It’s hard to imagine life without our mobile phones. It’s often the first thing we look at when we wake up to check on the news or to see if we’ve had any missed calls or messages.

Our phones became even more critical when Covid-19 struck and Singapore went into the circuit breaker. They provided us with the virtual connections we needed to get through the tough times then.

Even now, with Phase 2 restrictions in place, we still depend on our gadgets to connect with our loved ones.

But not everybody is as lucky.

For months after the circuit breaker was lifted in June, as Singaporeans gradually came out to live and play, migrant workers in dormitories still remained in quarantine. Even till today, workers continue to have their movements restricted on their rest days and still spend non-working hours confined to their rooms with little to occupy themselves.

During this prolonged confinement, one of migrant workers’ only sources of comfort and mental health care is connecting with their families back home. But even that comes with challenges and can be an expensive ordeal.

Calling home isn’t always easy

According to Statista, smartphone penetration rate in Singapore is about 82%, making Singapore a leading country for the use and engagement of smartphones.

In comparison, Bangladesh’s smartphone penetration lags behind at 40% while India’s mobile phone penetration rate is just 32%.

Since many of the workers’ families back home often don’t have smartphones or adequate internet connectivity, migrant workers must buy International direct dialing (IDD) cards to call their loved ones.

With reduced salaries during the lockdown period as well as movement restrictions, workers have struggled to afford to buy these cards, which can sometimes cost up to $50 a month, which is a strain on their limited pay. Even before the pandemic started, workers would cautiously conserve their precious minutes of being able to hear the voices of their loved ones.

Sharing a passion for building tech for social good

(From far left): Meera Sachdeva, Glen Choo, Gloria Chua, David Chia / Image source: Call Home

The challenges faced by migrant workers were the source of inspiration for ‘Call Home’ – an app powered by Twilio, which allows 3G-to-landline calls at a heavily discounted rate.

It is the brainchild of four friends – David Chia, 27, Gloria Chua, 26, Glen Choo, 28 and Meera Sachdeva, 23 – who, prior to the pandemic, had not known each other at all.

The app allows workers to use Wifi or phone data to call their family members back home, even if their families do not have an internet connection. Workers simply have to go to callhome.sg, log into their Facebook account and verify their phone number with a one-time password. Once they have done so, they can start calling their families in Bangladesh.

The cost of the calls is funded by donors, so all calls for workers are free. This means that workers will no longer have to buy their own IDD cards, and this also reduces the logistical burden of VWOs buying and distributing individual top-up cards for workers.

“Before Covid-19, none of us had met each other. We were initially connected to each other through better.sg, a local organisation that helps volunteer groups like ourselves to build tech products for social good.

“Together, we have spent the last six months building Call Home, to bridge the connectivity gap between migrant workers and their loved ones,” says Meera, who is the funding and partnerships manager of the team.

Image source: Call Home

At first, Call Home was just a theoretical idea for the team – it was exciting but its significance hadn’t struck home yet.

As the app is a passion project for the four young professionals, the team had to juggle between developing it and working full-time. The positions they hold in their full-time jobs are the same roles they play on Call Home, allowing them to use their expertise and experience to allay some of the anxiety and distress amongst migrant workers in Singapore.

It was only when it piloted; and workers started using the app that the team truly began to feel its impact and realise the size of the connectivity gap that needed to be filled.

“Before, they could make only one or two calls per week at most, and now that they don’t have to worry about the high costs of calls, they make multiple calls a day,” product manager David tells The Pride.

“We’re heartened that this simple solution has brought comfort to many of them in this difficult time.”

Pilot programme already paying dividends

Image source: Give.asia

The closed pilot, which was open to 60 users and supported by seed funding from the Majurity Trust SG Strong Fund, received a very positive response.

On average, the workers spent up to 100 minutes per week calling their family and reported a more reliable call quality compared to IDD cards. Workers also shared how they could spend more time talking to their families since they did not have to worry about high call costs.

Not only did the trial bring the users closer to their families, it created a mini community in itself.

Gloria, the app’s user experience (UX) designer tells The Pride: “We added all of our pilot users to a Whatsapp group so we could get their feedback and answer their questions. Initially workers would ask us for help on the group, but then they eventually started helping each other.

“They would respond to each other’s questions, ask for their friends to be added to the app, and eventually formed their own self-help community. For us, that was truly fulfilling as it suggested the app and its users could be self-sustaining in the future, without needing our support.”

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One particular worker stood out for his generosity with his time. Aside from joining the trial, he runs a migrant worker Facebook community to provide recreation services in his spare time and sings for the enjoyment of other workers.

He even volunteered to help the Call Home team make promotion materials in Bengali and to be a point of contact for other workers.

His care for his fellow workers, many of whom he had never met before, motivated the team to keep going.

“Ultimately, it was the workers’ messages of gratitude that continued to push us to refine the app and open it up to a wider audience,” says Meera.

The team hopes that the app will help to improve the mental health of migrant workers, reshape how they view communication with their families at home and remove their worries about how often or for how long they can speak.

Their goal before the end of this year is to get 1,000 workers signed up on the app. Eventually, they hope to be able to reach all 300,000 migrant workers in Singapore.

Give the gift of connection this holiday season

Example of customised e-card / Image source: Call Home

Although the app makes it cheaper to make 3G to landline calls, it still comes with a cost.

Call Home relies on crowdfunding to be able to keep providing this service to migrant workers for free.

It’s always difficult to be far from family during the festive season, so in the spirit of Christmas, Call Home is trying to help as many workers as possible connect with their beloved ones back home.

Just $8 can give one worker 200 mins of high-quality talk time a month. All you have to do is decide how many months of calls you would like to donate and fill out a form.

For those who are stumped for Christmas presents, you can choose to donate Call Home credits in their name. Call Home will then send you a customisable e-card for you to share with them.

Glen, who is Call Home’s lead software engineer, adds: “Covid-19 has underlined the importance of being able to connect with our loved ones when we are physically distant from them. While many of us in Singapore have been able to turn to affordable digital connectivity to stay in touch with our families, migrant workers do not have the same access.

“We hope that as Singaporeans realise the importance of this connectivity, they will strive to ensure migrant workers have it too.”

To help migrant workers call their loved ones back home, click here.

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Top Image: Call Home