Dismantling preconceptions of migrant workers

14 February 2019 | Community
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The CAPT students with some of the migrant workers at the day of service

Students from the College of Alice & Peter Tan (CAPT) at NUS combined two of their ongoing community involvement projects and facilitated a day of service for Westlite Dormitory’s migrant workers to volunteer at St. Luke’s Hospital. The inaugural event took place on 20 January, in response to a request from staff at Westlite Dormitory.

The migrant workers willingly spent the Sunday — their only day off per week — completing construction tasks such as painting walls and assembling furniture.

A highlight for the students were the conversations with the migrant workers during their lunch break, where they shared their stories with the students. The workers had spent long periods of time working in Singapore, ranging from four to 21 years. While they seemed to be cheery and optimistic, they expressed concern about being away from their families. For the students, seeing the workers’ desire to make ends meet, coupled with the social stigma and even abuse some of them faced, made the separation from their families all the more heart-breaking.

"I think what I will remember most from this visit are the conversations with these migrant brothers. We shared about our families, hobbies and motivations. It was really nice getting to know them as individuals. And I must say, seeing them go down to the hospital to volunteer on their only day-off was really heartening and inspiring, and they have all my respect," said NUS Year 2 NUS Design and Environment student Lim Shi Yun.

The visit helped students break existing stereotypes about migrant workers and gave them opportunity to interact with the workers on a personal level, helping the students realise they share more commonalities than differences. Students were also more aware of the lenses they used in viewing migrant workers in the community, allowing them to more critically reflect on their experiences and interactions.

Their avid willingness to contribute to society and immense persistence despite hardships is admirable. The visit helped me see them beyond the label of ‘migrant workers’ — as individuals with intriguing backgrounds, as unsung heroes in the city.

“Before the visit, I had only a vague notion of the term ‘migrant workers’. This experience allowed me to connect with some of the more ‘forgotten’ people in Singapore. Hong Kong, like Singapore, also has quite a number of migrant workers, especially domestic helpers. This experience prompted me to think about the people coming from abroad to work in Hong Kong, who could also face discrimination and prejudice in spite of their efforts to society.  Steps should be taken to eradicate social stigma and help foreign workers integrate into society,” said Year 3 NUS Arts and Social Sciences student Natalie Fung, who is on exchange from Hong Kong, as she reflected on her home country.

The students believe there are certainly steps that Singapore can take to improve inclusiveness and appreciation for migrant workers.

“It’s interesting to see how migrant workers are still eager to volunteer and contribute to a community that is not their own. This reflects their own values and principles of giving back to others who may be in need, which we can all learn from,” recounted NUS Social Work Year 2 student Fiona Lee.

“Their avid willingness to contribute to society and immense persistence despite hardships is admirable. The visit helped me see them beyond the label of ‘migrant workers’ — as individuals with intriguing backgrounds, as unsung heroes in the city,” added Natalie.

CAPT is working with St. Luke’s Hospital and Westlite Dormitory to facilitate more of such activities, hoping to make this a monthly event.

By Natalie Fung, Year 3 NUS Arts and Social Sciences exchange student