Monday, 19 December 2016

A helping hand in a foreign land: Kudos to NGOs that help Singapore's migrant workers

There are about 1.4 million foreigners working in Singapore. Most of them are work permit holders employed as construction workers or maids. While they are protected by labour laws, those who are injured or embroiled in disputes with their employers often turn to non-governmental organisations for help. On International Migrants Day today, Insight looks at the NGOs that see to the welfare of these workers and speak up for them.
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent and Joanna Seow, The Sunday Times, 18 Dec 2016

Migrant workers have been with us for centuries.

When modern Singapore was founded in 1819, migrants came here from across Asia to make a living - some returned home, others stayed on, as did many other migrants all over the world.

But only recently did the contributions of migrants get global recognition.

In 2000, the United Nations proclaimed Dec 18 as International Migrants Day.

On that day in 1990, a decade earlier, the UN adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. The international treaty spells out protections for migrant workers and their families.

Since then, the day has been observed by countries in the world in various ways.

Singapore does not mark the day in a big way. There are no official events held around it and it does not appear on the diary of activities of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

However, a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are celebrating the day by acknowledging the contributions of migrant workers here.

These workers form a significant proportion of the Singapore population and labour force.

There are about 1.4 million foreign workers in Singapore, out of a workforce of 3.7 million and a population of 5.6 million.

This means that about one in four people here is a foreign worker. And about two in five workers here are foreigners.

The bulk of these foreign workers, about one million of them, are work-permit holders doing manual work, for example, as construction workers and maids.

Unlike top-rung foreign executives who come to Singapore on expatriate terms with their families in tow, those doing manual work receive low pay and live in dormitories or others' homes.

Without family support, they turn to non-governmental organisations for help when they run into problems.

NGOs say that the common problems these workers face are injuries related to work, salary and employment-related disputes and poor working conditions.

There are no official statistics on the number of foreign workers who die and are injured on the job, or those embroiled in disputes with their employers.

One of the oldest groups helping migrant workers is the Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People (ACMI). Commissioned as a ministry by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore in June 1998, ACMI has largely kept a low public profile.

The four big NGOs in the field are the Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC), Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and HealthServe.

The MWC is backed by the Government, the National Trades Union Congress and the Singapore National Employers Federation. It has the most resources in terms of manpower and funding.

HOME has long been a champion for maids, offering training for them in vocational skills. It also runs the largest shelter for maids here.

TWC2, which runs a soup kitchen and provides shelter services, sees itself as a lobby group and advocate of migrant workers' rights.

HealthServe is the only NGO that provides low-cost medical and dental care for workers, besides running shelters and a soup kitchen.

Apart from these four big groups, there are several other smaller players in areas such as training and raising awareness of migrant workers' issues among university students.

Each of them fills a niche.

The MOM acknowledges the work of these NGOs. A ministry spokesman says: "The NGOs, together with many other stakeholders, such as the unions and employer associations, complement MOM's efforts to take care of the migrant workers."

On International Migrants Day today, Insight tells the stories of the NGOs that look after the welfare of these workers and speak up on their rights.

Migrant Workers' Centre: A centre with heavyweight backers
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 18 Dec 2016

The Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) is a heavyweight among the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) helping migrant workers.

Set up in 2009 by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the Singapore National Employers Federation (Snef), it may seem an anomaly as it is the only group with the full support of the Government, labour movement and employers.

When it was set up, NTUC appointed Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, one of its veteran labour MPs then, to oversee the centre as its chairman. The Manpower Ministry also deployed two of its up-and-coming officers to set up the centre. One of them, Mr Bernard Menon, later joined NTUC full-time and continues to run the centre's day-to-day operations.

When then Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin published a personal collection of travel photos in 2014, he donated $320,000 from the book's sales to the MWC a year later, making him the largest donor to the centre that year.

Last year, NTUC secretary-general Chan Chun Sing described the centre as "a tripartite effort".

Mr Yeo, an assistant secretary- general at NTUC, tells Insight the MWC sees itself as an NGO as it champions fair employment practices and the well-being of migrant workers. "Both NTUC and Snef are NGOs, we are set up by two NGOs."

The MWC has 17 staff members, the highest among the four larger NGOs assisting migrant workers. HealthServe, HOME and TWC2 have nine, six and five full-time staff members respectively.

But unlike the other three, the MWC is not a registered charity.

Instead, it registered one of the funds that it runs - the Migrant Workers' Assistance Fund - as a charity in May 2012. The fund stands at $457,706 as at March this year. It gave out $64,782 in assistance to workers last year.

Mr Yeo says the MWC keeps the costs of running the centre separate from the assistance it gives workers.

"This ensures the charity dollars go to helping workers, not the operations of the centre."

It runs two centres in Serangoon Road and Geylang, where workers from South India and China congregate. It also funds a soup kitchen run by HealthServe in Geylang.

But while its NGO status raises eyebrows in some quarters, Mr Yeo dismisses the suggestion that the MWC has an image problem because it is closely linked to the Government, unions and employers.

"At the end of the day, workers trust us and still come to us for help. They see us as effective and that is what matters," he says.

Asked about criticism that MWC had been inactive until a strike by Chinese SMRT bus drivers in November 2012 and the Little India riot in December 2013, he says: "It is not fair. We have been working quietly in the background to help and advocate for workers."

He says the MWC has directly assisted more than 20,000 foreign workers with problems and conducted outreach to more than 650,000 foreign workers since 2009.

Recently, the MWC invited Insight to its outreach to foreign workers in Tuas View Square. For nearly three hours in the evening, a team of four MWC staff members and four volunteers distributed fliers on its services to foreign workers returning to their dormitories after work.

A Bangladeshi worker approached a volunteer and complained that his employer had deducted too much from his salary for food and lodgings. Mr Menon, who headed the outreach team, interviewed the worker on the spot.

"Employers can make deductions for food and lodgings, but there is a cap," Mr Menon tells Insight. "I will call the company the next day."

One of the volunteers was catering company boss Ishtiaque Ahamed. The Singapore permanent resident, who has been here for more than 10 years, says he joined the MWC as a volunteer last year to help his countrymen. "I speak Bengali and it is my duty to help them," he adds. The Bangladeshi national had approached the MWC to volunteer after a friend told him about it.

The MWC is not the only organisation set up by the NTUC to help migrant workers. In January, the NTUC also set up the Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE). It runs a 24-hour hotline and provides counselling and mediation services between employers and maids.

Mr Yeo also heads the CDE.

It rents about 50 beds from a private dormitory operator to run a shelter for maids, and is setting up a 100-bed shelter that can be expanded by at least another 50 beds. This will be the largest shelter for maids here when it opens next year.

HealthServe: Medical and dental care for a small sum
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 18 Dec 2016

It is 6.50pm on a Wednesday. In Lorong 23 Geylang, a line of men, all foreigners, forms along a dimly lit corridor. While they wait, some clutch their backpacks while a few play games on their mobile phones.

Nearby, the crowd at a coffee shop builds up. Across Geylang Road at Lorong 18, the pink lights and lanterns of brothels beckon to men who walk by. But the men in the line do not have dinner or physical pleasure on their minds.

Instead, they are waiting to see doctors at a low-cost clinic for foreign workers run by HealthServe.

"The workers pay $5 for each visit," says the group's executive director Colin Chia. "Those who are on Special Pass and not working do not pay anything."

HealthServe has been running the Geylang clinic since 2007. It also has clinics in Jurong and Mandai. Last year, it opened a dental clinic in Geylang, where foreign workers pay $10 for services such as tooth extraction and fillings.

The clinics are run by volunteers.

The NGO has on its volunteers' roster about 100 doctors and dentists and 180 nurses, pharmacists and clinic assistants. The number of foreign workers who visit its clinics has soared from 2,646 in 2013 to 6,898 in the first 11 months of this year. One reason, says Mr Chia, is that HealthServe is the only non- governmental organisation (NGO) here that provides low-cost medical care for foreign workers.

HealthServe's co-founder, Dr Goh Wei Leong, says he did not start out with a plan to run an NGO .

"We started a clinic because we saw the need to provide affordable medical services to migrant workers," says the general practitioner. "The rest of the services just grew."

HealthServe was registered as a company limited by guarantee in 2006. "I relied on my network of friends for donations," Dr Goh says.

It became a charity in 2011.

"We wanted to hold a fund-raising dinner and donors asked whether we could issue tax exemption receipts. That prompted us to register HealthServe as a charity," he adds.

HealthServe also runs a welfare centre in Tai Seng where social activities and training classes are held on weekday nights. The workers it helps are those who are stranded after getting injured.

HealthServe manager Eric Lee says this group of workers is the most vulnerable. "They are injured, they cannot work and cannot send money to their families," he says. "They can become depressed."

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) says on its website that most claims are settled within three to six months, but some injuries need more time to stabilise before a doctor can assess the extent of permanent disability, which affects the compensation. It declined to say how many injury claims made by foreign workers it handles each year or give details on the time taken to process the claims.

Last year, HealthServe gave out $223,320 in social assistance to such stranded foreign workers through free meals, temporary shelter and MRT card top-ups.

It housed 35 workers last year at its MacPherson shelter. In July this year, it opened a second shelter in Desker Road. Mr Lee, who manages the Desker Road centre, says the number of workers seeking help there "shot up to more than 200 cases in less than two months".

To help them, Mr Lee and two centre employees provide free lunches, while volunteers hold social activities. Last month, they took workers to see Christmas lights in Orchard Road. Counsellors are present to speak to workers in the evenings.

Providing affordable medical care to foreign workers and social assistance to workers in distress will continue to be the mainstay of HealthServe's work, says Mr Chia.

Construction worker Ahammad Rubal appreciates the medical and dental services HealthServe offers. The 25-year-old, who has worked in Singapore for two years, paid more than $100 to see a private dentist for a toothache earlier this year.

"(It was) expensive and my tooth (was) still painful," he says. A friend told him about HealthServe and he went to see Dr Winston How, a volunteer dentist, last week. He got a filling and follow-up treatment.

Mr Chia says HealthServe is looking at opening two more dental clinics next year. Last year, it worked with researchers at the National University of Singapore to survey Bangladeshi workers on their diet. The study found over nine in 10 of them were given stale food to eat.

Dr Goh hopes to do more research on the problems foreign workers face, including those they have before coming to Singapore. He says: "This will help us understand them so that we can help them holistically, rather than helping them when they come to us in distress."

HOME: Refuge for maids in distress
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 18 Dec 2016

The two bedrooms on the third floor of the shophouse are barely larger than four five-room Housing Board flats, yet about 70 foreigners live there. They sleep on double-decker beds laid out side by side along the walls and in the middle of the rooms.

On the second floor, tables and chairs line a communal dining hall and kitchen. Those who walk past the ground floor of the three-storey shophouse in the eastern part of Singapore will have no clue that so many foreigners live behind the plain white doors.

The shophouse may look like an illegal foreign workers' dormitory, but it is far from it. It is Singapore's largest shelter for maids in distress, run by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME). "This was how we started, helping domestic workers in distress," says Home executive director Sheena Kanwar when she took Insight to visit the shelter last week.

She adds: "It costs us more than $350,000 a year to run the shelter."

HOME was founded in 2004 by former human resources and employment agency manager Bridget Tan. Then 56, she used $60,000 from her retirement savings to set it up.

She was then a volunteer at the Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants & Itinerant People (ACMI), which is a ministry under the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore. She decided to break away from ACMI to get more leeway in what she wants to do. "I had to get the bishop's approval for everything in ACMI," she says.

She recalls the difficulties HOME faced in getting donations and recognition from the Government and the public in the early days. "We had no money. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) had no idea what HOME was about. I had to explain to MOM that HOME is speaking up for migrant workers," she says.

She served as HOME's president for eight years without pay.

HOME's profile soared in 2011 when the US State Department recognised its work in speaking up for victims of human trafficking and gave Ms Tan the Hero Acting to End Modern Slavery Award. She was invited to Washington where she received the award from then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

With its higher profile, HOME attracted donations and its work expanded. Besides running a hotline and shelter, it saw its Sunday vocational skills training classes for maids grow.

It had been holding ad-hoc English and computer classes for maids since 2004, but it now has a formal school - the HOME Academy - that trains about 1,500 maids a year in skills such as English, computer, caregiving, dressmaking, cooking, baking and even martial arts. "Cooking and caregiving are the most popular classes," says academy training administrator Sisi Sukiato. The classes are held on the United World College of South East Asia premises.

Ms Hla Thien May, a maid from Myanmar who was learning dressmaking, says the class helped her to pick up a useful skill. "It is useful when I go home (in future)," says the 32-year-old, who has been working in Singapore for eight years.

Ms Kanwar notes that there is a misperception that HOME serves only maids. "Each year, we get about 1,000 calls to the hotline from domestic workers and an equal number from male migrant workers."

Mr Jolovan Wham, who was HOME's executive director for eight years and is now its consultant, says that male migrant workers face problems such as salary and employment-related disputes as well as poor working conditions.

He cited a court case last month in which a company boss was hauled to court by the MOM and fined $60,000 for collecting kickbacks from foreign workers.

"It was our case. The workers came to us in December last year, we taught them how to collect evidence and helped them report (the crime) to the MOM," says Mr Wham.

But two months ago, HOME shut its centre in Geylang, which had been set up to help male migrant construction workers. "The $4,000 monthly rent was too high and we couldn't afford it," says Ms Kanwar.

HOME had a setback in February 2014, when Ms Tan had a stroke. She was hospitalised for four months here before she moved to Batam to recuperate. Donations to HOME plunged. Its annual cash donations fell from $1.115 million in March 2014 to $748,157 in March this year.

Ms Tan still lives in Batam, but she returns to Singapore every two months and keeps in touch with HOME via e-mail and Skype. She leaves the day-to-day running of HOME to Ms Kanwar, who joined HOME in July. Ms Kanwar says she is working hard to meet donors and explain to them what HOME does and stands for. "We speak up for migrant workers. That is our cause."

New shelter for distressed maids next year
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 19 Dec 2016

The Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE), a help centre set up by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), plans to launch a new shelter for distressed workers in the second quarter of next year.

The shelter will be able to house and support around 100 maids.

This was announced on International Migrants Day (IMD) yesterday, at one of two events by NTUC non-governmental organisations, the Migrant Workers' Centre and CDE. The new shelter will bring CDE's total housing capacity to 150 as it rents 50 bed spaces at an undisclosed location, making it Singa- pore's biggest shelter for maids.

Most maids in shelters may be embroiled in disputes with the authorities, their employers or employment agencies, said CDE.

Speaking to the media yesterday, CDE's executive director for strategy, Mr Shamsul Kamar, said that as more maids come to Singapore, "what we want to do is strengthen our capabilities and how we can give humanitarian, social, emotional support (to them)".

He added that having its own shelter will allow the CDE to "provide direct support to our domestic workers who are having issues".

The new shelter will have counselling and mediation services.

Ms Sheena Kanwar, executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), was heartened to learn of the new shelter and its services.

Currently, HOME runs Singapore's largest shelter for maids in distress, with rooms for about 70 workers.

"Once (workers) report abuse or exploitation, their safety might further get undermined and alternative emergency housing becomes essential," said Ms Kanwar. "Holistic socio-legal support for the shelter residents is very important."

HOME continues to call for maids to be covered under the Employment Act, which will ensure them labour rights such as statutory holidays and paid leave.

To celebrate IMD, the Migrant Workers' Centre organised a talent show in Hougang.

The centre's chairman, Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, said on the event's sidelines: "With the 20,000 cases that we have helped, the main issues are still with salary disputes, workplace injury compensation claims and concerns about workers' accommodation."

He hopes for more enforcement in the future to ensure salaries are promptly paid and for effective resolutions to claims submitted.

He also urged the authorities to "consider imposing a deterrent sentence" such as jail for errant employers who collect kickbacks.

Transient Workers Count Too: Working to improve living conditions
By Joanna Seow, The Sunday Times, 18 Dec 2016

Ask a foreign construction worker what he thinks of Singaporeans, and he will likely say "honest, polite and considerate".

But he may also be getting fleeced of thousands of dollars by his employers just to keep his job, says Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) volunteer Debbie Fordyce.

Several student groups who approached her in the course of their schoolwork felt that anti-foreigner sentiment is the root cause of the plight of low-wage migrant workers, but the TWC2 executive committee member says this is not true.

"There are structural problems causing employers to cut corners for things like food, accommodation and protective equipment," she says.

She says the work permit system results in workers not having the freedom to switch jobs easily, and gives them little say in where they live, how much they are paid, and how much they have to pay in recruitment fees or kickbacks.

One of the strongest advocates for better working and living conditions for low-wage migrant workers, TWC2 was set up after a domestic worker was beaten to death by her employer in 2001. It was originally formed in 2003 as The Working Committee 2 by a group of activists to raise awareness about domestic workers' needs, such as rest days.

It was registered as a society and took on its current name in 2004.

Four years later, during the economic downturn, TWC2 was alerted to large numbers of foreign workers sleeping in the streets of Little India. "There were people lining the five-foot-ways with their belongings. Companies didn't know what to do for them, and couldn't house them," says Ms Fordyce.

TWC2 started giving workers free meals, and today the Cuff Road Project serves meals 11 times a week, helping 500 to 600 people each month. These are men on Special Passes who are unable to work after lodging an injury or salary claim with the Manpower Ministry.

One of those who visited Alankar Restaurant in Dunlop Street for dinner earlier this month was Mr Shaikh Mohammad Sahidul, 33, whose kneecap was dislocated after he slipped and fell into a hole at his worksite in May.

Speaking to Insight, he said he has not been paid for several months, and he moved out of his dormitory to live with his brother as he feared the company and other workers would scold him for not working.

He relies on relatives for money while waiting for his Work Injury Compensation claim to go through, and for his knee to heal. "If not for the free meals, the problems would have been much worse," he said.

Besides providing food, TWC2 also helps with ez-link card top-ups so workers can go for their hospital appointments. It also helps workers pay for urgent medical treatment.

Ms Fordyce says providing such services helps TWC2 better understand workers' problems but she adds: "We don't see charity as the answer. Advocacy comes first."

Although working mostly with those who are out of work could result in a blinkered view of the lot of foreign workers - they only see those with problems - there is still a sizeable group who needs help, she says. Once or twice a month, TWC2 organises excursions, like a recent trip to Orchard Road to see the Christmas lights, so jobless workers can take their mind off the stress of having no income.

It still assists women who seek help, providing emergency shelter in volunteers' homes. It lacks the funds to run a dedicated shelter, which would cost about $100,000 a year, including a staff member, says TWC2 vice-president Russell Heng.

He and Ms Fordyce both agree that some things have improved for workers. Whereas they once encountered a worker who was on a Special Pass and out of work for six years, now only a few go beyond two years.

And these days, airport police know they can call TWC2 if a worker alerts them that he is being forcefully repatriated, says Mr Heng.

The group, currently headed by polytechnic lecturer Noorashikin Abdul Rahman, has also seen its own premises improving, moving from a room in a volunteer's home to bigger offices in Golden Mile Complex.

It now has a database for case notes on each worker it helps, and a volunteer management system, both developed by Singapore Management University students.

But the challenge of garnering enough financial support and manpower remains. Last year, TWC2 needed about $500,000 to run its programmes. Mr Heng is concerned the slowing economy may affect people's desire to donate.

TWC2 is careful not to help workers who also seek assistance from other NGOs, so as not to duplicate work and spend resources that could go to someone else who needs it. And they turn away workers whose stories are dodgy, Ms Fordyce says.

Mr Heng says he is thankful TWC2 "had stamina", and for his circle of like-minded friends there. "But it's not that I want this to go on forever. My wish is we can close shop tomorrow because the problems are solved."

Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training: A place for maids to unwind and pick up skills
Charity offers courses on financial literacy, cooking and more, and recreational facilities
By Joanna Seow, The Sunday Times, 18 Dec 2016

Treadmills line the wall of an exclusive gym. In another room, shelves of books wait to be perused by club members.

This is not a lush country club, but an office building in Bukit Merah, which houses the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training (FAST) clubhouse.

Instead of fancy furniture and swanky art pieces, the amenities are simpler; the exercise equipment was donated by a maid agency and a training centre.

But the clubhouse, which FAST moved into in August after outgrowing its previous location, is popular and bursting at the seams every Sunday. Some 300 to 400 women take turns to use the computers, kitchen and karaoke rooms, or learn about cooking, crochet or financial literacy.

FAST was started in 2005 with the aim of providing training that employers would be keen for domestic helpers to receive. Before the mandatory rest day rule took effect in 2013, days off were not the norm for many domestic workers.

"Activities were a way for helpers to break away from the house for a few hours, meet other people, learn a craft and relieve some stress," says executive director William Chew.

The charity, which is supported by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), was formed by Mr Seah Seng Choon, who is president of FAST, Mr Chew, Mrs Helen Tan, a former president of the Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore), pastor Solano Reynaldo Ortiz, and Mrs Quek-Ng Siew Fong, a senior deputy director at MOM.

They were worried about the high numbers of domestic worker deaths after falls from high-rise buildings, whether through accidents or due to stress, and felt that MOM's focus on language skills was not enough, says Mr Seah.

"Emotional stress seemed to be the biggest adjustment problem. The women have to live with a new family and adjust to the culture and practices here which could be quite alien to them. Some are homesick and missing their children, and at the same time have to cope with job stress," says Mr Seah, who is also the executive director of the Consumers Association of Singapore.

One of the first things FAST did was launch training programmes to help new workers learn how to clean windows safely and cook, as well as how to build a good relationship with their employers. Some of these later became part of the mandatory Settling-In Programme which MOM requires all new domestic helpers to attend.

FAST has since launched more in-depth courses with training providers such as a 160-hour eldercare course run by the Care Academy and an 80-hour infant and maternal care course by Aria Training and Consultancy.

As a charity, getting sponsorships and volunteers remains a challenge, as is finding a permanent building to call its own, says Mr Seah.

FAST hopes to advocate more for fair terms and better working conditions for domestic helpers.

It runs a 24-hour helpline which gets about 170 calls a month, a counselling service, and a shelter for maids who may be abused and need to be urgently rescued.

Where possible, the first choice is still to mediate and encourage employers and employees to foster strong relationships, says Mr Chew.

"It's a totally different lifestyle Singaporeans have gotten through domestic workers' help," he says.

"If this is the lifestyle we want, we should ensure that we can integrate them well into the family."

Singaporeans find ways to bond with migrant workers
By Joanna Seow, The Sunday Times, 18 Dec 2016

Sports have long brought people together, and in some dormitories, young Singapore students and migrant workers have come together to play soccer, sepak takraw and badminton.

For the past few years, five Secondary 4 students from Hwa Chong Institution have been organising sports sessions every two to four weeks in Mandai.

"We hope to promote bonding, and allow Singaporeans to have a look at the living conditions of foreign workers," says the team's logistics head Dexter Tan.

In another initiative, students from the Migrants Committee of the College of Alice and Peter Tan at the National University of Singapore (NUS), as well as NUS medical and nursing students, volunteered at an inter-dormitory cricket competition for workers and helped them measure their blood pressure.

Student Bernice Lee notes that many one-off events are based on assumptions of what migrant workers need. "We need to have conversations with them to have a deeper understanding of their lives and circumstances... before we can implement a more long-term and meaningful initiative," she says.

Many individuals and groups are stepping up to offer support to low-income migrant workers.

Mr Abdul Khaeer Mohammed Mohsin started local Bengali newspaper Banglar Kantha in 2006 to update the community on topics such as sports, Bangladesh politics and local Manpower Ministry rules.

Working out of his second-floor office in a Little India shophouse, he says problems for migrant workers have increased in the past decade, after the economic downturn saw some lose their jobs or get exploited by firms trying to cut corners.

"There aren't many recreation materials for them, so many want to read the newspaper," he says.

He publishes 6,000 copies a month. He also uses the shophouse to run the Dibashram cultural space, where workers rest, do literary work and seek counselling.

In 2011, some workers formed a literary society under the paper's name. Many of the 50 or so members contribute poems and articles.

Separately, lawyer Dipa Swaminathan and volunteers collect unsold food items from 18 Starbucks outlets each Saturday, to distribute to workers. She gives out donated raincoats, phonecards and other necessities on other occasions.

On a larger scale, some non-profit groups run training courses for low-income migrant workers. Aidha, for instance, holds financial literacy sessions for maids.

One new kid on the block is Project Chulia Street, which hopes to be a "middleman" linking up companies and individuals with avenues to meet workers' needs.

It recently started a pilot scheme with Fullerton Hotel, where excess frozen food is delivered to dorms for workers to use. Says co-founder Eva Lim, who is marketing director at fish farm company Kuhlbarra: "We realised a lot of companies want to give, but they want a systematic, organised way to do so."

The group organised two events for thousands of workers at Westlite dormitories for Labour Day and National Day. It is holding a third fiesta today for 7,000 workers.

It aims to run classes in managing finances at dormitories and improve dental care for workers.

Founding director David Goh says the migrant worker community is a part of Singapore people overlook: "We are all common inhabitants of Singapore, so we should do what we can to strengthen our social fabric."

PM Lee's Facebook photo prompts appreciation for foreign workers

By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2017

A photo of an unnamed man posted on Facebook by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday morning has triggered an outpouring of appreciation for foreign workers.

Mr Lee uploaded a black-and-white photo of a man sitting alone under a tree at Changi Beach Park, which he had taken over the New Year weekend.

In his post, Mr Lee said the man looked like a foreign worker calling home on his cellphone, and urged people to appreciate the contributions of migrant labourers here.

These include building housing and transport infrastructure, as well as caring for the young and elderly.

"As we enjoy the festive days with friends and family, let us spare a thought for the foreign workers who have left their families behind to work in a distant land," he wrote.

He added: "They slog and save to support loved ones, but at least with the Internet and cellphones they can keep in touch, and feel not quite so far away."

Mr Lee has spoken several times about appreciating foreign workers and their contributions.

His post prompted hundreds of comments from Singaporeans and foreign workers. Ms Nyo Nyo Lwin, a nurse from Myanmar working at the Ren Ci Hospital, said: "Thank you so much Mr PM for your kind thought for foreign workers. I have been working here for 10 years."

Student Selina Xu wrote: "I'm really glad you called attention to a group of people often ignored or unseen by our society - our migrant workers are the ones who toil tirelessly to build Singapore's landscape. But sometimes their plight and voices go unheard and the true extent of their contributions to our sprawling metropolis becomes underappreciated."

But Indonesian maid Safira Honney said some employers still do not allow their workers to communicate with their families, even during festive holidays like Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Christmas and New Year's Day. She wrote: "They think the worker won't have time for the family of the boss. This is sad."

By yesterday evening, Mr Lee's post had more than 26,000 likes, 2,100 shares and 700 comments.

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