Migrant workers have been an integral part of Singapore, building and maintaining this shiny city-state that we are so proud of.
But while organisations like Migrant Workers’ Centre and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) have been working to further their cause, public appreciation of this forgotten community has increased only in the past year, largely due to Covid.
I recently attended the Happiness Film Festival, organised by the Happiness Initiative and saw two movies – Bangla and Still Human. Both films covered the same issue: The challenges migrant workers face in their adopted countries.
We are now more aware of the living conditions of construction workers and how they have been affected by Covid-19. Foreign domestic workers also face their own trials, as we have seen in recent news reports.
The silver lining is that more people are talking about our migrant workers and finding ways of engaging them.
Still, we have much to learn about their lives and their stories. Here are some films that shine a light on their struggles and the challenges that they face.
Most Singaporeans would have heard of Ilo Ilo, made in 2013.
The local movie, whose title in Chinese is 爸妈不在家 (ba ma bu zai jia) or literally “Mum and Dad Are Not Home”), follows a Filipino domestic helper Teresa who is hired by a couple to look after the house and their son Jiale after his grandmother dies.
Although set in the 90s, it still displays many of the struggles domestic helpers have to deal with these days: The unappreciation and berating they have to endure from their employers, for example. It also emphasises the strong friendship that forms between Teresa and Jiale despite their initial friction.
The movie is a bittersweet tribute to the connection that domestic helpers often have with the children in their care. Director Anthony Chen later shared that his inspiration for the movie came from his own childhood experiences with his family’s helper, Aunt Terry.
The film received rave reviews and a slew of international accolades, including the Camera d’Or award at the 2013 Cannes Film fest and four Golden Horse awards.
Ilo Ilo is available on Netflix.
This short film has a simple premise: How does a migrant worker survive on his monthly salary?
Shot to reflect a day in the life of a migrant worker in Singapore, the stark 13-minute film, which features little dialogue, focuses its attention on the seemingly mundane details of a migrant worker’s life.
After sending money home and buying daily necessities, migrant workers often have too little left to spend on themselves. On top of that all, they also have to pay off their agency fees.
The simplicity of the shots communicate a cruel truth, that many Singaporeans simply don’t realise the struggles and choices that migrant workers have to undertake in the face of exhausting labour.
And the power of the short film is amplified when you find out that it was written, acted and directed by a migrant worker who has been living in Singapore for the past five years.
$alary Day is available on YouTube.
The Helper is a documentary revealing the lives of Hong Kong’s migrant female domestic helpers. It uncovers the abuse, criticisms, dreams and hopes they have.
Their experiences and tales are intertwined with the Unsung Heroes, a choir from the domestic helper community struggling to perform in Clockenflap, a Hong Kong Music Festival.
Directed by Joanna Bowers, the documentary humanises the domestic helpers and highlights the sacrifices they had to make.
She observed domestic helpers spending their rest days in cardboard boxes and wanted to show their plight.
Abuse of foreign domestic helpers was also prevalent in Hong Kong especially with the case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, who was physically tortured by her female employer in 2014.
The Helper is available on Vimeo.
The Workers Cup
The Workers Cup (2018) offers a look into the lives of the Qatari migrant workers who are building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup tournament. It exposes the long hours, awful living conditions in labour camps and the minimal pay they get for their hard work.
Despite these hardships, the migrants are enthusiastic and passionate, with hopes and dreams, training to compete in a football tournament of their own: The Workers Cup.
The film tells the story of five individuals – Kennenth, Paul,Umesh, Padam and Samuel – who share a common love of football. The film displays a stark contrast between their excitement to train and play for the Workers Cup and the somber reality of working in the construction site. Over the course of the tournament, we follow the men as they alternate between two extremes: They are heroes on the football pitch, but are the lowest members of society off it.
It exhibits the detriment to the psyche of the migrant workers as they wrestle between issues back home and working in grim conditions.
The documentary was selected for Sundance Film Festival and it was praised for giving a voice to the five subjects who represent the struggles and ambitions that migrant workers have.
The Workers Cup is available on Vimeo.
A Land Imagined
A Land Imagined is a mystery-noir film involving the disappearance of a Chinese and a Bangladeshi migrant worker in Singapore. A detective named Lok investigates their cases. Throughout his journey, he understands the predicaments of migrant workers and learns how they have been exploited by their employer.
Director Yeo Siew Hua, known to show the grittier side of Singapore, dedicated the film to the forgotten migrant workers who help build the city. Through films like this, he hopes to break down the barriers for the general masses to understand the issues depicted.
It won the Golden Leopard and Golden Horse Award for Original Screenplay and was Singapore’s entry for Best International Feature at the 92nd Academy Awards.
A Land Imagined is available on Netflix.
Watch, be moved, and move to do something
Migrant workers are often unheard and films like these give them a voice. Additionally, it continues a much-needed conversation about their rights and their mental health.
If you feel strongly about issues after watching these films, talk about it with friends and families or join organisations to take action and help their community.