Helping Singapore's transient workers

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First published 27th February, 2013

Visitors to Singapore always speak of its impeccably clean streets and ultra-modern architecture, but few know the secret behind the city-state's flawless appearance: transient foreign workers. As the wealthiest country in the region, Singapore is able to 'import' people from neighbouring countries to do its dirty work for wages of a couple of dollars per hour.

It is estimated that there are nearly one million people living in Singapore who've travelled from countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Philippines, India, Burma and China to accept low-paying jobs as construction workers, street cleaners, window washers, dock workers and maids.

Though transient workers willingly come to Singapore to work, the conditions are often not what they expected. Many foreign workers toil for more than 12 hours per day without overtime pay and are considered lucky if they get one day of rest per week. Construction workers are forced to work under dangerous conditions and, if injured on the job, are shipped back home so employers can avoid their legal obligation to cover the medical bills.

Foreign workers are involved in many different occupations.
Foreign workers are involved in many different occupations.

Domestic workers have it even worse. Since they usually live in the private households where they are employed, they are at their employer's beck and call 24 hours a day and only 12% report having at least one day off per week. There have also been reports of emotional and physical abuse against domestic workers –- who are almost always female -– and in some cases employers have beaten their 'maid' to death.

If transient workers do want to quit their job or take legal action against their employers they often cannot because they lack the language skills and formal education to navigate Singapore's system of work permits and paperwork.

Volunteer translators are often in need.
Volunteer translators are often in need.

Thankfully, Transient Workers Count Too is there to help. Founded in 2003, TWC2 is a non-profit organisation dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers being exploited in Singapore. Operated entirely by volunteers, TWC2 can arrange access to social workers, lawyers and translators and has helped remove domestic workers from dangerous environments. All of these services are completely free.

TWC2's signature project is the Cuff Road Food Programme which offers free meals and a friendly ear to migrant workers. Employers bringing migrant workers to Singapore are required to provide them with room and board, but when there are disputes -– either over salary or working conditions -– the workers are often kicked out of their dorms and left destitute. This is not an issue you'll read about in a Singapore newspaper, but on average 200 workers show up for the free meals each day.

When injured some employers ship the worker home to avoid their obligations.
When injured some employers ship the worker home to avoid their obligations.

Donations to TWC2 can be made via their website and every little bit helps.

“A donation of $50 will provide a meal for 20 hungry workers at our soup kitchen or can buy five Transitlink cards for injured workers to take public transport to their medical appointments,” said TWC2 president Russell Heng. “If no such assistance is given, the men would walk whatever distance to the hospital or clinic.”

Out of the public eye, maids can be especially badly treated.
Out of the public eye, maids can be especially badly treated.

If you're in Singapore and have free time, TWC2 is looking for volunteers to assist at the soup kitchen and with fundraising, research, editorial and general administrative work. Also needed are people who speak Tamil, Bengali, Burmese or Mandarin to act as interpreters.

Heng invites anyone with a caring heart and free time to get involved: "If you want to know more about volunteering with TWC2, please visit our website at or come to Heartbeat, our monthly volunteer orientation programme."

All photos courtesy TWC2.

Each month a writer selects a charity or non-government organisation that they believe does excellent work on their patch in Southeast Asia. They write about them and we donate $100, a small way for us to give something back to the region. If you're looking to give back too, please consider giving a little cash as well.

About the author:
Tanya Procyshyn is a Singapore-based freelance writer and photographer. With a passion for unusual destinations, she has camped alongside Komodo dragons and shook hands with soldiers in North Korea. She blogs at

Read 2 comment(s)

  • this is one of the dark side of singapore many visitors never see.

    Posted by rubin phamq on 28th February, 2013

  • unfortunately, some of the environments that these workers come from are just as bad - their own countries. i have to wonder - and i do quite a bit traveling - just how the locals can make any ends meet what with the prices they must pay. they think they will have it better in places like Singapore only to go from the 'frying pan to the fire'.

    it is a vicious circle. in the Philippines where i am writing from many young women become pregnant by the young filipino males (not men) and they conveniently get work in other countries and they are never heard from again. it happens globally. i stay in Latin America most of the time and speak the language. i have had many conversations with these type who do the very same thing. they have obligations, maybe even a court order to pay their child suppoert but their wage is so paltry that they just give up, go north to the US and take on a completely new life and identity. menawhile their wives and girlfriends and society are stuck with all the ancillary items that come with this poverty and no social safety net. it is abhorrent, of course.

    i only mention what i do as an example and never lecture as to what others might. when traveling i make sure to give a good healthy tip -in their own country i have seen the locals never do this or give an insulting one - and if staying for some length of time i build little relationships of being friendly and buying that which they can never afford: if i go to a fast food restaurant i bring back a breakfast or 2 for the front desk or maid. if i buy a box of Oreos or some dandy snack of premium donuts i share them. it isn't much but a little help to those i come in contact with goes a long way. some think, right away, as happened the other day with another employee, "oh you LIKE . . . . ," implying that there is something of another motive involved, which is not the case. i am mature so i understand this comment and have a ready reply that is all -encompassing as to my liking all.

    one other method is to look at the individual and their needs. if they need a good pair of shoes, i buy them a pair. or, as in one time in 2011 i saw a young lady in front of my hotel daily, and she was definitely in the sex industry. she handed out leaflets for the club nearby, a concession on the hotel property. she had a lovely smile and 2 black holes side by side on her rspective front teeth. i had been going for my own dental so i enquired of the dentist as to what it would take to get hers fixed. i then talked to her and she had a mildly amazed look on her face but was also very agreeable to getting them repaired. she needed root canals and fillings. the entire process came to about $300 and she then no longer covered her mouth in embarassment. this was important to her. she was 23 and had every expectation of looking like everyone else, but as she told me, she could never afford the treatments that are about 9 times cheaper than what i would have to pay in my own country. that was all. i saw her a few times thereafter and never again. i can only hope that she looks fondly on that memory of someone, a stranger that out of the clear blue gave her a lift to her life. it is very rewarding for her but for me also.

    Posted by gordon grey on 4th March, 2013

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