September 5, 2020
Words by: Valerie Kor

When cases exploded in the dormitories in Singapore, the problem seemed impossible to solve. At the peak of Covid-19’s infection in Singapore between April and June, the cases climbed every day, hovering close to 1,000 a day, threatening lives and livelihoods. 

The real fear was within the dormitory walls. The government did all they could to move workers out of cramped living quarters to be isolated and treated, but many were left afraid and unsure of whether they would contract Covid-19. 

Cordoned off onto ships and in old school sites, the migrant workers could easily be out of sight, out of mind. But volunteers saw their unarticulated needs, and acted to meet them. Here’s what they did:

HIA there, and everywhere. Regular volunteers from Hope Initiative Alliance (HIA) packing in dates for Muslim workers confined to dormitories. Packing for essential items, as well as dates for sharing, were completed at the TSL Building in Eunos in time for the Ramadan-Vesak Day distribution, together with hot meals.

(Above) HIA there, and everywhere. Regular volunteers from Hope Initiative Alliance (HIA) packing in dates for Muslim workers confined to dormitories. Packing for essential items, as well as dates for sharing, were completed at the TSL Building in Eunos in time for the Ramadan-Vesak Day distribution, together with hot mealsBRYAN VAN DER BEEK

In the midst of the chaos, Hope Initiative Alliance, an inter-faith group led by Reverend Samuel Gift Stephen, saw the need to offer meals to migrant workers. Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach (AGWO) was then set up with the reverend helming it as committee chairman. Within the first 30 days of circuit breaker period, the organisation dispatched about $1.8 million worth of meals.

During Ramadan, AGWO was attentive to the needs of Muslim migrant workers. Every morning before daybreak, a flurry of volunteers at Nawab Food Industries packed pre-dawn meals into boots of cars to be delivered to about 40 dormitories. Reverend Samuel, known as “Pastor Sam” also listens and advises workers on social distancing, hand washing, and keeping clean. 

Nawab Food Industries specialises in Indian-Muslim meals catered to the masses, offering $3 briyani so more can be fed. He will also be launching 400 vending machines that will dispense frozen briyani, which can then be heated up with in-built heating facilities. He intends to place them islandwide, including at about 20 foreign worker dormitories. 

Thankfully, we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel on this front. It was reported on August 7 that almost all of the 323,000 foreign workers staying in dormitories have been tested for Covid-19. Most would have already gone back to work since August 2020.

How you can help: Join as a HIA volunteer for upcoming events or opt to be a regular volunteer through targeted aid and services to migrant workers.

Don’t try this at home. Harry’s Singapore employee, Elmer Choo, 42, is an operations manager at the pub group. Pitching in at the MWC since April 11, he shows how he can fill up to four bottles at a time.

(Above) Don’t try this at home. Harry’s Singapore employee, Elmer Choo, 42, is an operations manager at the pub group. Pitching in at the MWC since April 11, he shows how he can fill up to four bottles at a time. CAROLINE CHIA

From bar operations, the beer-pulling heroes at Harry’s Singapore pivoted. Their newfound niches were filling multiple bottles of hand sanitisers one go and packing them into boxes. Unwittingly, they became the Most Valuable Players at the Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC). They were so good that they were begged to stay even after they completed their month-long obligation.

They were among a combined crew of 1,500 volunteers who have put in time to prepare the sanitisers for care packs. Sanitisers, donated by Temasek Foundation, needed to be diluted, bottled, labelled, packed for migrant workers living in factory-converted dormitories. 

On the ground, it is a massive operation. The daily target: 16,000 bottles; Total deliverable: 370,000 bottles. At any one time, 40 to 50 volunteers work together to label, bottle, cap and finally pack the sanitisers into carton boxes for delivery. The volunteers, rostered by their organisations, come from NTUC, Harry’s Singapore, and Scoot. Most put in a day or two, while Harry’s Group volunteers have rostered teams of five to help out. 

How you can help: Donate to MWC or volunteer for MWC’s Kakis programme

Omar Faruque Shipon: The Information Ambassador for Bangladeshi Migrant Workers

(Above) Mr Omar Faruque Shipon has been working in Singapore for the last decade. He manages a Facebook page for the Bangladeshi community that currently has over 54,000 followers. CAROLINE CHIA

Help also came from a fellow foreigner, Omar Faruque Shipon. Despite working 12-hour days, the senior safety coordinator from Chandur, Bangladesh, tirelessly translates news to Bengali and posts them on an FB page and mans a one-man hotline. He alos replies messages to dispel rumours and help those who are being scammed or mistreated. Currently, the Facebook page has about 53,000 followers. 

To deliver accurate news, Mr Omar keeps up with the latest news by registering for WhatsApp updates from The Straits Times and Singapore Ministry of Health (MOH). He also frequently checks the websites of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and MOH. 

While his monthly phone bill has doubled from about $48 to $100, he says “If I can make someone smile, that makes me happy too. That is something money cannot buy.”

How you can help: Follow Mr Omar’s facebook page  

It’s no exaggeration to say that Singapore’s construction industry rests on the backs of these migrant workers. Yet, they are often behind the scenes, invisible to us. 

These volunteers stepped up at a crucial time to discover the unarticulated needs of these “transient workers” while they are here in Singapore, leading to creative and innovative solutions. 

Are you willing to do the same?

 


The Storytellers

  • Bryan is still trying to figure a way to combine his three main loves. Can anyone help him figure out how to balance his whole family on a motorbike while riding and taking photographs?

  • Caroline loves photography and trekking, and never turns down a trip to the mountains.

  • Valerie spends two-thirds of her waking hours writing stories and the remaining with her toddler, husband, cats and bicycle.

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