‘Wednesday, May 1’  

I look up from the date on my phone screen to Hong Lim Park. There’s an open grass area flanked by two rows of booths at its right and left, and a stage draped in red at the front. 

Labour Day is a worldwide public holiday celebrated to raise awareness about the struggles, contributions and, achievements of the working class, and workers – to acknowledge the importance of better working conditions like workplace safety, fair wages and other labour rights.  

Originating from New York in 1882, and celebrated on the first Monday of September (the 5th), it was only in 1889 that May 1st was officially declared Labour Day. 

In Singapore, it was first celebrated in 1960, a full 5 years before our independence; and was marked as a paid day of rest (hurrah!) to honor workers. Labour Day has always been marked by the occurrence of our May Day rallies since, and our then- Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew announced at the inaugural rally that the welfare of workers would not be compromised when forging ahead with industrial expansion and nation-building. Personally, I think this sentiment is ever so important to keep in mind and strive to achieve, as we move forward.  

However apart from our May Day rallies, other independent celebrations do exist, such as the Labour Day Rally @ Hong Lim Park. This year’s Labour Day Rally marks the second independent rally and my first time at Speaker’s Corner @ Hong Lim Park. 

A photo of Labour Day Rally’24. Image source: Valerie Tan
The booths and open area at Labour Day Rally’24. Image source: Valerie Tan

I first heard of the Labour Day rally through the online campaign #Sharif Stays which gained some traction online. For some context, Sharif is a migrant worker, poet and published author. In January, his workplace was harassed with letters containing falsified debts to loan sharks, copies of his work permit and joss paper hell money. Sharif and his employers later both filed a police report. 

Despite never having borrowed money from loan sharks or engaging moneylending services during the 16 years he spent working in Singapore, his employers issued him a termination letter and he was told to find employment elsewhere within a month. Failure to do so would result in him being sent back to Bangladesh.  

I clicked to follow the campaign hashtag for updates on Sharif’s situation and the account, and saw its latest pinned post, “Save the date. Labour Day.” 

At that point of time, I honestly wasn’t planning to attend the rally. I’m not one for crowds, and on a public holiday, I want nothing more than to stay home in solitude and watch a movie or read a bookAnd yet…something drew me to Hong Lim Park on that humid, muggy afternoon. 

A photo of Labour Day Rally’24. Image source: Valerie Tan

After interacting with the #SharifStays campaign, I slowly started seeing more of what life was like for other marginalised or vulnerable groups in Singapore. And I will admit my privilege here to not have to worry about my next meal, or how to pay the bills, or what happens if I or a family member fall sick because my family is admittedly more than capable of covering these expenses. But others, like migrant workers, can’t comfortably do so, especially if they fall sick. No work equals no pay. And as for the pay they receive, most migrant workers earn $16-$18 per day, not yet factoring in the costs of transport or catered meals that most companies deduct from their salaries.  

A HOME Booth Activity Quiz about Migrant Workers

At the rally, I pondered this Jom article on the 2023 Labour Day Rally I’d come across that detailed the experiences of Swanhilda Kaur who’s worked in the F&B industry since she was 14. In the interview with Jom, she talked about being screamed at: she was not permitted to go to the toilet during peak hours. This was also when I realised: Ah. My idea of working life was likely different from reality. 

Screenshot from Jom Society, ”Power to the people: Labour Day Rally 2023”
Labour Day Rally ‘24 Booklet

The dissonance sparked my curiosity and the urge to understand why this was happening, which is how I found myself attending this year’s Labour Day Rally. As I walk in, an usher wearing a bright yellow safety vest (worn in solidarity with migrant workers, who are legally unable to attend) approaches me to hand me a booklet, a picture of last year’s rally on the cover. The first page reads, Labour Day ‘24: We Keep Us Safe. 

Walking to the furthest end of the park, I started making my way through the booths, slowly reading their placards, posters, and displays from collectives centered around workers, the working class, or student support groups, from youth-led movements for climate justice to communities advocating for vulnerable groups: (including but not limited to) food delivery riders, bus drivers and healthcare workers.

Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics’ (HOME) report on the abuse of domestic workers. The picture captures a first-hand account of a migrant domestic worker.

“HUMAN BEINGS ARE NOT CARGO” & ”Each Worker is Worth More Than All The Gold In The World”

One booth that caught my eye was by Migrant Mutual Aid. Their motto on the display (not pictured here) reads: Solidarity not Charity. Their platform facilitates the redistribution of resources from Singaporeans to the migrant community, taking away the financial burdens of our migrant workers in terms of medical debt/expenses – surgery, loans, food insecurity, and basic expenses such as SIM card or money for phone bills – that keep them connected with family back home.  

And in the spirit of ensuring that migrant workers remain safe, health and cared for (during and beyond their time) in Singapore, it was at the booth where I first heard about their Unsafety in Numbers campaign. 

The yellow pax sticker we often see pasted on lorries was originally introduced to improve the safety of migrant worker transportation after accidents resulting in the injury or deaths of workers. The stickers were to signpost the maximum cap of workers it could carry, in hopes of making sure the lorries weren’t overloaded or crowded, and that everyone had sufficient space to sit down.  

However, lorries are inherently unsafe means of transport, and migrant workers were still being hospitalised, injured or killed due to the insufficient protection from the lorries. (ie. sufficient protection: sitting in enclosed transportation like cars, and the safety features we have available – like seatbelts.)  

So, Migrant Mutual Aid redesigned the pax stickers to bring attention to a set of numbers that often quietly go unnoticed. And by raising awareness to the numbers, but more importantly the people behind the numbers, to encourage work towards safer transport for all of our migrant workers. 

Attending the 2024 Labour Day Rally was a chance for me to step out of the social circles and communities I usually engage with, and listen to the voices of vulnerable groups in Singapore talk about the issues they face, & learn more about the advocacy efforts, awareness-raising work and how we can contribute to the work that needs to be done to spark change for better.  

Ultimately, the spirit of Labour Day is to celebrate the labour of our workers, to show them that: Hey! We see you, we see your contributions, and we appreciate you.  

To show them that we are grateful for people like our foreign domestic workers, living in Singapore to help us keep our houses clean and our homes tidied, to keep the family fed, to take care of our children, even when they too, have children and their family back home.  

That we are grateful for our workers: our workers in the healthcare industry, our security guards, our food delivery workers, our cleaners, our bus drivers and many others.  

As I leave Hong Lim Park this year, I resolve to come back the next, with picnic mats and friends in tow. It’s important to bear witness to our workers’ contributions, and to hear them speak of their present — their families, safety and health. And as Gen Z, the group shaping our future, it is my duty to do my part and strive for a greater future for us. After all, We Keep Us Safe. 


P.S – An update on Sharif:  

After widespread circulation of Sharif’s video on social media and his petition, the Migrant Workers’ Center (MWC) stepped in to organise a meeting between the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Singapore Police Force (SPF).

Currently, Sharif will be able to stay in Singapore on a Special Pass for the duration of the police investigation & will allow him to secure temporary jobs during the investigation. However, other essentials such as housing and a new job placement after the investigation (as his company is going ahead with his termination) stay unresolved.
*Source: Instagram reel which can be found here.