It was late May 2020 and I had been working at home for several weeks. Like most Singaporeans, I followed the rising trend of Covid-19 infections in dormitories and felt helpless. While I could work in the comfort of my own home, go out for exercise and necessities, migrant workers were living in virtual “prisons” as the virus spread. Work for most of them had stopped; they received three basic meals a day and little else while confined to their dormitories.
When I saw a post on my Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) chat group for volunteers to join a newly formed Small Essential Needs (SEN) team, I jumped at the chance to serve. SEN was created at the start of the lockdown to help meet a surge in requests for daily essential items since workers could no longer leave their dorms to run errands themselves. Given the scale of these needs, I was surprised to discover that the SEN team consisted of four brave ladies who were very efficient. I quickly got to work and offered to cover the dorms, factories, and worksites from Tuas to Woodlands and in central Singapore.
“Thank you, Madam”
I received my first request from workers sharing a room in Toh Guan. My initial thought was how do I message a non-native English-speaking worker — the one representing the group — without sounding cold or rude? I used simple English on WhatsApp to introduce myself and inform him that I would be delivering their request, and hopped in my car. When I reached the dorm, I could only get a glimpse of my new friend from a distance, as security sentries received my delivery and placed it at the gate for him to collect.
I soon found out these deliveries meant a lot to the workers. Recipients sent heartfelt thanks, blessings on my family, and pictures of happy faces – all because of a few toothbrushes, snacks, a fan and instant coffee.
I had spent more money on lattes for friends with far less gratitude, which was a reflection of how different our lives were. It also struck me that my migrant worker friends treated me with respect, even though our society has not always done the same for them. While I was a “madam” or “sister” to them, I couldn’t help but remember terms and stereotypes typically used to refer to migrant workers as the invisible, lowly “others” in our society.
I would list these terms, but they’re not fit for print.
It is far harder when you have far less
As I began to fulfill more requests each week, I asked myself if the migrant workers really needed these items. Besides food and hygiene items, we received requests for blood pressure monitors, medicine and used phones. I soon realized why.
The average first-time foreign worker comes to Singapore with $8,000 to $12,000 of debt, earns a basic salary of $400 to $500 a month, and may pay $120 monthly for food. The mandatory employer-provided insurance only covers hospitalisations and not general practitioner visits, so those with chronic illnesses often choose to go without medicine or monitoring equipment to save money. For migrant workers staying in purpose-built dorms, some had access to on-site medical support or telemedicine consultations during the lockdown, but others had difficulty accessing these services.
Phones were another challenge as going back to work required three apps to be downloaded and used daily. Many workers had old or damaged phones that could not support the apps.
Among a boxful of things, he also received a kettle so that he and his roommates could enjoy hot coffee and tea.
I personally delivered these items to workers living in factories, car parks, industrial estates and shipyards that were only 15 to 30 minutes away from my home. And yet, I had never known that was what life was like for migrant workers.
Who cares for the “invisible” men?
As August approaches, men are tested by the thousands and dorms are declared cleared, we see groups of men returning to work. There remain others, however, who must continue to wait for dorm operators, employers, and work sites to meet all the safety requirements for resumption of work. Our experiences with SEN leave us concerned about what the months ahead will bring. In such a difficult economic environment?, will all workers get the opportunity to return to work? Will workers, employers, worksites, and dorm operators be able to afford and provide the supplies and measures to maintain good health? Will dormitory residents ever be able to enjoy freedom of movement like the rest of the population in Singapore?
Essential supplies are one part of needs. But equally important are the intangibles: health, dignity and liberty.