We Are All Human

Text by Charmaine Natalie Yeoh
Photos by TWC2

Ravi Saha enjoys chicken rice, watches local dramas, and complains about the public transport system and fare hikes. After living in Singapore for 10 years, he feels almost Singaporean.

For some reason, locals seem to know that he is not from Singapore. Some even go to the extent of highlighting the difference. “I was once asked to give up my seat to a Singaporean as though I did not deserve it. I think it is because I’m a foreign worker,” Ravi recalled.

Like many before him, Ravi left his hometown in Bangladesh for Singapore in an attempt to find a way out of poverty.

As of June 2014, statistics released by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) indicate that there are as many as 980,000 work permit holders in Singapore. That represents nearly 20 per cent of Singapore’s population. A majority of these work permit holders are construction workers from Bangladesh, India and China, and domestic foreign workers from Indonesia and the Philippines.

The influx of foreign workers has altered Singapore’s society in several ways – some more perceptible than others. A study conducted in Singapore by AnOther Angle, a Singapore-based project group, found that perceptions of foreign workers as public nuisance that congregated in large groups, smelled bad or displayed unruly behaviour, were not uncommon among those surveyed.

A Singaporean respondent, Chester Yeoh, 18, said, “Low-wage migrant workers are not treated equally in our society because we see them as lower class.”

Distance and negative perceptions from locals are not the only problems faced by migrant workers.

In a 2014 survey conducted on 328 male low-wage migrant workers by Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a Singapore-based non-profit organisation that works to improve conditions for low-wage migrant workers in Singapore, it was revealed that one third of respondents are not being paid fairly by their employers.

A poor grasp of English and a lack of familiarity with their rights prevent these workers from expressing their problems, let alone approach the relevant authorities for help. They are often left in a vulnerable position. Other issues faced include less than optimal working conditions and unsanitary, overcrowded living conditions.

More than a decade ago, TWC2 was started by a group of members from Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), following the death of an Indonesian domestic worker who suffered months of violent assault by her employer. The spotlight was shone on the plight of domestic workers living in Singapore, highlighting the lack of support for these domestic workers and concluding that much more could be done to assist them in times of distress. TWC2 was thus set up with the objective of improving the conditions for domestic workers working in Singapore and to promote respect for them through educating residents in Singapore. A year after its formation, TWC2 expanded its scope to protect low wage migrant workers both male and female alike, since they faced similar issues.

While an increasing number of policies has been put in place to protect migrant workers over the years, migrant workers have been facing declining conditions as a whole. As TWC2 volunteer Grace Baey observes, the agency fees for Bangladesh workers have doubled from S$4000 in the 1990s to S$8000 to S$10,000 presently, while the wages of the workers have not risen proportionately. The huge debts have compelled workers to work long hours under harsh conditions, placing them in a very risky position. In the Foreign Worker Survey done by MOM in 2014, the percentage of Work Permit holders who felt that employment agency fees were expensive went up to 40 per cent in 2014 from 24.3 per cent in 2011.

With greater awareness surrounding the plight of these workers, more individuals have stepped forward to champion and join the cause. TWC2 has expanded from a tiny organisation comprising a few individuals to a multifaceted organisation with 15 staff members and 60 volunteers covering five main areas today – advocacy and public outreach, social work assistance, research, cuff road food programme, direct services and care fund.

Under TWC2’s cuff road food programme, Indian and Bangladeshi food is served to migrant workers while volunteers lend a listening ear and provide counsel on how they may address their problems, where possible. In cases where migrant workers find themselves in urgent situations – such as negligent employers throwing them out on the streets or refusing to pay for urgent medical attention – TWC2 would step in to offer the migrant workers medical and rent subsidies from their care fund.

With the number of injury cases doubling to 1,791 in year 2013 from 807 in year 2011, it appears that more can be done to protect migrant workers. Advocacy is therefore an area that TWC2 is heavily involved in. TWC2 volunteers would organise periodic meetings with policymakers to explore lapses in the current policies and to consider possible improvements.

Over the 12 years, TWC2 has touched the hearts of many migrant workers through its work. More than half a million meals have been handed out to migrant workers since the cuff road food programme started in 2008.

As a non-profit organisation, TWC2 relies heavily on volunteers and donations coming in from the public to carry out its ongoing initiatives. Over 90 per cent of the donations collected from the public go toward charitable activities while the rest are spent on overheads. TWC2 requires around S$500,000 every year.

Russell Heng, President of TWC2, said in a recent interview with AnOther Angle that the organisation is looking to strengthen their advocacy programme. “Overall, we’ve left advocacy very much neglected because we were very busy providing services and solving immediate problems of the workers. If we get distracted and just go on providing services, we may do good work but we end up just being a charity, where we may be helping people but never solving the problem,” he said.

For all the negative perception surrounding low-wage migrant workers, many low-wage migrant workers interviewed by the author do not appear to take it to heart. Some even paint a rosy picture of Singapore and its people. As Mozammel Bary, a Bangladesh low-wage migrant worker puts it, “Everybody is human, so humans have to love humans first.”


Note: Catalyst Asia is a content platform that is produced and owned by the Institute for Societal Leadership (ISL). At Catalyst Asia, we believe that real life can only be captured at a particular moment in time. Everything you read here is accurate at the point in which it was recorded. We do not expect details to stay the same and we hope that they don’t. No part of this publication may be reproduced without written permission from the Institute for Societal Leadership at the Singapore Management University Administration Building located at 81 Victoria Street Singapore 188065. To get in touch, please drop us a line at serenechen@smu.edu.sg.