Serena Quiroga is a second-year MA student in the Latin American Studies program.

I spent a mere five weeks in Singapore, which I thought would be sufficient time to be introduced to a city, to gain a sense of its rhythm and its quirks. While I assumed I would eventually check off the usual attractions – the skywalk, night safari, chili crab – I never got around to it.  Instead, the lives of the city’s migrant workers caught my attention and occupied my time, thanks to my courageous host, Debbie Fordyce.  Most of my mornings and evenings were spent with her and a group of migrant workers, mainly Bangladeshi and Tamil men who are unable to work due to work-related injuries, salary disputes, or compensation claims.  

Debbie has been working with these migrant workers for over 10 years through the charity Transient Workers Count Too and her meal program, The Cuff Road Project.  I would affectionately call her meal program “food and problems”, because after helping out a few mornings a week, I saw that this was not just about offering a meal to an individual who happened to be without income and often without shelter.  This was where many came to speak to her and the other dedicated volunteers about their troubles, often financial, health-related, and personal, but all stemming from their poor working conditions.  

Some nights, we would get home to find a few migrant workers waiting for Debbie in her own living room, sometimes to share good news – like pictures of their new baby in Bangladesh – and other times to ask for help in confronting a lawyer or employer who was cheating them.  Some mornings, we would accompany workers to the hospital, perhaps to help them request their records for their permanent incapacity report, or just to ease their nerves before surgery.  Some days, Debbie would come home to recount the bizarre confrontations she had had that day with a crooked lawyer who illegally invoiced for ambiguous services, or the bank director who falsified money transfer receipts to steal part of a worker's compensation package.  

Granted, these were often extreme cases – horrific injuries due to employer neglect, physical abuse, intimidation, even kidnapping – but there was a common thread throughout each of these drawn-out cases.  Somehow, despite Singapore's highly organized system for managing migration, these workers are systematically vulnerable and face mounting obstacles and complications once they arrive.  Even before entering Singapore, migrant workers pay exorbitant fees to be connected with an employer, often through selling their family land or by going into extreme debt.  Once in Singapore, they are tied to a single employer in order to receive their temporary work visa, a visa that can be unilaterally cancelled at any time before or after their arrival.  Furthermore, they do not have the security of a minimum wage, and opportunity for legislative protection is extremely limited.  In fact, with each of the 180-200 new migrant worker cases that Debbie enters into the food program each month, the reality becomes more and more undeniable.  At best, workers receive no economic support from the government while their cases are being processed, during which time they are not legally allowed to work.  And at worst?  They face physical abuse, kidnapping, and unlawful repatriation attempts by employers not wanting to pay medical leave or compensation.  It soon became difficult to reconcile the image I had of clean, efficient, safe Singapore with the countless marginally different variations of migrants’ terrible stories.     

When the celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary of Singapore’s independence started to kick off, Debbie arranged for me to go to see the fireworks around Marina Bay with a friend.  Ashar, not his real name, had been working on one of Singapore’s new underground metro stations illegally while his case was being processed.  With his family depending upon his remittances, he agreed to the even more dangerous conditions of working illegally, where he again faced the threat of serious legal repercussions should he be caught.   He usually gets Sundays off, and for the celebrations, we came to see that many migrant workers were allowed the special privilege of a full day off work.  The crowds were immense, and we never made it close to the water, but that didn't hinder our view of the jet show and later the fireworks.  It was an impressive spectacle in the sky, one that was met with enthusiasm and cheers from the ground.  Perhaps it was because we were in the periphery, at a distance from the front-row seats near the water, but Ashar and I both joked that there wasn't a Singaporean in sight; the crowds were overwhelmingly comprised of Bangladeshi and Tamil migrant workers.  The grand finale was no let-down; the sky was so lit up that it was as if night had been transformed into day before our eyes.

PHOTO CREDIT: Serena Quiroga