On Sunday, 6 May, I went down to East Coast Park to join a Labour Day commemorative event organised by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME). There were about 100 or so workers – Chinese and Bangladeshi. There was a barbeque, catered food and games & prizes for the workers.
Jolovan Wham, the Executive Director of HOME, is a friend, one whose passion for standing up for the rights of these workers is something which I utterly admire. He is also one very intelligent man, from whom I have learned much indeed. It is thus no surprise that he chose to spend his Sunday with the workers. Jolovan is also well known to rush to the workers’ aid at a moment’s notice, whether it is rescuing them at Changi Airport or boarding vessels parked along Singapore’s coastlines.
I hope that one day, Jolovan will write a book and register for posterity the work that he and those at HOME do.
Jolovan introduced me to a group of Bangladeshi workers and I sat down with one of them for a chat.
Mohamad Karim (not his real name) is a cheerful man, but when I asked for his age, he said he didn’t know. “You don’t know your age?” I asked, somewhat ignorantly, as his answer would show. “In Bangladesh, sometime our parents don’t register our birth,” he said. It explains why he doesn’t know his own age. But I guessed that he was probably in his mid-30s.
Mohamad has been working in Singapore for 12 years now, and he expressed great gratitude for being able to come here. He did not take the usual route of paying unlicensed or bogus agents to come to S’pore. He’d paid only S$1,000 as fees for his trip to work here. “I don’t go Ali Baba,'” he said, referring to bogus agents.
He earns between S$800 to S$900 a month working construction here. He sends S$600 home each month to his wife who saves some of it each time. All of his 12 years have been good, he says, smiling. He’d just returned to S’pore two months ago, after making a trip home to get married. “I want to save money and go back to open a shop,” he said, eyes filled with expectation. It’s his dream. A simple dream, to provide for his 4 younger siblings and parents.
I asked how much it would cost to open a shop back home. “S10,000,” he said. Mohamad isn’t thinking of a simple provision shop. He wants something bigger. And he is working hard to achieve this. His working day sees him labouring away from 8am to 7pm. He doesn’t go anywhere on his off days except to Mustafa at Serangoon Road and the mosque on Fridays.
Having come across many instances of workers who have been abused and exploited by unscrupulous agents and employers, I was heartened and happy to hear him say that he was very happy with his working conditions. “Boss is very good to me,” he said. “He no give me pressure. Give pressure I cannot work. How to work if everyday got headache?”
I asked how he found Singapore. “Very good. Singapore everything good,” he answered. “Law good, people good. Singapore people very gentleman.” He was trying to say that in Singapore things are predictable – he works, he gets his pay, he gets off days and he can save and send his money home. The facilities for these is what he is happy about. His money doesn’t go missing.
On my way home in the train, I saw another group of migrant workers, probably enjoying their day off, and I pondered on this rising xenophobia in Singapore towards workers like him. And I ponder on previous workers I’d met, back in 2008 and other years. Some were truly badly exploited. One, who was forcibly repatriated, ended up having a heart attack and died, leaving a wife and a very young child. Then there is the one who was so badly beaten up by his employer that his skull was cracked. Another had lost his hearing after being punched by his employer. These stories were horrendous and I – and my friends – were appalled that such things could happen here.
Have things changed? I honestly don’t know, and in the coming weeks and months, I hope to revisit some of these issues which surfaced in the past, and see if things have changed for the better.
In the meantime, workers like Mohamad Kazim are here because S’pore gives them opportunities which their own country cannot. And there is nothing – absolutely nothing – wrong in them wanting to seek a better life for their families. I know if I were one of them, I’d probably do the same.
I asked Mohamad if he were close to saving enough to open that shop he dreams of. “Maybe another two years, then I can go home and open shop,” he said.
He would have spent 14 years saving up to achieve his dreams. I wish him success.
“Come back to Singapore as a tourist next time when you have opened the shop and have settled down well,” I said to him. “Yes, I will,” he replied. “How can I forget Singapore? Singapore forever in my heart.”
I wonder if we ourselves do not appreciate our own country enough.
Read the report I did for publichouse.sg on Sunday’s event here: HOME calls on gov’t to protect migrant workers.