We call them Special Pass holders – workers who, incurring large debts to pay for their agents’ fees in hopes of securing a work-permit job in Singapore for their families back home, have run into employment disputes. For most of these men who come to the Cuff Road Project (TCRP), home would be Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka.
For all of them, their employment problems have left them homeless and jobless. Every weekday and night, as well as at noon on Sunday, the men take their meals at either Sutha’s at Cuff Road or Isthana at Rowell Rd. They may be transient both as workers and as diners at the restaurant – they leave once their cases are settled – but during their difficult sojourn, no matter how brief or long, TCRP goes beyond providing meals to them.
Take Alamgir, for instance. He did not say much the first few days after we first met at Sutha’s and even after, preferred to talk in softer tones. Two of Alamgir’s fingers on his left hand had been sliced open while aligning metal sheets for ship-building. The company’s doctor grafted the gaping wounds with flesh from the side of his palm and gave him a single day’s medical leave for the injury. His foreman insisted he showed up for work promptly for “standby duty”.
Alamgir told me he tried explaining to his employer that he couldn’t go to work because his hand simply hurt too much but his foreman insisted he showed up for “standby duty”.
He went to see another doctor at a polyclinic, bearing the medical costs himself and in the hopes of getting a more comprehensive assessment. The doctor, however, pressed him for a letter from his employer, which Alamgir was sure he would not receive. On top of this, “house manager many many shouting at me”, Alamgir said. So he took matters into his own hands. After his colleagues had left for their worksite at 5.30am one morning, Alamgir packed a few shirts along with his documents and left. He headed straight for a lawyer and later, showed up at Cuff Road. He told me he wouldn’t have known what to do had the TCRP not been there for him.
I learnt more about Alamgir’s story over the weeks during my volunteer sessions at dinner. Before coming to Singapore, Alamgir ran a business brokering poultry farmers in his village in Bangladesh. A flu epidemic wiped out a large number of chickens, along with his business. “Many many chicken all die, so I thinking I come Singapore good,” he said to me. “Agent say Singapore job many money can earn. I know hard work but no problem. I can do hard job.”
Borrowing the equivalent of SGD$5000 from his brother in law, his family managed to put together the SGD$10, 000 for his agent’s fees that would secure him a job in Singapore. He is far from fully repaying his debt and as a result, family ties are strained. His previous six day work week brought in $600 - $700 a month, depending on whether there was overtime work available. About $200 would go back to paying his employer for his dorm bed and electricity bills. He would send another $200 home every month and the remainder paid for his food. His four-year old son, Akash – meaning “Sky” – needed the money. His face lights up whenever he talks about Akash. But Alamgir would always always end any conversation about Akash by saying, “My son many many miss me. He always asking, ‘When you come, Aba?’”.
My mum came to Sutha’s one night and Alamgir took to her immediately. He asks me about her health every other day and sent her a well-wishing text message on her birthday.
While Alamgir, like many other clients of TCRP, already had an established social network, it was at the restaurant that he got to know more Bangladeshis in his situation. They, along with other volunteers, became his support during this difficult time. He told me it was dinnertime he looked forward to the most each day – he knew that at 6.30pm everyday, he could sit down to dinner amongst familiar, friendly faces.
I launched a photo exhibit in conjunction with Singapore’s National Day last year. I had originally wanted to just take their photos as a going away present for them and also to create a sort of pictorial archive of the men who come to Sutha’s restaurant on Cuff Road for dinner. Talking to some friends who encouraged me to put up a public viewing of the pictures, I thought why not – these are people so integral to Singapore’s growth and their stories should be told and not only to people in academia.
The stories and pictures in the exhibit were in part fieldnotes for my PhD dissertation as well as a more informal yet intimate look into the experiences and lives of Singapore’s homeless male migrant workers. Their employment problems are complex and often long-drawn out. While the exhibit did not – indeed, could not – show the depth and breadth of just how complicated their difficulties are, I did, however, want to highlight the precariousness and the contradictions of their lives as a result of our current political-economy - a capitalist system that they work for but a system that has ultimately marginalized them. We cannot deny there is a class system in place here. But I wanted also to create a space where we could understand a little bit more about these migrants beyond the sort of political-economy discourse. I wanted a space where we could see them as individuals and not just a statistic or a case-study.
I thank them for allowing me to share their photos and stories. I thank them for teaching me about resilience and patience in the face of adversity. I am truly learning a lot about them and learning a lot from them. Donobaad! This is why The Cuff Road Meals programme is meaningful to me – it is not about just providing food. Crucial as that is for the individuals who truly need it, it is also a friendly social space for them and for a volunteer like me, a space where we can trespass those gaps – those pervasive, salient class barriers – and get to know people whose lives are so different, yet not so far removed from our own.
Jia Ye is a volunteer with TWC2 and a PhD candidate at The University of British Columbia, Vancouver.
To donate to TCRP, please make cheques payable to “Transient Workers Count Too” and write “The Cuff Road Project” at the back of the cheque.
TWC2’s postal address is:
Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2)
5001 Beach Road
Golden Mile Complex
#06-27, Singapore 199588
Please also visit the following website to donate online as well as for more information on TWC2 and its endeavors: