Activism, the ‘New Normal’ (Pt. 1) – Migrant Worker Advocacy

How has COVID-19 impacted the various fields of advocacy?

By Carman Chew

Though the circuit breaker period has revealed many who have fallen through the cracks of Singapore society, it has also spotlighted the work of various peoples and organisations who are stepping in to plug the gap. In this series, we hear from activists to find out how COVID-19 has changed their different fields of activism, including mental health, migrant worker advocacy and LGBTQ rights.

Samira Hassan. [Image Source: Samira]

First up, we have Samira. She has been volunteering at the Transient Workers Count Too’s (TWC2) legal clinic since junior college but as of this summer, she also joined HealthServe as a communications intern, working on website design and Bengali translation so that more migrant workers can access the medical aid they deserve. On her own, she is compiling a list of employment agencies in anticipation of mass layoffs in the construction industry in the coming months.

[Legend: S – Samira]

What do you think was the biggest problem migrant workers faced prior to COVID-19 and how has COVID-19 changed that?

S: What I’ve realised with regards to anything to do with migrant workers is that, on paper, there are good laws – like there is regulation that says that agencies can only take one month’s worth of salary – but there is such little enforcement. In the legal clinic that I work in, we often see cases that start because of employer’s refusal to pay, but then even after a long case that can last from as long as 6 months to 2 years, even if the employee wins the legal battle, so many cases are not enforced and the employer just never pays the full amount.

Were there new problems that arose after the pandemic?

S: I don’t think it was such a big problem before but I think after COVID-19, there’s been a huge demand for translators; my Bengali-speaking friends will just get random calls from anywhere, from hospitals to dorm operators, because I feel information now is critical and they can’t afford to get it wrong. Before this, from TWC2, if they can’t get hold of a Bengali translator, they would just communicate in broken English and as long as you get the essence of it, it’s fine. But on the healthcare side, you have to ask them for symptoms, what they’re feeling, stuff that you can’t afford to get wrong.

And these COVID-19 measures, it’s just so complicated, especially for migrant workers. 

“…even though we don’t really understand why this guy doesn’t get to go home, what’s happening with him, it becomes the job of the NGO to reassure them without any certainty on our part.”

It’s not like for Singaporeans where after 1 June, circuit breaker ends and then phase 1, and this phase 1 you can’t do this. For migrant workers, there’s so much information and not everything applies to them: some will go to Changi Exhibition Centre, some will go to the cruise ship, some will go to another dormitory – it’s just a LOT of information and its imperative that they get the details down. For context, at the beginning with Changi Exhibition Centre, if you’ve tested positive, you’re gonna go there, right? The thing is that though they get tested in the dorms, they won’t get told their results but then will suddenly be informed that they have to leave. They won’t be told when, why, where they’re going and for how long – cos all this affects how much you have to pack – so for a lot of them they didn’t bring enough stuff, thinking they were only going to be there for 1-2 days when in reality some of them were there for weeks. People are not relaying information to them and you can only imagine how anxiety-inducing that is.

Plus, a huge problem that I feel hasn’t been covered properly is mental health actually. 

When the crisis first hit the dorms, because there wasn’t sufficient health information going around, workers didn’t exactly know what COVID-19 entailed. A lot of them actually thought they were going to die if they got it. And when you have that hanging at the back of your mind, it’s a constant source of distress.

I was talking to this other guy who’s been on the cruise ship for about a month now and when the news first broke that they were gonna be on cruise ships, we thought “oh my god, yes, it’s gonna be super atas (high-class) and it’s gonna be great for them”. But actually, you can’t go out of the room, you are stuck in that small room all day. He had a roommate at first, but then he [the roommate] left, so he’s just in the room all day by himself. The only human contact that he gets is from the guy who brings him food. And imagine living like that for a month in that space. They have internet but it’s also shitty internet. 

It’s just anxiety-inducing lah and he messages me every day and asks “When am I gonna get out? What am I going to do?” but I, as a person working at an NGO, don’t have that information, because as much as Healthserve tries to collaborate with MOM, there’re also lapses in communication. So even though we don’t really understand why this guy doesn’t get to go home, what’s happening with him, it becomes the job of the NGO to reassure them without any certainty on our part.

Some initiatives rolled out by HealthServe during the COVID crisis. [Image Source: HealthServe]

I’ve spoken to a lot of workers as well who were supposed to go home because their permit was already ending and they were supposed to go home even before the crisis hit its peak. Flights were becoming more irregular and though employers were trying to get flights for them, because of how volatile the whole situation was, flights kept getting cancelled. So, last minute, the migrant workers kept facing disappointment. And it doesn’t just happen once, it would happen about three to four times on average. For now, flights are still rare and also very expensive. And for a lot of the guys, they don’t live in the capital but they fly to the capital, so that means their family actually spends money hiring a car or van for them. Every time those flights got cancelled, their family was essentially bleeding money also and the migrant workers would feel guilty. Plus, just worrying about their families back home because COVID-19 is spread throughout Bangladesh too.

It’s a lot of small things, but they really really add up. I think when the conversation about migrant workers first took place, it was about them not getting proper food – which is also fair, these things are also important – and that dorms are overcrowded. These are very important conversations but yeah I think this epidemic doesn’t only result in the physicality of it, but mentally and psychologically it also has a huge impact on them.

Did COVID-19 bring any blessings in disguise?

S: I think in terms of advocacy, definitely. Because most people are staying at home, right? Even when the entire migrant work situation happened and when it blew up (the living conditions that they’re in), I did see so many more people speaking up about it and becoming more cognizant about the systemic flaws that kind of perpetuate their vulnerable position in our society lah. I would say that on an advocacy front and an organizing front, it’s been amazing actually. People are getting informed about all these labour exploitation issues in our country and even on a donation front, where things are more tangible, I’ve just seen a lot more social media attention.

People just have more time to dedicate now, I suppose, because usually social media is kind of a respite from the busyness of our days, but for now we spend so much time on it that we have more time and attention span to engage with these things properly.

And for TWC2, a lot of my people on my Instagram now have signed up to be volunteers after learning about all of this. 

What are some new strategies you/the organisation(s) have adopted since?

S: More efforts towards social media, definitely. For my internship at HealthServe, I’m also in charge of managing their website, the ones that migrant workers visit and my supervisor is always framing it as “because these migrant workers won’t get a lot of information from official government agencies, they’ll come to the HealthServe website and so you will need to make the website very engaging and engaging to their taste and to their sensibilities”.

So yeah, online, Facebook… we even started a Tiktok cos of COVID19 cos we realised that migrant workers really love Tiktok – oh my god their Tiktoks are really on another level. I used to think that the Tiktoks I saw on my normal feed were epic but their effects man. So yes, I think their strategy is really to just amp up social media presence and engagement.

For TWC2, there’s also been a shift towards more electronic mediums of communication. For one of the cases, they need to get some documents across to the migrant workers to sign, but the thing is the dorms can’t be accessed, and she’s tried mailing it, she’s tried Grab Delivering it but still it doesn’t work cos the dorm doesn’t allow it to come in. So then I just suggested to her just scan it and then have him sign it over and then she was like “oh my god yeah”. Hahas, so yeah, I think for TWC2, a lot of the stuff they do rely on hardcopy stuff – I mean they do electronic stuff, they’re not living in the Stone Age obviously – but for signing documents, because we’re so used to having guys come down to the office, sign the document, have someone there to read out the documents for them, it’s kind of second nature. So yes, now there’s definitely a shift towards more electronic mediums to get important documents like this signed.

What advice do you have for people who might be interested in getting started in advocacy?

S: Volunteering is something that I feel people should talk about more often – as in, yes, you would have to have the luxury of time, which is equally important – but if you can’t donate, or if you dislike social media activism, just go volunteer.

Especially for some people, I understand that social media activism can be very overwhelming – competing for attention on social media is so real because man, the world has so many issues, and I’m still trying to reconcile that part, like which issue do I focus on? How do I focus on them constructively and productively and in a way that doesn’t also take away my sanity because it’s just so much? That’s also something I’m still struggling with, how to divide up my attention between causes yet not have myself be overwhelmed by the vast amount of work that the world has to do, which is why I will definitely say volunteer –  I feel like it just grounds you so much. I know that for a lot of people they don’t like social media activism cos it just feels like a very distant issue and you’re not really engaging with it “properly” cos you’re not there and they feel it’s very performative, so yeah if you feel like with social media activism you’re just overwhelmed, then just start locally. Focusing on global issues is very important, but if that overwhelms you then just start from your own community. And I feel like if the whole Black Lives Matter and racism discourse has taught us anything then it’s really that the problems that we face here are ultimately connected to a much wider and a much more universal struggle, which can be both disillusioning and empowering.

I’m not sure about HealthServe, but I think for TWC2, we’re gonna be seeing a lot more workers coming to us in the next few weeks because there’s gonna be a lot more problems with companies because of the lack of funds coming in and just the general bad shape of the economy. 

There aren’t any specific skills [they need help with] from what I’ve been told but I think it’s always a good experience. I highly recommend volunteering with TWC2 because I felt like that was the place where I really learned so much in terms of thinking about migrant workers not just on an individual level but also like understanding the larger context, the larger policies, laws and regulations. And you get to do that while being on the ground, which I think is really invaluable, and the people that you meet are amazing and they will guide you through so much and help you think about so many things.


[Image Source: The New York Times]

In spite of the poor framing of migrant workers as “outside” the “community”, thankfully more are going beyond seeing these workers as merely useful tools for literal nation-building and noting systemic injustices stacked against migrant workers. 

Just like any Singaporean, our migrant workers have also been impacted greatly – if not even more so – materially, emotionally and psychologically during this period. 

Care should not be contingent on what one can or cannot do for us, and advocacy should not stop at mere pity. Solutions need to be tailored to different cultural perspectives, and one of the best ways to understand migrant workers and their needs is to hear from them directly.

Click on the links below to hear more of these voices, or donate and volunteer to these fantastic organisations if it is within your means:


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