In Singapore, there are close to 323,000 foreign workers who stay in foreign worker dormitories across the city state. Many of them are Bangladeshi and Indians working in the construction, marine, manufacturing industries and service sector. These dormitories are managed by dormitory operators in accordance with existing guidelines which stipulates that each migrant worker should have at least 4.5 square metres of living space, which is equivalent to 20 adults living in a four-room HDB flat.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, It was tough for the migrant workers to comply with social distancing of maintaining at least 1metre among individuals in such a cramped living environment. The long incubation period of COVID-19 that lasts for two-weeks had also made it difficult to detect infected cases. Since mid-April 2020, the daily numbers of infected cases came mainly from workers staying in dormitories across the island, prompting the government to step up testing for these workers. As of 24 May, a total of more than 29,000 work permit holders were tested positive for COVID-19, which made up more than 90% of the confirmed cases.
Towards the end of April, Tzu Chi Foundation (Singapore) worked with dormitory operators and government organisations to build a "home" at the community isolation facility which was scheduled to begin operation by mid of May.
Besides preparing gift packages for the migrant workers, volunteers made effort to spruce up the isolation facility to make it more pleasant and comfortable for one to live in. Two months into operation, three volunteers will be taking turns to refill the pantry at the facility to provide refreshments for the medical staff and facility staff. Concerned with the emotional and mental well-being of foreign workers, the foundation had also launched a care-line with two trained volunteers providing counselling services via phone everyday.
To prevent the spread of infection, volunteers visiting the facility must apply for a permit from the government and adhere to preventive measures such as washing their hands regularly, wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing. Volunteers deployed must also be under 60 years of age with no chronic or underlying conditions. One must also have a clear travel history and have no contact with any suspect cases or confirmed cases.
◎ Thanking migrant workers on Labour Day
On 1 May this year, Tzu Chi showed appreciation to migrant workers for their hard work over the past years by mobilising 146 volunteers to pack approximately 3,600 gift packages in 4 days. Concerned that some migrant workers might have moved hastily to the isolation facility with very few personal items, the gift packages consist of various daily necessities and foodstuff total to 24 items.
As there is a variety of items that must be packed into each bag, volunteers systematically form an assembly line to speed up the flow of work, each responsible to insert one item into the bag. Geared with gloves, volunteers carefully placed hand sanitizer, disinfectant, fabric masks, vitamin C, toilet paper, soap, laundry soap, laundry powder, shampoo, dishwashing liquid, toothbrush, toothpaste, brushing cup, razor and a padlock into each recycling bag.
Large items that could not be put inside the recycling bag such as bucket, broom and dustpan were handed over to the dormitory operators directly. On the other hand, another group of volunteers were folding origami hearts, painting and writing encouraging words on each origami to lift the spirit of the migrant workers.
Sim En Qi, a youth volunteer with Tzu Chi Foundation aka Tzu Ching, seized the opportunity to come forward to render her help in this charity project after learning about the climate of anxiety amongst migrant workers through media reports.
"If I were a migrant worker, I would be very sad and long for someone to care for me,” said Sim as she empathises with the plight of their current situation.
◎ Spending the month of Ramadan in a foreign land
The isolation facility can house 1,628 people, out of which, 80% are Bangladeshis while the remaining are Indian nationals and a few are from China. During the month of Ramadan, Bangladeshi migrant workers whom are Muslims had to perform their fasting duties while being quarantine. Tzu Chi Foundation specially prepared Dates (kurma) to help these Muslim workers spend their fasting month with ease. Dates are a necessity for Muslims to break their fast as it helps to boost their energy level and it is a good supplement for nutrition.
Unlike the Bangladeshi workers, the Indian workers are mostly Tamil speaking Hindus from South India. To relieve their homesickness, volunteers also prepared packets of Muruku (a type of Indian traditional snack) for them. Dates, muruku, hand made heart origamis and a letter of encouragement were inserted in separate recycling bag to ensure food hygiene.
The content of the letter of encouragement are written in English, Bengali, Tamil and Chinese language. We were fortunate enough to find Bangladeshi and Indian volunteers to assist in translating 60 Jing Si Aphorisms to Bengali and Tamil. Tzu Chi is also working with a government organisation to share one Jing Si Aphorism with the workers staying in dormitories across the island every day beginning mid of May through mobile app.
Some of the Jing Si Aphorisms are combined with the photos of life in South Asian society and made into posters which are posted at the public corridors of the isolation facility. The rationale behind this little gesture is explained by Head of Volunteer Development Department, Beh Keng Hua, who hopes to spread positivity to the migrant workers using their own language to let them know that although they are in a foreign country, there are still many people who care for them.
These South Asian workers carry the dreams of their distant family members and are the economic pillars of their families. In fact, most of these workers would choose to return to their home country to start a small business after saving enough funds in Singapore. And their years of hard labour in a foreign country made them part of our family.
◎ Getting the facility nicely decorated before the arrival of migrant workers
On 14th May 2020, there were a total of 752 infected cases of COVID-19 infection in Singapore, among which, 750 were migrant workers living in dormitories. Out of the 20,104 active cases, 19,032 cases that showed mild symptoms are arranged to be quarantined in community isolation facilities for 14 days for observation and treatment. The number of people with mild symptoms is estimated to continue to increase, which is why the government has been actively looking for space in Singapore to be transformed into community isolation facilities.
On the day before these migrant workers were admitted to the isolation facility, the staff working in the facility were busy getting the living facilities ready. 40 Tzu Chi volunteers had also arrived at the two-hectare isolation facility on this day. There are a total 16 units in this isolation facility, with 3 floors in each unit. Each floor has 4 to 5 compartments, shared corridors, bathrooms, toilets and laundry.
On a hot day, volunteers were soaking in perspiration as they put up the Jing Si Aphorism posters on each unit within the facility. Some volunteers took the initiative to assist medical staff to dispense medicine while others assisted facility staff to prepare bedding items and posting notices. These proactive volunteers had done a great help to the staff. Volunteers had also prepared and set up the pantry at the rest area for medical staff and facility staff.
Some volunteers said that although they could not go abroad for Tzu Chi’s yearly medical mission due to COVID-19, they could still contribute by working with medical staff to get the isolation facility ready on this day.
◎ Realizing that we are all equal
There were many volunteers who took annual leave to help at the isolation facility from 9 am to 5 pm, one of them was Seah Jia Jun. Seah is a native Singaporean who loves Indian vegetarian cuisine. He often goes to Little India for vegetarian meals and has long heard about the life of workers staying in dormitories and long wished to help them as long as the opportunity arises.
“The migrant workers have done so much for us, our flats and environment are built by them, I am doing this to repay them for their contributions towards Singapore for so many years,” said Seah. He also shared about his past interactions with migrant workers when he volunteered at the recycling point in the community. The migrant workers he met would always politely reject his offer to help them sort out the dirty recyclables.
"It is very distressing to see this, because we are all human beings and are all equal. There shouldn’t be any mentality that distinguishes who should do the clean job and who should do the dirty job. In fact, we are the ones who created the mess for them to clean up after us, and that is why they got their hands contaminated,” expressed Seah from the bottom of his heart.
The response from the volunteers was so overwhelming that slots were filled up within two days. Beh said that this programme is a good affinity for Tzu Chi to reach out to this group of migrant workers.
“They left their home to work here. Back home, they too are fathers and sons. I hope that they will eventually return home safely and healthily to reunite with their families.”