Foreign workers building Singapore
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How you can pledge to help migrant workers in Singapore right now

Singapore's migrant workers are important members of our society and should be treated with the respect they deserve

Nicole-Marie Ng

As we cautiously emerge from the circuit breaker, now's the time to take pause and reflect on what the past 64 days have taught us. One of the key lessons we've learnt is that we cannot turn a blind eye to the inequalities faced by migrant workers in Singapore any longer.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Manpower, there are almost 300,000 people living here under Work Permit (construction) passes. Many of them reside in dormitories that have been ravaged by the coronavirus. The flaws of their living conditions have been made more apparent by hundreds, sometimes thousands, of daily cases reported in the news. It has also brought to our attention the other plights faced by our migrant workers, including ill-treatment, unfair payment practices and even basic access to medical leave and nutritious food. 

There are many great non-profit organisations like Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), the recently established Covid-19 Migrant Support Coalition (CMSC) and Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) that have dedicated themselves to helping the community and raising awareness. But these NGOs, like our migrant workers, have been doing the heavy lifting for us for too long.

It is time that we, as a community, look at how we can contribute to treating our migrant workers better. If you're a reader of Time Out, then you know that we actively celebrate the best things to do, restaurant and bars, retail shops and cultural venues in the city. These places would not exist for our enjoyment without the people that build them, clean them and maintain them.

We can all do our part to shape what we want Singapore 'new normal' to be. And our wish is for a more compassionate, inclusive and caring society that acknowledges our privileged position and uses it to help those in need.

We talk to @sgforfws, a ground-up initiative led by Melody Zaccheus that has been collecting notes written by Singaporeans for foreign workers. The initial plan was to collect 300 notes and have them translated, printed and distributed to workers – they've since collected 1,333 messages to date. But beyond spreading positivity through words, we should also look at our actions. Melody shares how we can all pitch in to help.

Why did you start @sgforfws?

For too long we’ve treated the migrant worker population as an invisible and silent workforce. They are so much more than that. They are sons, brothers, husbands and fathers alone in a foreign land, slogging it out most days of the week, but avoided by locals on the streets.

Why do we keep them at arm’s length? It’s heartbreaking to witness such dynamics playing out in Singapore, a land built on the shoulders of immigrants. In my younger days, I tried to speak up (sent a letter to the press) when Serangoon Gardens’ residents signed a petition against a foreign worker dorm being built in their neighbourhood. Over time, I tried to speak up for workers but was not always completely successful.

I started @sgforfws in April 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in an attempt to encourage like-minded Singaporeans to write messages of love, appreciation and support for Singapore’s pool of foreign workers. They've faced much uncertainty, distress and anxiety due to the virus outbreak at their worksites, dormitories and lodgings. I felt that such a platform was needed to demonstrate to decision-makers and companies reliant on foreign workers that Singaporeans are concerned and hope for change.

On top of donating to NGOs, this was a step I felt ordinary Singaporeans like myself could take from home as we stayed home and stayed safe during the circuit breaker. 

Sgforfws’ goal is to serve as a ground-up platform to build a stronger, collective Singaporean voice valuing migrant workers as we mature as a society.

What has @sgforfws done so far?

To date, we've collected 1,333 messages, some of which have been translated, printed and distributed to workers. 

Along the way, many kind Singaporeans eager to pitch in, have volunteered translation and design services. Sgforfws is now in the midst of printing our third wave of cards (funded by my mother-in-law and myself). We’ve distributed several thousand cards to date. We work with the Covid Migrant Support Coalition to distribute the messages to workers in dormitories. We hope the messages bring a smile and some warmth to recipients. We are also in touch with some community care facilities to share our messages with migrant worker patients. 

Beyond writing messages, we encourage our social media followers to donate and render aid to NGOs on the ground. We also share snippets from the news and summarise takeaway points for our followers from the various seminars, NGOs and experts detailing the systemic issues faced by guest workers in Singapore.


Tell us more about the messages you've received

We’ve received messages from Singaporeans young and old. We've had people from Holland Village to Yishun write in. Celebs have also written notes. It's so important to make our stand known and to wear our hearts on our sleeves at a time like this.  

What we find especially heartening are the teachers across Singapore who have encouraged their students to write in. The teachers told us that they take the message-writing exercise as an opportunity to teach their students to better appreciate the workers who build our homes and skyscrapers, and maintain our parks and common spaces. We've also had polytechnic and junior college students and other youths draw appreciation notes and record music videos.

What else can we do to help our migrant workers in Singapore?

We can educate ourselves on migrant worker issues. We can ask for transparent dialogue. We can make it a point to regularly repost stories highlighting Singaporeans and organisations championing migrant worker causes. We can show kindness in their own personal capacities (for example, a fruit seller distributed mangoes to workers). We can continue to donate to NGOs like HOME and TWC2. We can request for adjustments to policies to allow workers to have job mobility, job security, paid medical leave, access to nutritious food, and means to have their complaints about ill-treatment (if any) cohesively and effectively addressed.


We should all pledge to do better

We learnt this week that our government is building new dormitories with improved living standards for migrant workers, some of which will be located closer to residential areas. Since then, we’ve seen insensitive and racist comments and stereotypes pop up on social media in reaction to this news. Some are saying workers should be kept far away from their domestic helpers and children. They say heartlands should be reserved for Singaporean citizens. 

We can speak up to counter such negativity online and in real life, within our own social circles and beyond. We can mobilise ourselves to educate and help change misconceptions. We can declare that we stand with workers and welcome them in our heartlands and estates. We can raise the profile of workers and share their literary works and music. We can all be active citizens encouraging attitudinal and mindset changes. We can volunteer with NGOs post-Covid. We can organise events bringing Singaporeans and workers together once the Covid situation stabilises in Singapore. 

With all these suggestions in mind, we’ve developed pledge cards for Singaporeans. The cards detail some of the things we can do. We hope the cards make their rounds on social media and encourage the everyday Singaporean to be part of the push for change and better standards.

Here for good

We do not want the passionate and wonderful sentiments expressed during the circuit breaker to just be part of a fad. Or something we only feel strongly about in the second quarter of 2020.

Help share our pledge cards to at least two friends to build on the fervour and sentiment expressed to date. The various systemic issues workers face aren’t just going to go away once our lives return to normal. And if you are a teacher, please share this with your students.

There’s no harm in spreading positivity and encouraging greater care towards one another.

For more information, follow @sgforfws on Instagram.

Make Singapore a better place

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