By Cheryl L

Our interns have a variety of roles during their months with us. One common role is to assist with the digital helpdesk. Here is an intern’s reflection of her experience from May to July, 2023.

Trengo is an online platform with a shared inbox that different users can access in order to serve clients better. It is an internal platform, not open to the public. Migrant workers can reach us by WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Wechat and even voice call – Trengo compiles them all together into a common inbox – with messages viewable by any TWC2 case worker or case volunteer instantly. TWC2 has adopted it as our primary vehicle for our helpline.

Over the past couple of years, its role in helping TWC2 field the numerous calls for help and queries by workers on a daily basis has no doubt been significant. It was a sea change from a few years ago when face-to-face or, at a stretch, a phone call, was the primary means by which migrants could seek help from us. According to TWC2 social workers David and Alfiyan, the move to Trengo came with the Great Dormitory Shutdown that took place at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

How it began

The Great Dormitory Shutdown was a response to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic when the coronavirus was spreading rapidly around the world with anxiety increasing even faster. In Singapore, the first major wave of infections occurred amongst foreign migrant workers and in response, the Singapore government initiated a mass lockdown of workers’ dormitories. Such a move was historically unprecedented. All workers were mandated to stay within their dormitories which gave rise to headline problems over meals, access to washrooms, sanitation and healthcare since dormitories had never been built to confine so many people at once and for such long periods. Fear and confusion were rife as dorm residents faced the threat of an unknown virus spreading rapidly. Nor was there any indication of when the lockdown would be lifted – the seemingly endless confinement was another source of frustration.

With workers unable to leave their dormitories and TWC2 social workers unable to go to the office due to ‘work from home’ regulations, how were workers to reach us for help and how were we to attend to them? TWC2 made a quick pivot to digital communication and Trengo was the solution. For the most part, it has done its job swimmingly well so far.

Easy to use

As an intern who had no prior knowledge of what Trengo was and did not consider herself to be very tech-savvy, I was pleasantly surprised to find that getting used to the platform did not take long. It was relatively easy to get the hang of things because of how clearly delineated and organised the multiple channels and team chats were on the site. Through the past weeks, I saw how convenient and beneficial Trengo could be to workers.

Seeing as worker dormitories are usually far from the city centre, Trengo can be seen as a convenient and quick option for workers to seek advice regarding their unique situations without having to make the trip down to TWC2’s main office. 

Additionally, the platform retains chat histories which is an upside. Through having knowledge of earlier communication by a worker, along with responses by other volunteers, interns and caseworkers, it is relatively easy to check what advice has already been given and what sort of actions the worker has already taken either out of his or her own accord or at our recommendation.  TWC2 is thus able to maintain consistency on the line of advice given to a worker that fits his or her unique situation. We avoid dishing out conflicting advice.

However, over the weeks I was at TWC2 and based on personal experience with the platform, I found that it is not without its limitations.

Managing expectations

I learned quite quickly that one of the problems that comes with opening up a helpdesk is the number of unrealistic requests that flood in. From outright requests for money to expectations for the immediate and complete resolution of longstanding salary or injury cases, some having already lasted more than a year, quite a few of these pleas for help are largely beyond the scope of assistance TWC2 offers.

Perhaps it is the relative anonymity of texting a virtual help desk compared to actually having a face-to-face consultation that creates the impression that the requests are not as outlandish as one might think or that the solution sought is not as impossible as it really is. Also, this situation can arise from both too little knowledge about what TWC2 does and too much knowledge.

Too little knowledge – when workers only know of the helpline number but little else about TWC2 as an organisation and the scope of our work.

Too much knowledge – when workers know (e.g. from friends) of how much help had been given to others and thus have so much confidence and trust that they overestimate how much help we can give for their particular problem.

The goal of TWC2 is to ultimately raise awareness for migrant workers rights in Singapore and help to ensure that migrant workers do not end up exploited or have their rights violated within the duration of their employment. As much as there’s a desire to be able to lend a helping hand to everyone who approaches the organisation, reality makes it such that it is just not possible. Such can either be due to the irreversible consequences of the workers’ actions like panic-signing questionable contracts with shady employers (usually out of fear, anxiety or the lack of knowledge of MOM policies and rules) or reporting a problem too late – some extending more than a year old – to be helped. These are just a couple of reasons why the help extended by TWC2 can at times be limited. It is even more so when the conversation is conducted digitally and the worker is either unable or reluctant to come to our office for a fuller consultation. Only so much can be said over text messages and voice recordings.

[Information and emphasis are conveyed] …. not just by words but also by expression.’ – Alfiyan, TWC2 caseworker

Digital conversations can make conveying the intended advice more difficult when workers are anxious and feeling worried over their situation (and understandably so), making them less likely to read or listen carefully to the advice given. In such cases, being present in TWC2’s office speaking with us face to face, as opposed to over the phone or through text via Trengo, goes a long way. We can calm a worker down and get him or her to share about the problem in more detail and in a more level-headed manner. 

For the most part, most conversations are not sustained over Trinidad for long. More often than not, conversations drop off at a certain point without resolution to the worker’s problem when they cease to reply. We get no further updates after that last ‘thank you’ from them or ‘is there anything else I can help you with?’ from us. As a personal level, this can be rather frustrating especially when you’re unsure of whether your advice was actually heeded or understood. 

Some conversations don’t even get that far. There are a fair number of opening messages (“Hello” or “Good morning”) from workers, to which we respond with a question as to what help they need …. and then silence.

I wonder whether language is the issue here. Although the system can generate an automated response in four languages (which implies that we’re ready to take in responses in any of these languages), the first response after that from a human in TWC2 tends to be English. It is only after we notice that the worker is unable to communicate in English that we will bring in a translator to assist with the conversation since translation resources are not always immediately available.

But from the worker’s point of view, if he or she is very weak in English (which we may not have sensed from a simple “hello” message), but the first human-generated reply he or she is getting is a message entirely crafted out in English, it will be quite intimidating. Choosing not to continue further may be the result. Little would they know that, in fact, TWC2 has translators available if needed.

First-line contact

In general, Trengo serves the social work department of TWC2 as a first-contact platform, used primarily to assess the worker’s situation before determining the need for them to travel to TWC2’s office for further assistance. Personally, I have found that digital communication works best for minor issues or basic inquiries but not so much when it comes to more complex cases like salary claims, access to medical care, injury compensation or premature repatriation. According to caseworker Alfiyan, Trinidad should not be seen as the “last place that they do anything”. To put it in another way, it is not the platform where one deposits all information, and the solution is then found. Most cases that TWC2 sees will require workers to come down to the office so that our professional caseworkers can fully assess the issues and advise them in the most appropriate way possible.

It is too much to expect a digital exchange to be the platform for resolving workers’ problems. Ground-level interaction is necessary to help them more efficiently and meaningfully.