The average low-wage foreign worker in Singapore earns about $800 in basic pay every month. With overtime, this amount rises to about $1,200.
After spending, say, $900 on deductions for lodging, food, transport, remittances to their families, kickbacks for contract renewal and slowly paying off the $6,000 debt owed to their agents in Dhaka, there’s probably not much left for entertainment and leisure.
After all, Universal Studios charges $74 for a single-day pass.
Aware that such treats don’t come by easily for most migrant workers, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a local NGO that champions the rights of migrant workers, began marking International Migrants Day with a special event five years ago.
Harking back to the inaugural event, TWC2’s vice-president Dr. Russell Heng recalled, “We just wanted to raise $5,000 for our event [email protected] Instead, we raised $14,000 from our generous donors.”
Today, the initiative has grown into a yearly affair with dinners and sports days organised for the participants. This year, a movie screening was on the cards and I joined the event to help as a volunteer.
Getting to the TWC2 office bright and early on a Sunday morning, I couldn’t get the door to open because a small group of volunteers was already busy moving the event banners and goodie bags to The Projector, an art-house cinema located at Golden Mile Towers that had kindly lent us their, uh, projector.
After much chair-moving and organising ourselves around the The Projector’s beautiful vintage lobby, we were all set up. There was nothing to do but wait.
You know how awkward it is when you throw a party and nobody shows up?
Well, that didn’t happen. By 11am, the venue was packed to the brim for our movie screening, largely comprising a mix of Bangladeshi men and ladies from the Phillipines and Indonesia. In a scene that wouldn’t differ much from The Projector’s usual hipster clientele, everyone was busy lounging around and taking selfies until lunch was delivered.
The movie was Marvel’s ‘Dr Strange’ and we enjoyed the deliciously spicy Indian food while watching Benedict Cumberbatch perform brain surgery in the most condescendingly British way possible.
Movie magic is certainly universal – close-ups of Cumberbatch were very well-received by the ladies and the visual gags required no translation.
The highlight of [email protected] was the lucky draw held after the movie’s credits. The cinema was filled with cheers and groans as the hosts announced the lucky numbers. The fortunate winners enjoyed wide smiles and slaps on their back while the unlucky did their best to harass the winners into sharing their good fortune.
Even the hosts played their part to embarrass the winners by announcing full volume ‘$400 voucher, she can finally buy boyfriend.’
It was all fun and games until Monday morning when my editor asked me what was the ‘point’ of the event and I struggled to give an answer.
According to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, International Migrants Day is a chance for us to “commit to coherent, comprehensive and human-rights based responses guided by international law and standards and a shared resolve to leave no one behind”.
If you ask vice-president Dr. Russell Heng, he will say that events like [email protected] are only a small part of the important work that TWC2 does. The money raised during the event goes towards supporting the important social work that they carry out. It pays for the advocacy or ‘nagging’ (as Dr Russell humorously calls it) done by TWC2 on behalf of the workers.
The funds also help keep TWC2’s Cuff Road Project alive and running. Cuff Road is the name given to TWC2’s soup kitchen, where injured and unemployed workers can go to receive a free meal and advice.
Against the backdrop of impactful advocacy done for the migrant worker community here and efforts by the government to improve their welfare, initiatives like the movie screening may seem small and insignificant. But I personally feel that ordinary events like [email protected], and even Air Amber’s initiative to collect donated EZ-link cards for migrant workers, can deliver an impact beyond their ‘official’ mission.
By the time we left the venue, Golden Mile’s usual customers were streaming in. Judging by the curious gazes, craning necks and the faint mutters of ‘Bangla’, I don’t think any of them expected to see the crowd of migrant workers there, much less in the art-house cinema.
Although these workers form one-third of our workforce, feed our children and repair our roads, it seems that we’re still unaccustomed to seeing them within the same public spaces that we frequent.
In an age where xenophobia and racism seem constantly ready to rear its ugly head, I think this needs to change. We cannot claim to be an inclusive and multicultural society when we celebrate Singapore’s ‘racial harmony’ whilst studiously ignoring the foreign workers who live amidst us. If our paths are kept parallel, and we bristle at the very idea of sharing our backyard with them, it rings hollow for us to proclaim Singapore as an inclusive and compassionate society.
Maybe that’s an important point as well, I thought. Perhaps with enough events like [email protected], those subtle, invisible boundaries that divide Singaporeans and migrant workers will slowly melt away.
Perhaps then, the day would not be so far off for us all to sit side by side in the cinema and feel cheated together by Marvel’s latest cinematic disappointment.