September 11, 2020
Photos by: Bryan van der Beek | Words by: Stacey Rodrigues
(Photo above) A key part of the morning’s activities was a relaxation workshop run by The Art of Living (AOL) Foundation. Through guided exercises, volunteers teach the migrant workers how to practise mindfulness and stretch their tight muscles. “These sessions have been well received and have immensely benefited our migrant brothers. They have also helped to build a community of peer and local support that has been instrumental in sustaining their mental and social health beyond the confines of their rooms,” says mindfulness volunteer lead, Mr Vetrivel Shanmugasundaram.
It is the first time in months that these men get to spend more than an hour outside a hotel room.
For 23-year-old Miah MD Sumon from Bangladesh, it has been challenging living in his assigned hotel room for the last two months. “One room, one man, no friends outside. It’s very difficult,” he says.
A hotel stay immediately sounds luxurious. But it is no easy feat living alone in a 32 sqm (344 sq ft) room with windows you can’t open, without the freedom to come and go as you please.
When WhatAreYouDoing.sg spoke with some of the migrant workers, they shared their frustrations of being stuck in the same room without any human contact for months. While they recognise they’re being looked after (“Singapore very good”), the isolation, coupled with the anxiety of not knowing what comes next for them in terms of work and income have taken a mental and emotional toll on these men.
(Above) To help prepare migrant workers as they leave their confines, CMSC organised a relaxation workshop, games — carrom and “beer pong”, a “help desk” to answer any questions they have, and a “barber shop” area to have the men groomed.
Some appeared to have developed social anxiety from the prolonged isolation. While they leave their rooms to get some fresh air, they often quickly return to avoid interacting with others. Especially those who are quarantined alone, without other workers from their company.
About 500 migrant workers have been living in this hotel (which has chosen to remain anonymous). Essential workers are able to go out for work and return to the hotel to sleep. But there are 280 of them who are not able to return to work and are stuck in limbo.
These men who have been decanted out of their dormitories are swabbed once every fortnight and have been tested negative for Covid-19.
Staying apart from others exacerbated feelings of being disconnected
During their stay, which lasted from one-and-a-half months to a lengthy four months, the men were treated like any other guest of the hotel. Staff checked in on them twice a day to find out what they needed — from toothpaste to coats for when they felt too cold in the air-conditioned rooms.
However, they never met the staff in person.
(Above) Help desks are set up to address questions and concerns of migrant workers — from enquiries about their salary and banking needs to making sure they can call their families when home sick. Digital ambassadors are present to help workers download, navigate and troubleshoot apps they need to return back to work.
To maintain social distancing, check-ins were done via the phone. The migrant workers too had scheduled times to leave their hotel rooms for swab tests, but never for periods long enough to make any connection with the other “guests”. They were not allowed to mingle.
On this Saturday, however, things were different. About 30 of the migrant workers who were about to check out had the chance to get a much-needed haircut, soak up the sun, and even dance their hearts out for a solid three hours.
The Covid Migrant Support Coalition (CMSC), a ground-up initiative, has been advocating for workers to leave their rooms to help with their mental wellbeing.
“After liaising with the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), the hotel was granted permission to allow up to 30 workers out at any one time,” says Ms Jewel Yi, 29, head of health and engagement and co-leader of CMSC.
The engagement activities, organised by CMSC, were to help migrant workers who have been quarantined and isolated to socialise and find ways to relieve the stresses that come with their current circumstances.
(Above) Trained hairdressers, volunteers from Backalley Barbers, offer their time to groom the migrant workers after months of dealing with overgrown locks.
“Some of them appeared teary-eyed when they came down because for many of them, we are the first people they’ve spoken to in person in months,” says Ms Yi.
As many migrant workers continue to grapple with the challenges of this pandemic, organisations such as the CMSC find new ways to address the needs of this disadvantaged community and offer them some semblance of normalcy.
Visit the Covid Migrant Support Coalition campaign page if you would like to donate to their cause.