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As a bank Forex trader for over 30 years, Ivan found himself under immense pressure at work every day. When he finally retired, he initially planned to relax at home every day, help his wife with the groceries and household chores, and enjoy life in retirement. However, after half a year, he realized that this was not the lifestyle he wanted.
“I previously said I wanted to enjoy life, but I had too much time on my hands, and not much meaning. Another problem was that I had too much time at home and often argued with my wife! I never foresaw this, and so I thought it was time to find something more meaningful to do.”
Therefore, he contacted a friend who was working at the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), a charity assisting foreign workers, and expressed his willingness to volunteer there.
HOME helps migrant labourers from foreign countries, whereas Ivan is an expatriate from Hong Kong.
Looked after by Singaporean Friends
Ivan, who is 56 this year, was deployed to Singapore by the bank he was working for in 1995, and emigrated with his wife and daughter.
These days, xenophobic sentiments periodically surface on the internet. However, Ivan mentioned that when he first came to Singapore, not only was he not ostracised, he was looked after by his Singaporean friends, and had no difficulty whatsoever integrating into Singapore society.
“I am a Roman Catholic, and one of the organisations I was involved in has a branch in Singapore, so when I came to Singapore I already had a group of friends to help me adjust. For example, problems with living arrangements – they let my family stay with them while we were searching for suitable housing… they also brought us around, introducing us to Singaporean customs such as eating spicy food!”
Half a year after his son was born, Ivan applied for citizenship for his entire family.
In the past, Ivan worked over ten hours a day, and scarcely had time for other activities. Now, he spends three days a week at HOME, helping solve the problems of foreign labourers and domestic workers in distress.
On the topic of domestic workers, Ivan expressed his bewilderment, commenting that in Hong Kong domestic workers had a mandatory rest day every week – “This is as it should be, and I don’t think it’s a special privilege,” he said. Moreover, in Hong Kong there are limits to the scope of work; for instance, employers in Hong Kong cannot direct domestic workers to clean any premises other than the employer’s house.
When Ivan came to Singapore, he brought his domestic worker with him. At that time, Ivan gave his domestic worker a weekly day off even though Singapore had yet to pass legislation mandating a rest day for domestic workers.
“We did not find this arrangement problematic, because this was what we did and was required by the law in Hong Kong. As an employee myself, I look forward to having at least one rest day every week. However, many of my friends did not share the same view; they found it perfectly fine not to give domestic workers a rest day, and gave many reasons… I found it quite unfair to these low-wage domestic workers.”
Bridge Between the Workers and the Authorities
At HOME, other than domestic workers, Ivan also helps construction workers, shipyard workers, employees from the food and beverage industry, and more.
“Every case is different, but the primary problems these foreign workers face include salary issues and work injuries. When construction workers get injured at work, it can sometimes be very difficult to get compensation. Sometimes this is because the employer does not report the work injury, and the worker is unaware; sometimes the worker is treated at the hospital but the employer does not foot the bill. They are not paid their medical leave and salary wages. These are common problems.”
Ivan points out that most of the foreign workers who approach HOME for help come from Bangladesh and China, and if they directly approach the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for assistance they often encounter language barriers. The volunteers at HOME therefore act as intermediaries.
“We help the workers understand how MOM usually handles their cases… what their rights are, the possible courses of action, the consequences of their choices, and we let them decide on their own.”
As a volunteer for more than two years, Ivan realized that foreign workers often encounter a power imbalance: “If the employer is dissatisfied with the worker’s performance, they can cancel the worker’s work permit and send them home, and the worker has no means of recourse. On the other hand, if the worker is dissatisfied with his work, he cannot change employers; if he wishes to change employers he has to obtain the current employer’s consent or MOM’s approval, otherwise he has to continue working for the current employer. Therefore, when there is a dispute, the worker is at a very disadvantageous position. If the worker wants to pursue their claim and provokes the employer, the employer can simply cancel their work permit and send them home. When the workers come to Singapore, they need to pay hefty agency fees, and many borrow money or sell their houses to do so. The workers cannot just return to their home countries like that, as they will lose their agency fees and incur considerable debts. Often, they have no choice but to endure, even when they are treated unfairly.
Ivan says that HOME’s volunteers assist foreign workers on one hand, and meet with MOM’s representatives on the other, providing feedback and suggestions.
Other than resolving their problems, HOME also organises events for the foreign workers. For instance, HOME invited cleaners to play badminton and eat fried chicken. This Christmas, they will be bringing the foreign workers to Gardens by the Bay.
Sharing the Joy of Volunteering
Ivan’s eldest daughter has graduated from university, his second son has finished his National Service, and his youngest daughter is current studying at a polytechnic. When asked whether his children knew of his volunteering commitments, Ivan said they definitely knew, and as he continued speaking his voice started to break.
“I feel that when I do this work… I… it really makes me very happy. That is why when I go home, I have the opportunity to share with them, sometimes, I feel, I see… the problems so many workers face, sometimes I feel so powerless, because what we can do is so limited, and we cannot solve all their problems, but we do everything we can within our power. Therefore, whenever I share with my children, I let them know that in this society, we cannot just pursue fortune and fame… family is definitely important, but sometimes we need to open ourselves up, even to people we do not know, and we should try to help them where we are able.” ~ Translated from Mandarin by Tong Hon Yee