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:

Workers moved in from another dorm, then infections began

For most of April, Chodam-J (a pseudonym) felt lucky that his dorm in the Woodlands area did not have any Covid-19 infections. It’s a relatively small dorm with only two blocks, each block with a capacity of 120 men.  There are three levels per block, and the 120 men in each block are housed in a few large rooms — the largest room houses 20 persons.

But toilet and shower facilities are not sufficient. There are only 10 common toilets and showers on the ground floor of each block — so in normal times, the ratio is 12 men to 1 of this amenity. Apparently the toilets aren’t equipped with soap etc, as Chodam-J tells TWC2 that each man, having been given a toiletry/care package by the company (soap, sanitiser, toilet paper, thermometer, etc), has to take this pack with him when going to the bathrooms.

Up till two or three weeks ago, the entire complex remained remarkably free of infection. Then “a few” Chinese construction workers were transferred from elsewhere into the dorm, and soon after, one of these workers came down with the virus. Chodam-J believes that was how the dorm’s lucky streak ended. The government has since put the dorm under quarantine.

To-date, there have been ten cases, all from the other block in the dorm complex. The ten infected men have been taken away to Khoo Teck Puat Hspital in Yishun but their room-mates have been left in situ. Medical personnel came in to test them, and then asked them to self-monitor their health closely each day. Their rooms were cleaned, but after that, the roommates were returned to the same quarters.

Chodam-J says everyone is very anxious even if they live in the other block.

As for food, Ramadan breakfast is delivered about 4 am. Dinner is delivered about 5 pm, in readiness for the breaking of the fast a little after seven.

“How’s the food?” we ask Chodam-J. It’s bearable (“We just eat it.”), he says.

Thrown into the deep end of email

Chodam-K turned 45 in April 2020, making him older than the average migrant worker from Bangladesh. His beard, while short, is speckled with grey. His forehead is high, revealing a rapidly receding hairline.

He began working with a local company in September 2019, but by early April 2020 had come to TWC2 telling us that he had lodged a salary claim.

The Covid-19 lockdown came soon after and the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) curtailed all its counter services. Workers wanting to deal with the ministry’s officers had to do so electronically. That left older migrant workers with little familiarity with tech like Chodam-K high and dry.

As part of the process of lodging a salary claim, he had to open an email account. TWC2 has volunteers standing by at the State Courts to help workers open email accounts for the first time in their lives, so as to receive their passwords, etc. But it doesn’t mean that workers understand the whole concept of email or how to use it.

A recent evening at TWC2’s free meals programme, Chodam-K and a friend came up to TWC2 volunteers saying something about how he recently received a call from a Bengali-speaking lady asking him to reply to a series of emails sent by an officer in the department in charge of salary claims. Chodam-K’s English is weak, and even to tell us this, he had to depend on his friend to translate.

We took a look at the emails on his phone and while the matter wasn’t altogether clear, there was a tone of exasperation in the officer’s most recent email that Chodam-K had not replied to multiple earlier messages. Chodam-K said he did reply but apparently, the officer hadn’t received his return messages.  Chodam-K (through his friend) told us that the Bengali-speaking lady said something about how his case might be summarily closed if he didn’t reply immediately.

We wondered how a Bangladeshi worker of his generation who could barely speak English was expected to communicate in written English with his case officer through this tech medium called email. Would he even know how and where to press “send”?

We help him by emailing the officer to suggest that more use be made of the Bengali translator to communicate verbally with Chodam-K. Perhaps she can explain what exactly is needed from Chodam-K.

Pictures from Expo CCF

We have a worker who tested positive for Covid-19 but whose symptoms are relatively mild. He has sent us a few photos and a short video from Singapore Expo where he is housed. The exhibition halls of Expo has been converted into a Community Care Facility (CCF) which means the patients there have mild symptoms and low risk factors.

Using curtains and light partitions, the exhibition halls have been divided into private spaces. Each space houses two patients.

Typical two-person unit.

Meals are prepacked and catered. The breakfast queue isn’t as long as the dinner queue. The latter can be a grueling two-hour wait, starting around 4pm.

The dinner queue.

This dinner had rice, curry, vegetables, fresh fruit, dates for breaking fast, and a tetrapack drink.

There’s a robot that goes around delivering medication. It doesn’t deliver meals however, though it would be nice if it had a sibling that did, saving much waiting in line.

At risk of self-harm

Chodam-M is desperate for financial help. He arrived to join a company in the first quarter of 2019 after paying about $15,000 to get the job. He borrowed the money from various “village friends”.

After only six months, salary non-payment became unbearable and he lodged a salary claim for about $6,000 in unpaid wages. It is now eight months into the claim and the latest he heard from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is that the boss cannot be located.

Meanwhile he has shown TWC2 volunteers the messages he has been receiving from the “village friends” threatening trouble for him if he does not repay the loan immediately. Of course he cannot do so since he had not received his salary and anyway has been without work since the third quarter of 2019.

His MOM case officer is suggesting that he take $2,000 being offered to him as some sort of gift in lieu of his wages. Chodam-M feels this is impossible to accept since it does nothing to solve his problem with his “village friends”.

We wonder if, for him, going home means a risk to life and limb.

However, TWC2 has a very strict policy against giving money to individual needy cases. We know that every man on our register is a needy case. Once we start giving money, there’ll be no end to request after request for help. We will need millions of dollars without limit.

We tell Chodam-M, “Sorry we cannot give you money.”

Is he despondent? Yes. Is he at risk of self-harm? Yes.

Is he a victim of Singapore’s failure to stamp out recruitment fees?

Simple pleasures: 3-in-1 coffee mix

It’s very hard for us outside to imagine what being confined to a room with 10 – 20 other men feels like, especially when it goes on for weeks on end. We’ve had appeals for little things that in normal times, the men would be able to get for themselves by just walking out to the shops. Now however, these breadwinners for their families have to depend on charity.

TWC2 has formed a Small Essential Needs Team (SENT) that tries to help. The four photographs below are of a delivery we sent to a worker Manikandan stuck in a dorm. We gave him more than he needed so that he could share with his roommates. They are mostly items we take for granted until we can’t get them, such as snacks, nuts, 3-in-1 coffee mix and the like.

Our volunteers cannot go into the quarantined dorms, so we have to leave the bags at the guardhouse. From there, either the sentry guards do us a favour (thank you!) of delivering the bags to the rooms or the intended recipients pick up the bags themselves during the two hours of free time they get when they can leave their rooms.

Worthy of the boss’ trust

Here’s a story from a worker, Chodam-L. He is officially still employed (on a Work Permit) though it is doubtful during the pandemic whether the company has any work for him. Under the law, the employer is supposed to pay him a regular salary even if there is no work to do.

Chodam-L regales us with this tale:

“My boss come talking to me. He say I very good worker and he say he can trust me.”

The boss then explained that, according to an advisory issued by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), monthly salaries must be paid.

“So boss say he [will] put salary money in my bank account.”

But, added the boss, when the lockdown is lifted and Chodam-L can make his way to an ATM machine, “you do what you’re supposed to do and withdraw that money and give it back to me. I can trust you, right?”

Chodam-L knows that this is the only way he’ll keep the job. So he plans to do just what the boss has asked.

It’s raining stuff

TWC2 is amazed at how generous our supporters are. Virtually every day, we have donations to hand out to workers on the Cuff Road Project, our free meals programme. The clients would be jobless migrant workers whose former employers have abandoned them.

It’s getting to the point where we have to ask well-wishers to contact us in advance to see whether we really need any more of what’s being offered. We’d hate to see things go to waste. We also need to space out the give-aways for logistical reasons, since we have nowhere to store goods.

Savoury and spicy snacks are always popular.

More snacks.

Phone top-up cards.

A box of 50 disposable masks.

Juicy oranges.

More oranges.

Miscellaneous stuff by the bagfuls.