Volunteers and organisations stepped up to help Migrant Workers rejoin the community

After months of quarantine, migrant workers prepare to rejoin the community and adjust to the new life ahead of them. It is the first time in months that these men get to spend more than an hour outside a hotel room.

For 23-year-old Miah MD Sumon from Bangladesh, it has been challenging living in his assigned hotel room for the last two months. “One room, one man, no friends outside. It’s very difficult,” he says.

A hotel stay immediately sounds luxurious. But it is no easy feat living alone in a 32 sqm (344 sq ft) room with windows you can’t open, without the freedom to come and go as you please. 

(Above: For many of them, this is the first time they are meeting other migrant workers living at the same hotel.)

Some of the migrant workers shared their frustrations of being stuck in the same room without any human contact for months. While they recognise they’re being looked after, the isolation, coupled with the anxiety of not knowing what comes next for them in terms of work and income has taken a mental and emotional toll on these men.

Some appeared to have developed social anxiety from prolonged isolation. While they leave their rooms to get some fresh air, they often quickly return to avoid interacting with others. Especially those who are quarantined alone, without other workers from their company.

About 500 migrant workers have been living in this hotel (which has chosen to remain anonymous). Essential workers are able to go out for work and return to the hotel to sleep. But there are 280 of them who are not able to return to work and are stuck in limbo.

These men who have been decanted out of their dormitories are swabbed once every fortnight and have been tested negative for Covid-19.

Staying apart from other exacerbated feelings of being disconnected

During their stay, which lasted from one-and-a-half months to a lengthy four months, the men were treated like any other guest of the hotel. Staff checked in on them twice a day to find out what they needed — from toothpaste to coats for when they felt too cold in the air-conditioned rooms.

However, they never met the staff in person. 

To maintain social distancing, check-ins were done via the phone. The migrant workers too had scheduled times to leave their hotel rooms for swab tests, but never for periods long enough to make any connection with the other “guests”. They were not allowed to mingle.

On this Saturday, however, things were different. About 30 of the migrant workers who were about to check out had the chance to get a much-needed haircut, soak up the sun, and even dance their hearts out for a solid three hours. 

(Above: Trained hairdressers, volunteers from Backalley Barbers, offer their time to groom the migrant workers after months of dealing with overgrown locks.)

To help prepare migrant workers as they leave their confines, Covid Migrant Support Coalition (CMSC) organised a relaxation workshop, games — carrom and “beer pong”, a “help desk” to answer any questions they have, and a “barbershop” area to have the men groomed. 

(Above: All in the name of fun, migrant workers try their hand at “beer pong” — it’s soap and water — to win themselves a snack of their choice.)

The Covid Migrant Support Coalition (CMSC), a ground-up initiative, had been advocating for workers to leave their rooms to help with their mental wellbeing. 

“After liaising with the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), the hotel was granted permission to allow up to 30 workers out at any one time,” says Ms Jewel Yi, 29,  head of health and engagement and co-leader of CMSC. 

(Above: Migrant workers practising mindfulness)

A key part of the morning’s activities was a relaxation workshop run by The Art of Living Foundation. Through guided exercises, volunteers teach the migrant workers how to practise mindfulness to learn to calm themselves and how to stretch their tight muscles. Art of Living has been collaborating with CMSC to run these relaxation classes online as well, and classes are in Bengali, Tamil and Mandarin to cater to the varied language needs.

Help desks are set up to address questions and concerns of migrant workers — from enquiries about their salary and banking needs to making sure they can call their families when homesick. Digital ambassadors are present to help workers download,  navigate and troubleshoot apps they need to return back to work.

(Above: Helpdesk were set up to provide assistance to migrant workers)

The engagement activities, organised by CMSC, were to help migrant workers who have been quarantined and isolated to socialise and find ways to relieve the stresses that come with their current circumstances.

“Some of them appeared teary-eyed when they came down because, for many of them, we are the first people they’ve spoken to in-person in months,” says Ms Yi.

As many migrant workers continue to grapple with the challenges of this pandemic, organisations such as the CMSC find new ways to address the needs of this community and offer them some semblance of normalcy.

Join us in playing a part to support charities caring for Migrant Workers on Giving.sg .

Photos by: Bryan van der Beek | Words by: Stacey Rodrigues

In partnership with What Are You Doing SG, a platform capturing the stories of people in Singapore, their challenges, collaborative nature and problem-solving spirit.