November 16, 2020
Photos by: Bryan van der Beek | Words by: Serene Goh

(Photo above) Ms Jewel Yi, 29, notes that being kept in a room for months — even at a fancy hotel — can be a prison. The occupational therapist has been studying the complex issues of work-related injuries for more than six years, and believes there’s more to do to improve the lives of migrant workers in Singapore.

When Ms Jewel Yi met Sam, he’d been crushed by a falling object at a construction site, then removed from the hospital without permission by his employer, who’d also confiscated his passport. He’d run away and, taking refuge at a shelter run by a non-governmental organisation (NGO), spent the rest of his time in Singapore helping others like him, supplicating for them.

“He was the kindest, most gracious and nicest guy you could meet. He was injured and had nothing much. But he took the time to help and care for others. He helped to interpret for the other workers, and advocate,” she recalls.

Sam became her first migrant-worker friend. She was a novice occupational therapist, then 23, about six years ago.

For more than a year, she reviewed the cases of a few dozen workers who had not been adequately treated for work-related injuries and who had come to various NGOs for help. She worked with the NGOs, and mentors, to raise these cases to relevant ministries.

Ms Jewel Yi, CMSC

(Above) “For me, it’s a very personal quest. When I look at how Jesus loved and cared for all, and having experienced that love personally, it became the only reasonable response — to love others around me. This also means that if I witnessed gross injustice, I cannot walk on by without doing anything about it,” says Ms Jewel Yi of Covid-19 Migrant Support Coalition (CMSC).

Speaking up for an invisible community
Back then, issues related to the migrant worker community did not resonate with most Singaporeans. Yet she persisted, motivated by her Christian convictions. 

“There is a call to seek justice, to love mercy and to walk with God,” she said. Because she herself was nearly delinquent, and had others go the extra mile to help her, she wanted to pay it forward.

“For me, it’s a very personal quest. When I look at how Jesus loved and cared for all, and having experienced that love personally, it became the only reasonable response — to love others around me. This also means that if I witnessed gross injustice, I cannot walk on by without doing anything about it.”

Her attempts to be heard, for years unsuccessful, left her burnt out. She’d been written off for her inexperience and age every time she’d spoken truth to power. Still, she hung on like a Rottweiler.

She eventually found an audience with Member of Parliament Louis Ng, who raised the issue during Parliament. Working with him finally resulted in changes to the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) in 2019, which made it a requirement to report all work-related injuries regardless of the number of days of medical leave or light duties a worker was given.

More critically, the journey was to become a six-year hothouse for Ms Yi. Her experience steered efforts to effectively help migrant workers when Covid-19 invaded their dormitories in February.

CMSC migrant worker mental wellness – Jewel Yi

(Above) “If you’re totally isolated, not stimulated, have no routines and have no idea how long you will need to be in this situation, it will increase anyone’s risk of developing mental health issues,” says Ms Jewel Yi of CMSC.

The friendship solution
As part of the founding team that established the Covid-19 Migrant Support Coalition (CMSC), Ms Yi turned her attention to managing new faces as the group monitored and supported their health concerns.

CMSC galvanised about 700 volunteers during the Circuit Breaker, and Ms Yi spent a lot of her time helping them understand how to meet the community’s needs in a culturally appropriate and needs-based way.

“One of the main things that took up my time was to guide volunteers on how to engage. Some gave ketchup packs, half-used loo rolls and expired food — it’s not appropriate,” she noted. “Then there were others who were star volunteers, who answered the call very quickly and sacrificed their time to help us address the most pressing needs of the workers.”

Over the months, CMSC ensured that dorm operators are provided with personal protection equipment (PPE), and educated on its proper use. They also shared infection control advice with operators.

Its volunteers developed leisure, educational and entertainment activities for workers to engage in, and offered to send games, like carrom boards and cards to their dorms for them to pass their time. They’ve also included relaxation sessions with the Art of Living, poetry reading and reflection

Through WePals, an online befriender initiative and Wetalk, a cultural exchange programme, CMSC aims to cultivate bonds between local and migrant communities, and build understanding and empathy. Workers can also raise concerns, which are then channelled to the group’s Casework and Legal teams. WePals received about 135 migrant friends and 80 befrienders since it started.

Through Facebook, workers can sign up to be matched to befrienders, who have to go through psychological training to engage with them.

CMSC migrant worker mental wellness care packages

(Above) Each CMSC activity-and-wellness pack contains nail clippers, a notebook, plasticine modelling set, colouring activity book, crayons, origami paper with instructions, cooling gel sleep masks, spiky massage balls, Vitamin C pastilles, and sachets of chamomile tea. There are also posters and postcards about interactive platforms WePals and WeTalk, which connects befrienders to the migrant worker community.

For all the hard work, the volunteers of CMSC were awarded in the “Leaders of Good” category for the President’s Volunteerism & Philanthropy Awards 2020 Special Edition — Our Finest Hour in the City of Good. It recognised the leadership of Ms Renita Sophia Crasta and Ms Yi, along with Mr Cai Yinzhou, working alongside the Ministry of Manpower taskforce for migrant workers. Mr Nicholas Chan has since taken over as co-lead, while Mr Cai has stepped down.

Ms Yi confesses she had never heard of NVPC before the award. “I think it was a bit of a surprise for me — I didn’t even know who NVPC was. But it’s a privilege and honour to receive the award on behalf of the coalition, a group effort of a few hundred people who joined.”

For her, it was also a signal to keep at her work. “We need to keep speaking up about issues with employment, salaries, injustices — even young people can have their voice heard if they’re persistent enough. This Covid situation helped more people become aware. To have more voices would be a good thing.”

Combating sensory deprivation with simple tasks
Out of the lockdown, the CMSC’s focus shifted to workers who were at decant sites and those quarantined for many months and who had suffered sensory and social deprivation. 

Plasticine modelling, origami folding or colouring and journaling activities may sound arbitrary. But to a man stuck in a room, suddenly deprived of his work, lacking access to essential items, even engaging in a small task, like art activities, makes a difference.

It’s better than doing nothing — because going too long without meaningful activities can drive anyone crazy.

Ms Yi pointed out that simply keeping hands and mind engaged can improve mood and alleviate stress and boredom, which quarantined migrant workers have had to endure for the past long months or so. 

CMSC migrant worker mental wellness care packages

(Above) The Covid-19 Migrant Support Coalition (CMSC) galvanised 700 volunteers and befrienders to help see to the welfare of migrant workers stuck in dormitories during the Circuit Breaker. Out of lockdown, as many workers stayed in quarantine facilities, CMSC focused its attention on creating activities to occupy their hands and time. Distribution includes assembling and distribution of packs to those in government quarantine facilities (GQFs).

In addressing the needs of those in quarantine, her approach is rooted in the fundamental purpose of occupational therapy — that everyone has a right to participate in occupations and activities that meet his basic needs for well-being. It seeks to develop and maintain a person’s capacity, throughout life, to perform day-to-day tasks and roles essential to productive living, including self-care, daily living, leisure and work.

She took into account that workers had gone from long days of manual labour at construction sites to sitting out those hours confined to rooms — solitary — with no other company than their thoughts. They also had far less exposure to sunlight than they were used to, and didn’t know when it would all end, or what they would emerge to.

Indefinite quarantine, devoid of human interaction, or access to anyone other than through Wifi, has been hard on many. 

Once, she’d noticed a man’s uneven, chipped nails on a recent visit to a decanted facility, and Ms Yi quizzed him on how that happened.

He’d explained that without nail clippers, he had filed them down by breaking and grinding them against a wall. 

Kept from their usual tasks and labours, she observed, is tougher than their usual jobs. 

“If you’re totally isolated, not stimulated, have no routines and have no idea how long you will need to be in this situation, it will increase anyone’s risk of developing mental health issues.”

Many had also confided that they feared for their families’ meals and expenses back home, and that loan sharks would harass them if they couldn’t pay up because they hadn’t worked — it’s a recipe for mental torture.

“If you’re totally isolated, not stimulated, have no routines and have no idea how long you will need to be in this situation, it will increase anyone’s risk of developing mental health issues.”

She’ll be the first to point out that one of the most hurtful things people fling at the migrant worker community is that “they should feel lucky” living the good life, because they are quarantined in a hotel, as if it’s a staycation.

Most recently, CMSC contributed activity packs — more than 1,200 so far — to migrant workers in government quarantine facilities (GQFs). Working with the Ministry of National Development (MND), CMSC produced them to help ease the stress of being stuck in limbo.

Into each CMSC activity-and-wellness pack is a notebook with reflection topics, plasticine modelling set, colouring activity book, crayons, origami paper with instructions, cooling gel sleep masks, spiky massage balls, Vitamin C pastilles, and sachets of chamomile tea. There are also posters and postcards inviting them to interactive platforms WePals, WeTalk and mental wellness modules. 

And, yes, nail clippers.


 

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?

  • Serene believes in the power of good pie, and publishing stories that inspire. You can call her a pie-blisher.

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