“Our helmets are white, theirs are yellow”: COVID galvanised architects to reach out to migrant workers who built their projects
by Tan Huey Ying // May 30, 2020, 9:56 pm
Interaction between architects and construction workers are few and far between at construction sites – a barrier that Laud architects hopes to break down. Photo courtesy of LAUD Architects.
When Joseph Lau, the senior managing director of LAUD Architects, read about the plight of migrant workers affected by COVID, the news hit him hard.
Some of these workers had built the firm’s projects. But at project sites, interaction between the architects and migrants are few and far between as the coordination is usually done between the architects and contractors.
Lau decided that had to change.
The colour of hope
It all started with Lau’s friend, Sheena Seng.
When Seng, 35, heard the news of high coronavirus infection rates amongst migrant workers in early April and the plans to house them in a community care facility in the Singapore Expo, her heart went out to them.
As an art educator, who was finishing up her Masters in the Netherlands, Seng knew that art would be a good way for them to relieve their stress and “bring colour” to their situation.
So with her friend Jenny Tan, 47, the duo started their small project to provide COVID-positive migrant workers with colouring pencils and colouring templates with encouraging quotes in various languages to help them relieve stress and pass time.
“Having been a foreigner myself during COVID-19, I understood their fear and emotional insecurities.”
Colouring, in 2015, was what cooking and baking are to many during Circuit Breaker. Resurfacing the fad that was popular amongst working adults, Seng wanted to share the positivity she received through art with them.
“I felt for our migrant workers. Having been a foreigner myself during COVID-19, I understood their fear and emotional insecurities. Not being with family in the midst of the virus is scary,” she said.
“Not to mention, the fear of being infected, labelled and judged.”
The art educator had flown home from the Netherlands in late March when the coronavirus pandemic intensified in Europe and racist attacks on Asians were on the rise.
“Being Christian, I felt strongly to care for them and to treat them as one of our own,” Seng said, referring to Leviticus 19:33-34.
“I pray that this project will bring them hope and know that they are not alone.”
The project soon grew beyond their initial plan as offers of help and donations came in from many sources. Bring Colour to Migrant Workers has since distributed over 4,600 sets of crayons and more than 30,000 colouring sheets.
Bringing joy to workers, not just clients
It also spawned an unexpected offshoot through Joseph Lau, a friend of Seng’s.
The senior managing director of LAUD Architects was inspired by the initiative and thought: “Why don’t we do something about this as well?”
Lau wanted the “joyful” experience the firm brought to clients, to reach the migrant workers who built these spaces.
The firm, known for their community, civic institutions and church projects, has a motto: Creating Joyful Space. Lau felt that the “joyful” experience they endeavoured to bring to clients, needed to reach the migrant workers who built these spaces in some way.
When Lau shared his thoughts with the other directors, there was strong support for the project of “bringing joy”.
With a relatively small company of about 40 staff, deputy managing director Melvin Tan suggested focusing their efforts on workers involved in their building projects. It would be a more realistic goal with meaningful impact.
Lau said: “We meet workers on project sites, but there wasn’t much of a relationship. Through this, we can start establishing a rapport with our workers first.”
Architects are hired by the developers on projects and they work with contractors who provide the manpower by hiring migrant workers. Interactions between architects and the workers are few and far between.
Checking individually with each of their 12 contractors, the directors at LAUD found that three were well-provided for and decided to focus their assistance on the migrant workers working for the remaining nine contractors.
Thus began LAUD’s initiative – Bringing Joy to Migrant Workers – where the firm committed $20,000 to purchase items that each contractor required specifically. In addition, they pledged a donation and launched a fundraiser to support the Migrant Workers Centre (MWC).
A new conversation
Eugene Aw, the director in charge of coordinating the process of purchase and delivery, said LAUD
staff pitched in whole-heartedly, drawing on personal contacts and resources to gather the supplies needed for the company’s first tranche of care pack distribution for over 850 workers.
“From a Christian point of view, that motto of ‘Creating Joyful Spaces’ extends beyond the work we do and into the process of it,” Aw said, noting that this initiative helped energise the office morale and has brought colleagues, many of whom are foreigners as well, closer.
While the reach of this campaign seems paltry in comparison to many other ongoing efforts, there is potential for impactful change.
“We took things for granted – they are our ‘partners’, we must do something.”
“Our helmets are white, and theirs are yellow,” said Aw. While some divides are natural and inevitable, there are other barriers that can be broken down.
Aw observed that even though they are not direct employers of these workers, their presence at sites is not insignificant.
“This conversation needs to start. We need to start opening our eyes to the plight and to force ourselves to see the things we don’t want to see,” he said.
Lau shared a similar view: “This saga got us thinking. We took things for granted – they are our ‘partners’, we must do something.”
He also indicated that conversations will continue and longer-term efforts that the firm can undertake will be considered in the near future, a sentiment echoed by the other directors of the firm.
“It is a chain effect,” he said.
Seng is amazed at how God has grown her simple project. “Whether it is to friends like Joseph or our volunteers and donors, God is moving hearts beyond what our minds can conceive.”
Quoting Isaiah 55:11, she marvelled: “His word sent forth will never return void.”
An industry-wide reform remains to be seen, but for now, based on the pictures and responses that Seng and LAUD Architects are receiving, these small initiatives are bringing some colour and joy to the foreigners in our land.