned collection time in an attempt to space them out time-wise, but in the end they were so anxious about the rent money — understandably so — they came well ahead of schedule, prepared to queue patiently for assistance.
If the man’s name was on the list (almost all were except for new clients signing up on the day itself for whom we wouldn’t have prepared money packets beforehand), we gave him a collection slip
At the appointed time, and at a different station, the man could present his collection slip. We would check his photo ID to verify his identity before handing the money packet to him.
What resulted was a long queue (actually two parallel queues) that stretched at least 150 metres down the road. We had ten staff and volunteers on duty whose role was crowd control; so we were prepared for any eventuality. In the end however, the workers were totally cooperative, keeping a generous 1 – 2 metre distance from each other.
The men formed two parallel queues, one inside the arcaded walkway and one on the road. The queues stretched an entire block (about 150 metres)
One of our guys decided to take his phone camera and video the outer queue as he walked down the entire block.
A police car drove by as did three foot constables. They asked us what was going on, but were satisfied with the orderliness of the situation. “If you have any problem, just call us,” they said as they left.
We gave out around $85,000 to the 284 men.
More importantly, we gave them the security of a bed and shelter from rain for another month.
The men were asked to sign to acknowledge receipt
This guy had his rent worries lifted for a month
Another worker who benefited — and holding his Special Pass, not a Work Permit, which indicated that he had lost his job and was without income.
We had a reporter with us on D-Day. Here is the video story she did. It’s a bit confusing because in the voice-over, she refers to the amount we gave out as “two hundred dollars”. She was probably basing it on US dollars, whereas we gave out $300 Singapore dollars to each man.