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“We need to address the workers' mental health needs alongside their physical needs," urged Isabel Phua from Migrant X Me. Photo from MOM's press release.

With growing concern over the emotional wellbeing of more than 200,000 migrant workers now isolated in five dormitories in response to infection clusters, NGOs are switching their attention from providing food packets and welfare packs to providing assurance to the workers.

The website provides information and reassurance to combat fear, and useful lessons to alleviate boredom.

Migrant X Me and Wordly Collective, together with three other migrant worker NGOs – It’s Raining raincoats, Singapore Migrant Friends and Citizen/Geylang Adventures today (April 13) launched a website in Bengali and Tamil, to provide foreign workers with information and reassurance to combat fear, and useful lessons to alleviate boredom.

The website includes videos to raise awareness on the coronavirus and preventive measures to take. There are also financial literacy and English language lesson videos for the workers in their respective mother tongues.

Volunteers in the participating NGOs have been working round the clock to produce the website, which they have launched through dorm operators, fellow NGOs and the CMSC learning hub.

CMSC stands for COVID Migrant Support Coalition, an informal group of volunteers that sprang into action to distribute lunches and dinners from April 7, when Circuit Breaker measures began.

In their shoes

Calvin Chan, a board member with Wordly Collective, a Christian-based organisation with a niche in combining languages and technology, and team of translators, have been working hard to translate information on COVID-19 into the mother tongues of migrant workers.

At the same time, he is also working with education specialists to put together videos on financial literacy and English language lessons to help migrant workers spend their time meaningfully during the Circuit Breaker period.

Chan explained: “If you have interacted with our migrant brothers, you will know that they are very social people. So, when all of a sudden they are confined to their rooms, the anxiety builds up”.

He added that the fear that is increasing among the migrant community is a result of having multiple sources of information.

“If you have interacted with our migrant brothers, you will know that they are very social people.”

This is compounded by the fact that not every piece of information they are exposed to is in their mother tongue, forcing them to rely on hearsay, which in turn has led to rumours and fearmongering.

Co-founder of Migrant X Me, Isabel Phua, noted that over 200,000 migrant workers are undergoing the same Circuit Breaker measures as Singaporeans. But they are facing vastly different circumstances as many are living in spaces with 10 other people or more.

Their freedom of movement was removed overnight, including little trips to the grocery mart for snacks that gave them a whiff of home.

Phua said there have been cases of fights and workers expressing suicidal thoughts.

“If we do not address their mental health needs alongside their physical needs, there will be undesirable consequences,” she added.

With stop-work orders now in place, the workers are spending all their time in their dormitories.

Beyond having anxious thoughts about their future and their families back home, the workers are left with ample time on their hands, resulting in extreme boredom.

Some dorm operators provide WiFi, but because of patchy networks owing to large groups of users, many spend their own money to top up their data plans for better connectivity, she said.

“We just wish to help them make better use of their time, help them to use this opportunity to learn something so that they can get a better job in future,” said Phua.

Binding the brokenhearted

The website has been a step of faith in every sense, said Chan, who added that the team went ahead with the project with little financial and manpower resources in place.

The only motivation was to respond to the needs of the migrant community, hoping that each piece of the puzzle would fall in place, one step at a time, he said.

This included reaching out to translators through word-of-mouth, scrambling to put together the videos, and setting up the website.

The team had started out with just materials on COVID-19, but as the Circuit Breaker kicked in, they also decided to collate educational videos to help workers learn skills during this period.

“We do every bit we can to reach out to the broken hearted and to help them see the light in such times.”

“We just have to keep problem-solving and thinking innovatively as new announcements are made by the Government,” added Chan, who described how everyone on the team has been “up to their eyeballs in work” to launch the website ever since the dorms’ lockdown measures were announced.

With the launch of this website in Bengali and Tamil, the team is now setting its sights on more translators to produce materials in other languages, including Vietnamese, Chinese, Burmese and Indonesian. 

They also welcome volunteers with good IT skills to assist in website or UX design, as well as sponsors to bump up the WIFI connectivity in dormitories. Volunteers or donors can contact the COVID Migrant Support Coalition here.

Both Phua and Chan are heartened by the response of Singaporeans who have stepped forward to lend a hand.

Everyone can actively do their part by reading up more on the situation before throwing brickbats at the government or migrant community, they added.

Phua highlighted certain misconceptions such as the government or dorm operators not pulling their weight, or the migrant workers being at fault for not taking care of themselves. She urged Singaporeans to avoid the “blame game” as it hampered the many goodwill efforts already in place.

“Look at both sides of the story and don’t simply jump on the bandwagon and point fingers at a certain group – this is what you can do as a first step while at home,” she encouraged.

Chan also reiterated that the focus now is to serve those in need. He cited Isaiah 61, which reminded him of God’s promises through Jesus.

“He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners”. (Isaiah 61:1)

“We can all do our part to reach out to those in need and be that salt and light during such times,” he said.

Help for migrant workers

Worldly

Translators who can translate Bengali, Chinese, Tamil and Thai for the COVID Migrant Support Coalition website, please go to the Wordly website or email them at hello@wordly.sg.

Project Chulia Street

  • Aiming to raise $316,920 this year to distribute Coronavirus Prevention Care Packets.
  • The packets contain shampoo, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, hand sanitisers, masks and a top up pre-paid phone card worth $2 sponsored by Singtel.
  • Cost of each packet is $8.34.
  • PAYNOW: UEN: 201619538H001
  • ONLINE TRANSFER: Project Chulia Street Limited
    • Bank: OCBC
    • Account number 712194018001
  • Facebook link: https://www.facebook.com/projectchuliastreet/posts/2504327259820322

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Transient Workers Count Too

HealthServe

  • Translators who can translate Bengali, Chinese, Tamil and Thai, who will work with Wordly and HealthServe to give encouraging text messages to workers in dorms
  • Trained counsellors or psychologists who speak different languages, primarily Tamil, Bengali, Chinese, Tagalog or Bahasa Indonesia, to conduct tele-counselling with workers in the dorms.
  • Financial donations are also welcome, as medical costs are set to rise.
  • Register at HealthServe’s online portal.

 

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About the author

Ng Jing Yng

Ng Jing Yng is a former journalist with MediaCorp's Today newspaper. She has written on a wide range of topics ranging from politics to labour, but writing about education and social issues remains her chief interest.