On 7 April 2020, Singapore entered its circuit breaker period, a nationwide stay-home order or cordon sanitaire – aimed at stemming the spread of the nascent COVID-19 pandemic. A few months later, Singapore’s residents were once again able to enjoy life’s simple pleasures like dining out, jogging, or even simply meeting up at each other’s residences, as the republic gradually loosened the circuit breaker restrictions with reduced community cases.
While restrictions still remain and new practices of living amidst the pandemic emerge, such as mask-wearing and TraceTogether scanning, most are still able to partake in the reopening of Singapore, despite frequent ‘re-tightenings’ due to the dynamic nature of infectious diseases and its toll on public health. While all of this continues to progressively evolve, a demographic that remains cloistered in plain sight is the migrant worker community, beleaguered by soaring infection rates for the most part of 2020. At the same time, it is in the throes of the pandemic that the experiences of our migrant workers have been brought into sharp focus, perhaps even shocking some who may have been unaware.
MIGRANT WORKERS’ CHALLENGES DURING THE PANDEMIC
Against the backdrop of the pandemic, the condition and livelihood of migrant workers in Singapore sparked spirited debate among various quarters across the island. For example, one need only scour the comments section on any news article spotlighting the community. Whether one sympathises with the workers and feels that the Government ought to do more, or that the workers already have it good compared to migrant workers elsewhere, there is no shortage of punditry and speculation on the matter.
However, there remains a glaring silence when it comes to the perceptions that matter most: those of the workers themselves. With many of them hailing from Bangladesh, India, China, and a few Southeast Asian countries across mostly the construction, oil and gas, and shipping industries, their predicament is indeed a highly nuanced one.
Through proactive and sustained engagement, groups such as the COVID-19 Migrant Support Coalition (CMSC) not only witness first-hand the issues and challenges that impact migrant workers but also leverage diverse resources to challenges facing workers in meeting their physiological needs had long been in existence, their impact was further exacerbated during the pandemic. address their concerns. In this regard, increased agency is granted to migrant workers through honest dialogue with such groups, to allow their voices to be better heard without having to be directly identified which may result in them losing their jobs.
For this article, we hope to share the challenges that migrant workers continue to face during the pandemic through three verticals: physiological, mental (which also encapsulates emotional), and societal. It is also pertinent to note that the issues described under all three verticals tend to occur in tandem with each other, rather than being mutually exclusive. We will then look at approaches that we can take in addressing some of these challenges.
For many of us in Singapore, life comes with a wealth of creature comforts that we tend to take for granted. Our basic needs are by and large met without a hitch – and then some! It would therefore be quite jarring to hear of some migrant workers living in cramped quarters with unsanitary conditions, while some have to contend with catered food that is either unclean or lacking in nutrition. If these challenges facing workers in meeting their physiological needs had long been in existence, their impact was further exacerbated during the pandemic.
With dorms placed under lockdown, workers were no longer able to go on regular trips to markets for groceries. With access to fresh fruit and meat cut off for them, even more, workers had to rely on catered meals paid for by their employers. While many of these employers resort to low-quality catering in order to cut costs – a predicament which was highlighted during the recent Jalan Tukang dorm incident where worms were sighted in the workers’ meals – the economic fallout from the pandemic also meant that a number of employers just did not have sufficient funds to provide adequately for the needs of their workers during the lockdown period.
Workers were also unable to send money to their families back home, many of whom would have counted on their once regular remittances. Some also could not top up their prepaid mobile balances, which combined with intermittent wireless internet reception at their dorms, prevented them from calling their loved ones overseas. Nevertheless, there were on-ground initiatives aimed at boosting digital literacy among migrant workers in order to avail themselves to various online banking and e-remittance platforms, thus negating the need for trips to the bank, while donated data cards helped alleviate some of the loneliness felt by these workers.
While there was some respite for the workers through the energetic efforts of various volunteer groups working in tandem with the authorities, the reality was that access to necessary resources was a challenge during the lockdown, which possibly triggered other less obvious issues for migrant workers.
While it is plain to see that the lockdown of dorms has impacted access to tangible and important goods for migrant workers, there are just as many issues impacting the mental and emotional wellbeing of workers that begin to manifest themselves tangibly. Firstly, the very notion of a lockdown essentially means that workers are kept onsite in their dorms with no social interactions permitted outside the dorms, as well as measures to even exclude inter-block mixing within dorms and worksites – with all communal facilities (if any) dorms cordoned off. This brings feelings of severe isolation, loneliness, and even abandonment upon themselves, which has led to depression among workers, not unlike how the rest of us felt during the circuit breaker period when we were cut off from interacting with friends and relatives living outside of our primary homes.
The aforementioned economic fallout from the pandemic also means that many workers are left in limbo with regard to their employment. Even if they were ‘lucky’ enough to still have work, they would have been left idle in their dorms without any meaningful interactions with the outside world. This can impact workers in several ways; losing one’s job could severely affect one’s self-worth, especially when viewed through the lens of migrant workers leaving their families thousands of miles behind for the sole purpose of pursuing better earning prospects. Consequently, it is not uncommon to hear of workers demonstrating depressive or even suicidal tendencies.
While there are many efforts across various sectors targeted at meeting the tangible needs of migrant workers, such as nutritious food, toiletries, and prepaid SIM cards, there is growing acknowledgment of the need to work with migrant workers in tending to their mental wellbeing. Groups such as CMSC and others have rolled out mental health e-counselling platforms that allow workers experiencing mental health issues to speak with trained therapists. However, we also noted that some of these mental issues are tied to the societal challenges facing migrant workers here.
The nature of dormitories in Singapore is such that they are located far away from main population nodes and close to industrial zones such as Tuas and Senoko. They are also close to key transportation points such as the Causeway and the Tuas Mega Port. A natural consequence of this arrangement is that migrant workers, while providing a vital source of labour for key economic sectors that local workers tend to eschew, become a largely unseen entity to most Singaporeans.
With hardly any meaningful interaction between local residents and guest workers, other than the cursory glance when one walks past a construction area, inherent biases and misjudged perceptions combine to become an inevitable sense of reluctant tolerance, punctuated by periodic expressions of loathing.
Is this societal stance a recent shift? Not quite, and if we were to take a stroll down memory lane to 2006, we see that Singapore’s Housing and Development Board (HDB) had announced that HDB flat owners were no longer allowed to rent their homes to migrant workers, in response to public dissatisfaction with having to live next to such workers. In 2008, almost 20 percent of residents in the affluent Serangoon Gardens neighbourhood had vehemently opposed the Government’s plans for a new migrant worker dormitory close to the estate.
In this textbook case of ‘not in my backyard’ sentiment or NIMBYism, the hustings ahead of the 2011 General Elections even saw certain political actors capitalising on this undercurrent of frustration. Amidst a pandemic, it would therefore be a natural instinct for some of us to want to cleave these ‘deplorables’ away from the safety of our estates through excessive lockdowns and reduced interactions in public areas.
Where does this leave our migrant workers? From interactions on the ground with them, we find that there is an understandable disappointment due to these misperceptions. Some are painfully aware of the racial undertones and wanton prejudice aimed at them in the form of pejorative phrases and churlish stereotypes. There are also many who, after having served in Singapore for many decades, have come to view this island as a home away from home, and look at the gleaming landmarks gracing our city – essentially the fruits of their own labour – with immense pride.
So what do we do then, as a society? Where do we even start? Amid our own personal struggles in this pandemic, it may seem daunting to start caring about the concerns of another person, let alone an entire community. Fret not, as there are some simple ways to show care and concern for our migrant workers.
A first step would be to be aware as well as stay constructive and action-oriented as far as possible. While it may be tempting to chase clout with a woke-sounding Instagram post or a TikTok video on the migrant worker situation, creating awareness is only the start of solving any issue. Worse, while we may be content with patting our backs for a post well done, virtue signalling does next to nothing about addressing the real-world concerns of migrant workers, which are very much off-grid.
However, volunteer efforts are not the only way of creating change, though talent, time and effort are always welcome. All it really takes is an acknowledging nod or a cheery “Hello!” that conveys a simple yet powerful message – or offering a drink or meal to our worker friends. Through these simple acts of kindness, we witness and affirm the migrant worker in our midst, thus nullifying the aforementioned point about workers being unseen.
Then there are the bolder actions that spring out of genuine care and concern, like the 4-year-old child who used his birthday angpows to buy care packs for migrant workers in his estate. It is indeed heartening to see many acts of kindness from individual residents as well as passionate folks coming forth to volunteer with groups such as HealthServe, CMSC and It’s Raining Raincoats, and we encourage many of you to come forward with your ideas, time and resources.
It is also important not to diminish the agency and capacity of migrant workers through our volunteering efforts, and it is something that we keep a keen watch of. While reaching out to meet the needs of our migrant workers is not a bad thing in and of itself, we need to be conscious of how we view these individuals: are they pitiful, hapless folks in need of hand-holding, or are they nuanced individuals with unique personal narratives? This is where dialogue plays a crucial role.
At CMSC, we have a Zoom learning exchange session called WeTalk as well as a penpal programme called WePals to encourage meaningful exchanges between Singaporeans and migrant workers. It is interesting to see that while we lack much knowledge about workers’ lived experience, many of them also are not aware of Singaporean culture, despite their very real contributions to building our cherished icons. Such platforms allow understanding and empathy to bloom, for it is only when we truly know the person sitting across the table, that we are then compelled to show real care.
Ultimately, the pandemic has provided a teachable moment for us as a society in managing our relationship with the workers that toil to build our nation. We certainly hope that we have not missed out on any of these lessons, whether it is just coming to terms with this topic for a start or understanding what it means to really reach out and demonstrate care for others, as well as doing right by them. Otherwise, it would be a shame for our society to emerge from this tumultuous season unaffected and missing out on a more resilient and caring spirit. ⬛
1 Oh, C. and Tham, D. MOM investigates claims about COVID-19 health breaches at a Jurong dormitory; riot police deployed. CNA. 2021, October 14. Available at: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/westlite-jalan-tukang-dormitory-migrant-workers-mom-2242011
2 Ng, J. S. Migrant worker housing: How Singapore got here. TODAY. 2020, May 9. Retrieved from: https://www.todayonline.com/big-read/migrant-worker-housing-spore-how-we-got-here
3 The Kopi Company. Explained: How Singaporeans Indirectly Caused the COVID-19 Spread in Dormitories (YouTube). 2020, May 22. Available at: https://youtu.be/UYzfk4SlQms
4 Siti Hawa. 4-year-old boy in S’pore uses birthday money to distribute 100 care packs to migrant workers. Mothership. 2021, June 22. Retrieved from: https://mothership.sg/2021/06/keshav-care-pack-migrant-workers/
COVID-19 Migrant Support Coalition (CMSC) is a volunteer-led, volunteer-run group that aims to help meet the needs of our migrant friends affected by COVID-19, with the hope of fostering inclusivity for this demographic in Singapore.