ONE WOMAN’s QUEST to give mi­grant work­ers a voice

You wouldn’t work un­der the rain with­out proper gear, or tol­er­ate it if your boss didn’t com­pen­sate you af­ter an ac­ci­dent. So why should any­one else? But that’s not al­ways the case for mi­grant work­ers here, who don’t al­ways have peo­ple to look out for the

Herworld (Singapore) - - CONTENTS - TEXT HOE I YUNE PHOTOGRAPHY FRENCHESCAR LIM, ASSISTED BY PHYLLICIA WANG ART DIRECTION ALICE CHUA

Dipa Swami­nathan wants them to be fairly treated. And she’s go­ing about it her way.

Dipa Swami­nathan

has the con­tact num­bers of be­tween 20 and 30 mi­grant work­ers stored in her mo­bile phone. That’s be­cause she freely gives out her de­tails to them, and urges them to call her if they run into trou­ble.

And they do. Dipa has re­ceived calls ask­ing for advice about un­paid salaries, in­jury claims, and even run-ins with the law. When this hap­pens, she con­tacts em­ploy­ers and writes to au­thor­i­ties to get these work­ers the help they need.

You could say that Dipa be­came an ad­vo­cate for mi­grant work­ers by ac­ci­dent. In 2014, while driv­ing her son to ten­nis prac­tice on a rainy af­ter­noon, she passed a con­struc­tion site where a group of work­ers was wear­ing garbage bags for rain­coats. A su­per­vi­sor stood in a shel­tered area some dis­tance away, hold­ing an um­brella. The 46-year-old as­sis­tant gen­eral coun­sel for telco Sing­tel was in­censed. “These guys were soaked be­cause the garbage bags did noth­ing to cover them,” she re­calls. She pulled over and spoke to the work­ers in Tamil, ask­ing them the name of the com­pany they worked for. Then she snapped a pic­ture of them with her mo­bile phone.

She knew it was a long shot, but she called up the com­pany and threat­ened to take the pho­tos to the au­thor­i­ties, press, and social me­dia if the work­ers weren’t given proper wetweather gear. She re­calls hav­ing the phone slammed down on her. But it seems her mes­sage got through. When it poured the next day, Dipa drove back to the same spot, and saw that the work­ers were kit­ted out in rain­coats, hats and boots. It was a small vic­tory, but it

showed her that her voice had made a dif­fer­ence.

SHE DOESN’T JUST TALK, SHE ACTS ON IT

Grow­ing up in Ban­ga­lore in In­dia, Dipa has al­ways had a strong sense of social jus­tice. She vis­ited peo­ple in slums and taught them English, as well as vol­un­teered at an an­i­mal shel­ter. Even­tu­ally, she went on to study law, with the aim of be­ing able to help oth­ers fix their prob­lems. That in­stinct to speak up did not qui­eten even af­ter she moved to Sin­ga­pore for work in 1995. When she found out that trees in a her­itage area were to be cut down, she wrote a fo­rum letter to The Straits Times ask­ing au­thor­i­ties to re­con­sider the decision.

But the vi­o­lent ri­ots in Lit­tle In­dia in 2013 opened her eyes to a big­ger prob­lem. “For­eign work­ers were al­ready a marginalised com­mu­nity in Sin­ga­pore, but when these ri­ots hap­pened, I felt like they be­came even more ma­ligned. Though it was just a few who ri­oted, the whole com­mu­nity was painted with the same brush,” says Dipa. Un­like do­mes­tic helpers – whom she felt had strong social sup­port groups – no one was speak­ing up for these mi­grant work­ers.

TAK­ING CARE OF THE BASICS

So in 2015, she started It’s Rain­ing Rain­coats, a move­ment that en­cour­ages peo­ple to carry a rain­coat and dis­trib­ute it to mi­grant work­ers they meet, when­ever the sit­u­a­tion calls for it. It’s since ex­panded be­yond en­sur­ing work­ers are prop­erly kit­ted out for wet weather. Dipa now works with about 25 Star­bucks out­lets to dis­trib­ute left­over food every week to some 500 mi­grant work­ers, rather than have the un­wanted items chucked. Be­sides tak­ing care of these ba­sic needs, Dipa also can­vasses funds to buy pre­paid data cards so the work­ers can call home – es­pe­cially on spe­cial oc­ca­sions like Deep­avali. Last year, she spent $10,000 on these cards. “Just as we have emo­tional needs, they’re no different,” says Dipa.

And It’s Rain­ing Rain­coats is not stop­ping there. Dipa re­cently added social ac­tiv­i­ties to the mix – in­tro­duc­ing yoga ses­sions at mi­grant work­ers’ recre­ational cen­tres at var­i­ous lo­ca­tions, or­gan­is­ing cricket matches so these work­ers have a chance to re­lax and have fun, and hold­ing potluck ses­sions to en­cour­age vol­un­teers to bond with the work­ers over a meal. For Dipa, the name It’s Rain­ing Rain­coats has taken on new mean­ing. “It’s not only some­thing phys­i­cal, but also pro­tec­tion against harsh forces,” she says, adding that she hopes her work can nor­malise in­ter­ac­tions be­tween Sin­ga­pore­ans and mi­grant work­ers. Vol­un­teer An­chal Jain, 46, says, “Dipa shows us there are sim­ple so­lu­tions to the is­sues we see, but most of us don’t step out of our com­fort zone. Peo­ple do want to help, but there’s the awk­ward­ness and not know­ing how to go about do­ing it.”

But Dipa never let a lack of re­sources stop her. In fact, she was on her own for the first year af­ter set­ting up It’s Rain­ing Rain­coats, be­fore vol­un­teers came on board thanks to social me­dia and word of mouth. “We all have the time, it’s just how we use it. Put your­self in the shoes of oth­ers less for­tu­nate – it’s one way to drum up the will to act,” she says.

Over the past three years, about 8,000 rain­coats and 5,000 water bot­tles have been dis­trib­uted to mi­grant work­ers across Sin­ga­pore. For gal­vanis­ing the com­mu­nity, It’s Rain­ing Rain­coats was named the Kam­pong Spirit win­ner at last year’s Pres­i­dent’s Vol­un­teerism & Phi­lan­thropy Awards.

GO­ING ABOVE AND BE­YOND

It’s un­sur­pris­ing, then, that this is a cause that has grown close to Dipa’s heart, and one that she goes above and be­yond for.

She re­calls one in­ci­dent early on when she gave her phone num­ber to a pair of work­ers, urg­ing them to call her if they ran into any prob­lems. Three months later, she got a call from the po­lice re­gard­ing one of the work­ers. He had at­tempted sui­cide, and hers was the only num­ber they could find on his phone. When she vis­ited him at the In­sti­tute of Men­tal Health, he told her that he had not been paid a salary in six months, and had been driven to des­per­a­tion be­cause he was un­able to send money home. “That was a real eye-opener for me,” Dipa says.

Af­ter as­sur­ing the worker that she would do some­thing, she went straight to the po­lice and ex­plained the worker’s sit­u­a­tion, em­pha­sis­ing that the real cul­prit was his em­ployer. Charges against the worker for his at­tempted sui­cide were later dropped, and he was paid what he was due. A month later, he came to her doorstep – fully re­cov­ered – to thank her.

Dipa is also pas­sion­ate about help­ing mi­grant work­ers know their rights, and un­der­stand­ing what they’re en­ti­tled to. For ex­am­ple, af­ter read­ing the news about a for­eign worker who died on the job while prun­ing a tree, she took it upon her­self to help his fam­ily. She went to his em­ployer and the Min­istry of Man­power to se­cure a full in­sur­ance pay­out, which his fam­ily would de­pend on to sur­vive. She also made sure the com­pany con­tin­ued to pay his salary un­til the in­sur­ance money came in.

Not every day brings tri­umphs. Dipa re­calls an in­ci­dent in which a worker suf­fered a neck in­jury while cut­ting up steel rods. He came to her for help, but there was noth­ing she could do. “He was told to op­er­ate the ma­chine at a higher speed when one hit him, but the com­pany al­leged that it was caused by a pre­ex­ist­ing con­di­tion,” says Dipa. “There were no cam­eras, and the other two men there were sent back [home], so there were no wit­nesses. He couldn’t prove it.” In

“PUT YOUR­SELF IN THE SHOES OF OTH­ERS LESS FOR­TU­NATE – IT’S ONE WAY TO DRUM UP THE WILL TO ACT.”

such sit­u­a­tions, when she can’t get an ideal out­come, she does feel like she’s let them down. But she knows she has to sol­dier on. “For a few days, I feel blue and frus­trated, but there’s al­ways the next per­son to help and more to be done,” Dipa adds.

PEO­PLE NEED TO SEE THAT MI­GRANT WORK­ERS ARE JUST LIKE THEM

Dipa hopes It’s Rain­ing Rain­coats can achieve two things: first, to help peo­ple be­come more aware of these work­ers and the chal­lenges they face; and sec­ond, to show mi­grant work­ers that Sin­ga­pore­ans care about them.

She and her vol­un­teers are con­vinced it will not take long for peo­ple to see how gra­cious the men are, if only they could spend a lit­tle time with them. “The work­ers are very po­lite. They never rush for the items, even when I tell them that my sup­plies might not be enough for them,” says vol­un­teer Jo­ce­lyn Lim, 62, adding that they don’t ask for sec­onds. El­iz­a­beth Pang, 36, adds that vol­un­teer­ing with the ini­tia­tive has made her more em­pa­thetic. “When I see the work­ers brav­ing the weather and work­ing in filthy en­vi­ron­ments, I am more ready to reach out to them by of­fer­ing cold drinks, food, or just greet­ing them,” she says.

Even Dipa’s young sons, aged 11 and 13, are on board – as she takes them with her to do food drops and meet with work­ers. “Un­like in other coun­tries, you don’t see a lot of poverty here,” she says. “I want them to grow up feel­ing that they should help peo­ple in need when­ever they can, and these are some of the peo­ple here who de­serve a lot of sym­pa­thy.”

Of course, Dipa con­tin­ues to make sure that the work they do gains trac­tion on­line, by shar­ing pho­tos on social me­dia. She hopes it will in­spire more peo­ple to do what she does, and cre­ate sim­i­lar com­mu­ni­ties. “If you are pas­sion­ate or feel strongly about a cause, start small and don’t shy away from chal­lenges. Stay com­mit­ted, and take it step by step,” she ad­vises. She also hopes her work will act as a sub­tle re­minder to bosses to treat their work­ers bet­ter. “When work­site su­per­vi­sors see the pub­lic do­nat­ing to the work­ers, they nat­u­rally take bet­ter care of them, be­cause they know peo­ple are watch­ing and are in­ter­ested in the well­be­ing of these guys,” she ex­plains.

In Septem­ber, Dipa will com­plete a week-long Har­vard Busi­ness School executive ed­u­ca­tion pro­gramme on social en­ter­prise ini­tia­tives in Bos­ton. Hand­picked by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Pub­lic Pol­icy and the Har­vard Sin­ga­pore Foun­da­tion for a schol­ar­ship, she hopes to learn how to broaden out­reach and take It’s Rain­ing Rain­coats fur­ther. Seek­ing fund­ing to em­ploy at least one full-time staff mem­ber is also within her goals.

At the end of the day, Dipa just wants peo­ple to em­brace this in­vis­i­ble group of in­di­vid­u­als who are build­ing our city. “They are among the need­i­est peo­ple in our so­ci­ety. We can keep an eye out for them in small ways,” she says. “Learn­ing to em­pathise and con­nect with oth­ers makes us a kinder, more evolved com­mu­nity.”

Dipa al­ways car­ries pon­chos in her car, so that she can dis­trib­ute them to work­ers who aren’t prop­erly kit­ted out for wet weather.

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