Working with migrant workers in Singapore
The glorious six months before university is one of the longest holidays many of us will get to experience. And though we’re temporarily free from the shackles of education and the endless chase for those As on our report cards, the pressure to do something productive is only intensified during this “break”.
But despite peer pressure from my kiasu friends who were entering all sorts of corporate internships to add to their LinkedIn profiles, I chose a slightly different route: signing up to work with migrant workers.
Deciding to be an NGO intern
Even though the common stereotype of office interns being the “designated kopi buyer” holds little truth these days, I knew right from the start that I didn’t plan on spending my holiday at a “traditional” internship. Fiddling around on Microsoft Office wasn’t really my forte, so naturally, I tried looking for something a little more hands-on.
While I tried out a few odd jobs over the first few weeks of my break, it wasn’t until my job at HealthServe that I found my calling. I’d practically spent the entirety of 2020’s Circuit Breaker keeping up with the news, and knowing just how badly Covid-19 was affecting the migrant worker community in Singapore spurred me to do what I could to help them.
Work days were always full of surprises. I can still remember being asked to don a full PPE suit on my very first day so that I could talk to the brothers at HealthServe’s clinic, which made me feel like a real professional.Image credit: Lisana Ann
HealthServe is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that’s been around since 2006, providing all kinds of support services for migrant workers in Singapore, such as medical care, counselling, casework, and social assistance.
After some encouragement from a friend who had started her internship at HealthServe a week prior, I knew that signing with the organisation’s Communications and Engagement department was exactly what I had been looking for.
Being Bengali herself, my friend also shared how speaking to the migrant “brothers” in their native language helped them feel more comfortable with us. Seeing how my mother tongue skills weren’t being put to good use anywhere else, I was excited for the opportunities this internship would bring.
And so, my journey began.
What a working day in my life looks like
As a Comms and Engagement intern, my main responsibility was to give the migrant workers in Singapore a voice through the organisation’s social media platforms. A simple “Hello brother,” could lead to the most interesting of conversations – my job was to note down these stories and shed light on this “unseen” side of them.
At the “Heroes of Our Time” exhibition featuring artwork by migrant workersImage credit: Lisana Ann
Because of this, I was often at HealthServe’s clinic and also at their various events and projects, reaching out to as many migrant workers as I could. From airport send-offs to dorm visits, it was always a joy to be able to spend time with the workers. I was also doing something meaningful, like delivering all kinds of basic necessities to them as they couldn’t leave their dormitories amidst the pandemic.
Saying our last goodbyes to some of the brothers who were heading back home for goodImage credit: Lisana Ann
While my job was equal parts fulfilling and meaningful, I also thoroughly enjoyed hearing what my friend got up to as a casework intern. Helping out with work-related injuries and providing translation and case support, her role dealt with more serious issues faced by migrant workers in Singapore. There were even instances where she was given the chance to drop in for physiotherapy sessions at the clinic.
While many of us are at our BTO stage in life and can’t wait to finally get the keys to our new place, we might not realise just how dangerous their jobs are and how frequently on-site injuries occur. This made her job crucial as it helped them recover and regain the ability to earn a salary.
The job also shed light on issues I was previously unaware of, like the inaccessibility of nutritious food for migrant workers.
The brothers we encountered were mostly engaged in laborious construction work, and mass catering options at their dorms usually only served oily and carbohydrate-rich foods. These aren’t the healthiest options for them due to the lack of nutrients and often meant that they were at risk of health problems in the long run.
A regular day at HealhServe’s Little India Food project, which serves free and nutritious meals to migrant workers.Image credit: Lisana Ann
I also realised throughout my internship that education was just as important as the assistance that we were providing. Migrant workers often face a lot of stress by being away from home and having to deal with unfamiliar work injury claims and other employment-related issues.
Ensuring the brothers knew more about the symptoms of these chronic and mental illnesses made sure that they could identify them before their condition became serious. This was done via weekly counselling sessions facilitated by volunteer therapists.
The organisation’s translation efforts also helped clarify doubts on topics like injury claims, making it a less stressful process for the brothers.
What I’ve learnt from our migrant workers
Image credit: Lisana Ann
When people ask me about my greatest takeaway from the internship, the answer is simple: the stories shared by the migrant workers.
I can still remember one of the first conversations I’d had on the job. I’d visited the clinic after lunch to talk to a couple of brothers who were there for their consultations. Being an enthusiastic yet awkward newbie, I was trying to hold in my jitters as I approached one of them for a chat.
He had been there hours before his appointment, so I encouraged him to join us for an ongoing Art Engagement session we were holding. As he joined the staff and volunteers for an afternoon of drawing, he shared with us that he hadn’t been back to his hometown in the past five years.
One of our Art Engagement sessions at HealthServe’s Geylang compoundImage credit: HealthServe
The brother excitedly proceeded to show us a video of his daughter dancing, proudly telling us about how she had become so tall over the years. He explained that he first left for Singapore when she was only a month old and had barely managed to spend time with her apart from video calls due to his long working hours.
It was precisely at this moment that it struck me how much these workers have to sacrifice and leave behind in pursuit of a better life. My daily encounters with different migrant workers only deepened this realisation and I began to recognise that coming to Singapore wasn’t entirely based on choice, but more on need.
Image credit: HealthServe
As an onlooker, I was moved by their resilience and determination to provide for their families. Having to be thousands of kilometres away from their homes for such a prolonged period of time isn’t an easy feat, and it made me reflect on how privileged I was and how insignificant some of my problems were in comparison.
Understanding the struggles migrant workers face
At the end of the day, we’re more similar than we are different. All of us hold our loved ones dear and the pain of the brothers working tirelessly in a foreign country, away from their elderly parents, wives, and young children is immeasurable.
Simple conversation starters like “Are you well, brother?” and hearing a resounding “Yes I am good! How are you sister” is a simple yet earnest way of showing that we care.
Dormitory visit to migrant brothers to pass them welfare packs filled with goodiesImage credit: Lisana Ann
There were times when I wondered if I would be able to create any real change as an individual, but hearing how small actions greatly impacted their lives during our conversations reassured me of that fact.
One incident that stands out was when a few brothers walked into our office requesting covered shoes due to foot injuries from work. There were only a few shoes left in the donated pile, and though they weren’t in the best condition, the brothers were grateful for simply having received them.
Seeing how happy they were despite the limited support we could offer changed my perspective. It was both heartwarming and moving and made gratitude one of the most important takeaways during my time here.
A hot and sunny afternoon during Walk and Be Well, a monthly initiative, at Lakeside Garden.Image credit: Lisana Ann
During one of HealthServe’s walking sessions, Walk and Be Well, I was grouped with three workers who were dorm roommates. They had either been injured or were unable to work for a variety of reasons, creating a sense of lingering uncertainty. As the brothers were Special Pass holders, they were unsure about when they could safely return home or even how to regain the strength to work again.
Walk and Be Well is one of the many initiatives carried out to help migrant workers enjoy their free time doing something fun and meaningful. The brothers that I chatted with were all grateful for the opportunity to leave their dorms for a breath of fresh air.
Cracking all kinds of silly jokes and posing for pictures along the way, the brothers were always looking out for us volunteers and making sure that we were having fun as well.
While my personal goal was to make sure that they were having a good time, their thoughtfulness surprised me and helped me realise how at the end of the day, they were regular folks just like us – something many people tend to forget.
How to help Singapore’s migrant worker community
This past year has been exceptionally hard on all of us, but as we focus on our own hectic lives, it can be easy for us to turn a blind eye to others. Rather than simply reading stories like this on the internet, here are some ways that you can get involved too.
Volunteering is, of course, the most ideal way to make a direct impact on the lives of migrant workers. Not only is it a great way to connect with them on a more personal level, but it’s also extremely rewarding to see how impactful your actions can be.
No matter your skill set, there are plenty of migrant worker-focused organisations that need more hands on deck such as HealthServe, which remains mostly a volunteer-run organisation. HealthServe will also be launching Singapore’s first 24/7 crisis helpline for migrant workers soon, and currently is looking for more crisis helpline volunteers for support.
Intern buddies after a long day at the Little India officeImage credit: Lisana Ann
On the other hand, if you don’t have the time to spare but would still like to make a change, you can also donate to the following registered charities:
HealthServe – provide holistic care for workers, from medical and mental health services to casework and other forms of social support such as food and financial aidMigrant Workers’ Assistance Fund – donate meals and provide emergency assistanceTWC2 – provide general assistance and fund TWC2’s advocacyHOME – provide healthcare, shelter, and skills training to domestic and migrant workers
Even if you can’t donate or volunteer, simple acts of courtesy also go a long way. Saying a simple “Good morning” or waving to the brothers – from migrant workers to neighbourhood cleaners – when we see them is a great way to show your appreciation for all the hard work they do.
Volunteering with migrant workers in Singapore
My three-month stint as an NGO intern may have been brief, but the experiences that I had will stay with me for a lifetime. Throughout my journey, I’ve met so many like-minded individuals who eventually became some of my greatest companions and friends.
Not forgetting the migrant brothers who continue to amaze me with their resilience and optimism – I hope that social work efforts in Singapore will continue to help them during their time in our country.
Note: Some of the programmes mentioned in the article have been put on hold due to safe management measures.
Cover images adapted from: Lisana Ann, HealthServeInterview conducted and written by Megan Kwek