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Supporting the migrant worker community

Supporting the migrant worker community

Christmas is a time of giving and last Christmas the UWCSEA Dover community had the opportunity to spread some festive cheer to Singapore’s unsung heroes: the migrant workers.

Through the social initiative ‘It’s Raining Raincoats’, founded by UWCSEA parent Dipa Swaminathan, we were encouraged to donate Christmas gifts to some of the 700,000 workers who call Singapore home. Dipa set up ‘It’s Raining Raincoats’ back in 2015 after meeting workers sheltering under a small piece of plastic at the roadside during a torrential downpour. They had not been provided with wet-weather gear and were soaked through. Stories of poor treatment, squalid living conditions, unpaid salaries and attempted suicide unravelled, and lawyer Dipa felt compelled to take action. It became clear that the migrant workers needed support. They needed a voice.

As the name suggests, the organisation began by encouraging people to donate raincoats to the workers. It then spread to other ventures, such as a Starbucks food delivery, with volunteers collecting leftover food from around 50 cafes and donating it to workers in the city. There have also been collective lunches and special migrant worker fun days. 

As part of our UWCSEA Mission Values we encourage our students to be compassionate, to be of service to others, to take an interest in people of all cultures and backgrounds and to help shape a better world. The Christmas initiative asked us to ‘Be a Santa Claus for our Migrant Workers’ and requested donations that the workers would find useful: tiger balm, umbrellas, caps, backpacks, sunglasses, chocolates toiletries etc. Collection points were set up across Singapore, but we decided it would make it easier for the community if we had our own donation boxes in the Junior School.

The students in 3CWi helped to sort and store them and it turned into a fun maths activity as we laid them out neatly in arrays to help calculate the total number. The classroom began to fill up with boxes and bags and there were comments that it was starting to look like Santa’s Grotto!

The Christmas gift initiative offered a great way to focus on UWC values at a local level. Over a period of four weeks, we collected 600 gifts from the UWCSEA Dover community. They were beautifully gift-wrapped and many bore appreciative messages for the workers. The Grade Three students were keen to see the project through and it was a wonderful opportunity for them to engage in service at a local level. So, the next job was to find somewhere that would be willing to: 

A. have children on site,

B. stop work long enough for us to meet the workers and hand out the gifts.

After several false starts, we managed to find a construction site in West Coast where the manager was happy for us visit after school. There would be 120 workers at the site, so we had to sort through the donations and ensure that the distribution was done fairly. The gifts varied greatly in size and value, from toothbrushes and bottles of shower gel, to backpacks and even a pair of brand-new trainers.

Meeting the migrant workers

Distribution day came around and parents and grandparents from 3CWi came into class to help label and box up the gifts. There were last-minute gift donations and lots of last-minute wrapping, but everyone was happy to give up their afternoon to help. With less than 24 hours’ notice, these kind families also whipped up 120 cupcakes, as we thought it would give the afternoon a more festive feel if the workers could enjoy a sweet treat with their Christmas gifts. We were finally ready to go: with 7 students, 5 mums, 1 grandpa and 120 gifts and cakes, off we went to West Coast.

It was a short drive to the Woh Hup work site on West Coast Vale and we were welcomed by some of the workers who were waiting out on the main road to show us where to park. There was a buzz of nervous excitement as we put on our Santa hats and unloaded the cars. We met the manager, Chen Han Qi, who was delighted to have us visit and she explained that they are in the process of building a new condo, which will be finished in about two years’ time. Work was in full flow and it was interesting for the children to see the cranes and machinery in the distance. 

 

Interacting with the migrant workers was a really important and special part of the process: here was an opportunity to engage in direct, face-to-face Service in our city. The workers are unassuming and often shy. Some of them don’t speak much, if any, English and their contact with expats is limited. Tired and hot in the middle of the working day, the serious faces gradually turned into smiles when they heard that they would be receiving gifts. One of the students summed it up, saying, “I was nervous because they looked so serious. But when I smiled at them they smiled right back and it felt nice.” 

It was wonderful to see the students’ confidence blossom as they started to engage and chat more assuredly with the workers. Some told the students about their own children back home and everyone wished each other a happy Christmas. One of them shared later, “He shook my hand, I think he was really happy that we came.”

The migrant workers’ Christmas gift appeal for 2018 was a great success. Across Singapore, over 50,000 gifts were donated in total. The experience was best summed up by one of the students when I asked them what they had learned: “It was only a small thing that we did, but I think it made a big difference.” What better lesson is there?

The UWCSEA Service programme empowers students to become aware, able and active contributors to the community, whether on campus, locally in Singapore or internationally with a project in a developing country. Read about how Service is at the heart of our mission, and service activities a vital part of the learning programme.

 

11 Mar 2019
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