Migrant workers one of us too

Deborah Choo for The Online Citizen

The inaugural Migrantion Film Festival greeted an audience of over 200 on Saturday at The Substation. Many of those present were students. The festival is organized by Migrant Voices, a Community Arts Charity founded in 2006 that celebrates the artistic talents of migrant workers in Singapore.

I walked away from the Migrant Films Festival today with this message: Migrant workers are one of us too.

Representing the message best was the film by Jenny Chan, 29, titled “Confluence of Lands”. The film featured a minimart in Little India’s Desker Road owned by a Bangladeshi man who came to Singapore 20 years ago. Now, he offers a taste of home to his Bangladeshi customers by selling his country’s produce, offering much comfort to the Bangladeshi community here.

The contrast in the interaction between the Bangladeshi customers and the two Chinese foreign workers employed bythe minimart was most striking. . The film portrayed how two worlds, two cultures, two languages come together to form what is uniquely Singapore – a cosmopolitan city.

It is perhaps time we recognize that foreign workers are not second class citizens. One participant pointed out that his grandmother often warned him to stay away from foreign workers lest they do something harmful to him. This is sadly a stigma still highly prevalent in society here, one that has to be eradicated.

The film makers, who spent much time with the workers, find the workers extremely polite and are highly educated in their country. Unfortunately, in the case of Bangladesh, only two out of their wide pool of universities are recognized by Singapore. Hence many seek to fulfill their dreams here, in a foreign land, only to be cheated by unscrupulous agencies and abused by errant employers.

Another excellent film is Migrant Dreams. Made by independent film makers, Lynn Lee and James Leong for news network Al Jazeera, it documents the stories of foreign workers who paid exorbitant amounts to agents and employers in order to work in Singapore. Foreign workers were promised jobs at the construction and shipping industries but more often than not, these jobs never materialized. Soon, these workers find themselves homeless and stranded. Settlements with their employers can get ugly too. Migrant Dreams highlighted an example of such abuse. The employer, featured in the film, even threatened James who was filming him.

Another must-watch would have to be Vicknesh Varan’s Special Pass which documented the lives of three individual foreign workers, following them up till the time they left Singapore. Produced by Rupture, this film was the Winner of the Singapore Short Film Awards, Singapore, Best Documentary Award.

Elgin Ho’s productions such as the Foreign Dreams and Promises in December were extremely touching as well.

Jolovan Wham, Executive Director of HOME, a non-governmental organization dedicated to the welfare of migrant workers, said that while some improvements have been made by the government after the plight of the workers came to light through the media, much can still be done. He added that the Singapore government has to establish and solidify bilateral ties with the Bangladeshi government in order to clamp down on dubious agencies involved in scams to exploit the workers.

Mr Shaun Teo, 22, President of Migrant Voices, said that he hopes to bring these films to schools as well so that students can be educated on the migrant scene in Singapore. He also indicated that Migrant Voices is looking for volunteers and urges people to contribute in any way they can.