One of the most important thing a Singaporean can do as an ally to migrant workers is use their privilege and resources to amplify their voices, said activist Jolovan Wham during an online lecture series on CVODI-19, migrant health crisis and communicative equality.
The lecture, which was organised by the Centre for Culture-Centres Approach to Research and Evaluation and Massey University was hosted live on Facebook on 22 March, featuring Singaporeans activists Kokila Annamalai and Jolovan Wham.
During this presentation, Mr Wham focused on what citizens in this country can do to show allyship to migrant workers by amplifying their voices and giving them a space to “resist, talk back and raise issues in an authoritarian context”.
Giving an example of how he—and migrant rights group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME)—had helped set up a blog for dissatisfied SMRT bus drivers who wanted better living conditions and better pay as they were making less than their Malaysian counterparts.
Mr Wham explained how they helped these workers by creating a blog which became a key site for them to share their perspectives. They had earlier sent a petition to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) highlighting the issues they faced but nothing came of it.
“So we decided to reflect it in our blog so that people can understand what the workers, why the workers wanted to go on strike and what was their situation,” explained Mr Wham.
Another example of how Singaporeans can be allies is by using contacts and connections to create opportunities for migrant workers to talk to decision makers, such as embassies, employer groups, agencies, and associations.
However, Mr Wham advised that it is also best to start by first building a relationship with these communities. He said, “They may not necessarily want, the community of migrant workers and domestic workers, may not necessarily want to come together because they want to talk about their rights. It can be seen as something that is dry or boring.”
Mr Wham suggests other community activities from dance competitions to fashion shows as a way to engage with the community and built rapport before organising a discussion for them to talk about issue that are important and which matter to them.
Drawing on his years of experience in activism, Mr Wham also noted that “despite the very strict rules and laws within Singapore’s authoritarian context, there are also loopholes and little gaps that you can make use of.”
One example he gave was an indoor rally which was organised for domestic workers on the International Day for the Rights of Domestic Workers which was a closed event, by-invitation only. Because of that, it was the rally didn’t violate any laws and it was a way for domestic workers to be able to speak up for themselves and rally together and feel empowered as a community, said Mr Wham.
In another example of allyship, Mr Wham talked about a protest regarding salary claims by a group of construction workers from China which went on for several days. The workers had initially reached out to MOM for help but felt that the ministry wasn’t doing enough.
Mr Wham elaborated, “I was in touch with a couple of these workers, and as a social worker, I had been talking to them about some of their options and they had decided that they wanted to do this. And they felt that this was the only way in which they could stand up for themselves and get what they wanted.”
This, Mr Wham noted, was interesting as migrant workers in Singapore are “generally are so marginalised, are so oppressed, they find it so difficult to stand up for themselves” due to the precarious nature of their job security. Their work permits could easily be cancelled and they could be barred for from coming back to Singapore for work.
During the protest, Mr Wham talked about how he supported the worked by bringing them meals and drinks while they were protested outside the MOM building.
“So even though I couldn’t do much, I think little acts like this, little acts of support like this can boost morale and make workers feel that they are being supported,” he said.
Mr Wham went on to point out that in a democratic culture, “when we have a right to speak up and speak our own truth, we will be able to advocate for issues more effectively.”
“And history has shown that a lot of progress comes because those who are marginalised and those who are vulnerable are the ones who advocate for themselves.”
He continued, “So Singaporeans like me can be their allies and try to amplify their voices but true empowerment comes when they are able to organise themselves, they can form their own unions, form their own associations and speak their own truths to power.
You can watch the full lecture here: