Inroads 2017: A Look at Migrant Workers’ Singapore

by Zacchaeus Chok (18S03O), Liu Enqi (18S03C), Ling Young Loon (18S07A)

Singapore boasts a narrative of economic prosperity, but at what cost? It is becoming more evident today, more than ever, that the continued oppression and human rights violations migrant workers face are a constantly overlooked, but nonetheless atrocious, part of our society.

Migrant workers are a community which has been side-lined from Singaporean society both literally and figuratively. Unfortunately, their plight is understood by few and most have skewed impressions and ideas of the problems they face.

As part of Raffles Community Advocates, Doveswarm is a student initiated group (SIG) that strives to support various organizations in furthering their welfare. Through their experiences working with organizations like the Social Development Initiative and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), Doveswarm members hope to raise awareness among schoolmates by sharing their knowledge as part of the advocacy movement.

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Advocates offered in-depth explanations which were accessible, without oversimplifying the issue

This year, Raffles Community Advocates brings together all the sights, scenes, sounds, and stories foreign workers experience  — in a short but salient field trip. Press reports on Inroads 2017.

By focusing on the physical landscapes of their community and the geography of their experiences in Singapore, the trail immersed participants in the rather foreign environment of Little India, providing a glimpse of their lives.

The journey started from Little India, the heartland of South-Asian migrants. Known for its vibrant culture and incredible shopping variety, Little India is a second home to many Indian and Bangladeshi migrant workers.

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A group of students listening to a facilitator as they make their way to Tekka bus terminal

The trail was not all walk and no talk: our facilitators, many of whom were well versed in the features of this area through their time spent volunteering and learning about these issues, enthralled us with stories of the place’s history and heritage. We listened intently as they shared their experiences volunteering at migrant worker welfare organisations like TWC2 and previous projects.

The trail began at Racecourse Road Junction, the site of the infamous Little India Riots in 2013. Though the fire and debris have long been cleared, the aftermath of the riots is blatantly obvious. Triggering intense socio-economic debates, the government amplified the regulations of alcohol sales, particularly in areas where foreign workers congregate. With this, many cautionary posters on alcohol consumption, along with surveillance cameras, were scattered in close proximity to one another. However, such measures are at best cursory prescriptions to tackling the problem. In fact, it stereotypes South Asian migrant workers with alcoholic habits, instead of acknowledging the deeper, long-held unrest felt by many of them.

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Posters cautioning people of surveillance and not to purchase alcohol after a certain time

Being directly on the riot’s site prompted many of us to empathise with the dire straits of migrant workers and to consider the various factors that spurred some of the workers to riot. A careless dismissal of the riot as a result of cultural gaps would breed a pernicious “us” versus “them” mentality, which would do the migrant workers great injustice. On a deeper level, the riot points to deep-seated oppression and discrimination faced by migrant workers as the root cause.

Following that, we visited Tekka Bus Terminal, a facility built in response to the Little India Riots. Originally intended to ease congestion and to make it more conducive for workers to return to their dormitories, the bus terminal is now long overdue.

When a migrant worker reports a salary or injury claim with MOM, they are legally required not to work as they hold on to a special pass, which can mean they are denied from basic necessities of food or lodgings if their employer does not provide them. Fueled by the need to remedy this, VWO Transient Workers Care Too (TWC2) initiated the Cuff Road Project. Since 2008, it has been providing free food for these  workers at Cuff Road. Now, the Project has shifted base to Rowell Road, another migrant hotspot in Little India

The last stop in Little India was Bangla Square; it’s the Hodge Lodge of Little India — except it’s barren, without any facilities, and surrounded by tens  of surveillance cameras. Nevertheless, it remains an attractive hangout for migrants to chat away their worries. Migrant gatherings at places such as these continue to fuel public anxiety. The Advocates used this as an opportunity to highlight how poorly the authorities and the public deal with the negotiation of space — and how space negotiations is also a grounds for continued intolerance and discomfort towards migrant workers.

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Facilitators shared their experiences at Bangla Square

Finally we enter Orchard, every shopaholic’s wet dream. Besides its humongous tourist traffic and superb shopping sales, Orchard Road also has the largest concentration of domestic workers in Singapore. The mall features Philippine delicacies like Sisig and Pata, drawing throngs of domestic workers. On Sundays, you will see them gathering in groups around Lucky Plaza — the closest Singapore will get to a Little Philippines.

To some Singaporeans this may be an annoyance. To them, it is their home and retreat, which rekindles a sense of community and fellowship especially after a week’s labour.

Overall, this fieldtrip added clarity to a situation understood by few. Behind the  faces of migrant workers is a cobweb of problems – triggered by many agents including family conditions, employers, the government and even our own ignorance. While the situation may lead one to despair, what advocacy, when coupled with regular volunteering and research does is to bring these issues to the forefront of public consciousness, casting a glimmer of hope, instigating renewed awareness and vigour for a brighter future.

“Inroads showed me that Singaporean society has many misconceptions about both labour and domestic workers. Perhaps we need to be more open, step forward and work hard to create systemic change, together.”  – Eugene Leong (17S06E)

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