Every day since the start of April, he has been exploring the nooks and crannies in Tuas, looking for small factory-converted dorms (FCDs) where migrant workers have been cooped up since the Covid-19 outbreak in the foreign worker dormitories broke out.

In the past week alone, Samuel Lim, a volunteer with the Hope Initiative Alliance (HIA), has found and reached out to eight such dorms, which house almost 1,000 workers in total.

He tells the Pride in an exclusive interview about the challenges facing these migrant workers.

“These guys are cooped up, 12 to 24 in a room, 24 hours a day. Food is one of the few things they can look forward to.”

The workers are cooped up in poor living conditions in dorm clusters.
The workers are cooped up in poor living conditions. / Credit: Samuel Lim

Lim says that the workers, who are mostly from India and Bangladesh and work in a mix of industries ranging from marine to construction, told him that they have not had enough food to eat and have had to dig into their own pockets to get proper meals.

Lim delivering fruits and snacks to workers at the dorm clusters
Lim delivers fruits and snacks to workers at the dorms. He also goes out at 3am to deliver Ramadan meals. / Credit: Samuel Lim

Lim says that they told him that government funds had been allocated to the companies but the workers have not been adequately supplied with food. This led him to start a fund-raiser with his church to help feed these men. So far, Lim says, they have raised $15,000 and he hopes that this amount will help him feed workers for the next six weeks or so.

He shared about how he started on his personal project.

“Searching for FCDs was what I started with (before the lockdown), but after being on the ground and meeting the guys, you get to know them. I was literally knocking on doors, searching car parks, abandoned buildings and found a couple (of these dorms). Now that I’m connected with the workers, many of them have become my friends, they send me the information through text and that’s how I’ve located the bulk of the FCDs.”

The larger dorms have had a lot of attention from the media and government agencies already and so Lim wants to help find smaller dorms that may have fallen through the cracks.

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Lim, whose job in advertising allows him the flexibility of volunteer work during the circuit breaker, has been going out under the auspices of HIA to identify such dorms. When he finds these dorms, he reports them to HIA, which would then provide these workers with two meals a day. On a daily basis, HIA provides up to 24,000 meals a day to foreign workers in dormitories across Singapore.

In his personal capacity and with the funds raised by his church, Lim also supplements these meals with fruits and snacks. In the past week, he tells the Pride, he has delivered 8,885 fruits that he sourced from a local supplier.

Sejal Alamin, from Bangladesh, is one of the foreign workers that Lim has befriended
Sejal Alamin, from Bangladesh, is one of the foreign workers that Lim has befriended. / Credit: Samuel Lim.

Speaking to Lim, it is easy to see the passion that he has for his work.

“I’m in touch with (the workers), and it is an extremely trying situation. Many of them maintain happy faces when speaking to their families back home. They know in their hearts of the danger they’re in, but they don’t show it when they call home because they don’t want their families to worry.”

And it is a worrisome time for them, and for Singapore.

Since the outbreak in the foreign worker dorms exploded, the world has watched in concern as Singapore has raced to try to stay ahead of the problem. In the weeks since, volunteers and healthcare personnel have worked tirelessly to battle the virus in the dorms.

While there may be room for legitimate discussion on the inherent living conditions that our migrant workers face in Singapore, there is time for that after dealing with the issues at hand – which is the health, safety and welfare of these men now.

Samuel shares the work he does as a volunteer with his church
Lim shares the work he does as a volunteer with his church in regular updates. / Credit: Samuel Lim

Lim understands that and says that he is not focused on the negative.

He says: “It’s an incredibly complex problem — companies, too, are suffering as all work has halted. You can’t completely point your finger at anyone to blame. What I’ve seen is an overflow of compassion, people doing what they can, where they are, with what they have. That has been immensely encouraging, seeing our island united against adversity, standing in and standing up for one another.”

Lim says that he and other volunteers have reached out to migrant workers in Little India in the past two years but have always found it a challenge to make a meaningful connection.

“It was always hard to connect, on either side it was as if we were from completely different worlds, and in a way, I guess we were. They would become suspicious, so unfamiliar with receiving kindness.”

“Now it is as if the doors have been slammed open! I told a group of migrant workers that I now call my friends, that when this is all over, we are going to grab some dinner. They were so thrilled by that.”

Looking ahead

Lim adds that he is optimistic about the future.

“I’d like to see a new Singapore when all of this is over. I’d love to see foreign workers beginning to become integrated into society. I understand it’s hard with cultural differences, but it’s the only way to ever understand one another and grow into a higher standard as one people.”

When we look at people at a distance, they are a nameless, faceless crowd. But as we get closer, we begin to pick out individuals. They become more “real” to us. Similarly, as we reach out to our fellow residents in Singapore, be they local or foreigner, it becomes easier to empathise with their situation. And that is the most important thing of all.

As Lim says, “It’s the relationship now that is so precious. These guys are no longer people on the other side of the fence. Now I can go up to them and call them ‘my brother’.”

If you would like to help:

Organisations and companies can adopt a dorm, covering two meals a day. Volunteer slots are all filled but individuals can give directly at https://www.giving.sg/hope-initiative-alliance/guestworkers or https://www.hia.sg/guestworkers.

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Top Image: Samuel Lim