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Jolovan Wham: We do this for social justice

~by: Ellery Aruldoss~
~picture: AH~

Social work has always taken a backseat in an economically competitive nation like Singapore. But there are certain individuals who make the effort to right social wrongs and seek justice for the marginalized in society. One such prominent individual is Jolovan Wham, Executive Director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics (HOME), who was awarded The Online Citizen’s Social Worker of the Year Award as well as the Think Centre’s ‘Defender of Human Rights’ Award this week.

Wham joined the social work sector shortly after graduating from the National University of Singapore (NUS) with a Bachelors in Social Sciences, Social Work. Since then he has carried out his social work in HOME, a non-governmental organization concerned with migrant worker’s rights and welfare. The organization has provided direct assistance to some 50, 000 migrants as well as victims of human trafficking and force labour.

To Respect and Encourage

Think Centre’s Director for ASEAN Affairs, Sinapan Samydorai, explained that the objective of their ‘Defender of Human Rights’ Award was to raise awareness in society. More than that, it was also meant to “pay respect and to encourage others to follow” in the footsteps of social workers. Samydorai said that the Think Centre was looking towards an active younger generation in human rights defence. Jolovan Wham was the undoubtedly the man they were looking for, an active social worker who consistently fought for (arguably) Singapore’s most common victims of discrimination: migrant workers. Samydorai praised Wham for taking the risks, braving the dangers and continuing to champion migrant workers’ rights,

Motivated By a Sense of Justice

In humble response to the awards presented to him, Jolovan Wham said that the awards were not his goal, the reason why he continued in his line of work was because a sense of justice. Wham said that the awards were more of “an affirmation for social work for migrant workers”. He added that there were those in society who marginalised and oppressed and people needed to help them. However, when he first started working for the migrant workers’ cause, “people didn’t know why we were helping out”. There was very little public awareness on the plight of the migrant worker in Singapore. But Wham saw the social ills and the lack of social support and strove to step in to fill the gap.

A Passion for Workers’ Rights

Wham’s family had always had hired migrant workers as their domestic help and his interactions with them stirred a deep interest in the lives of these workers. Upon graduation from NUS, Wham initially worked in a Catholic church which provided social aid for migrant workers. He admitted that in NUS, he had only learnt about social issues confronting Singaporeans but it was only in through working with foreign workers that he realised the problems they faced in Singapore. The task he endeavoured to take on was not an easy one as he recalled that there were “a lot of angry individuals, companies, employers, who think you are meddling in their businesses”. He also noted the frustration that social workers like him faced when confronted with policies that worked against migrant workers. “And when the laws do exist”, Wham adds, “They are not enforced consistently”.

Nonetheless, Wham confirmed that he will continue to fight for the cause of the migrant worker. “The reason we (social workers) do this, is because we are motivated by a sense of social justice, this is an important principle for me”, said Wham.

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Editor's note: Mr Jolovan Wham is also the recipient of TOC's Social Worker of the Year award. TOC awarded Mr Wham the award to recognise that he is more than a Promising Social Worker, and for his inspiring contribution to the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers since 2005.