Every day, at around 10am, a black sport utility vehicle pulls up in the Tuas View area. Out steps Pastor Samuel Gift Stephen, who arrives for what he calls his “Meet-the-People Sessions” with migrant workers staying in factory-converted dormitories (FCDs) in the area.
The pastor has called this area his second home for the past six weeks.
The 43-year-old is chairman of the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach (AGWO), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that serves as an aggregator for voluntary welfare organisations, corporations and agencies. It provides care including counselling to migrant workers, and also organises activities like sports tournaments and secures venues for English and computer classes for them.
Since Good Friday on April 10, AGWO has distributed 450,000 meals across 96 FCDs.
Going on foot through the FCDs, Reverend Stephen speaks to the residents who are to him more vulnerable than their peers staying in the bigger, purpose-built dormitories, which have better infrastructure and are better managed.
The daily visiting routine has helped him build trust and rapport with the residents. “They’d rather suffer in silence than whistle-blow,”he says, referring to the workers’fear that they would lose their jobs if they make any complaints about living conditions.
While the pastor and the residents now refer to each other as brothers, they were initially suspicious of him, opening up only after his third or fourth visit.
The pastor says he hopes to bridge the gap between the guest workers,as he prefers to call them, and the employers, dormitory operators and government agencies. “It is the responsibility of the employers to feed their workers, but some have not even come down to the dorms since the circuit breaker started.”
On the flip side, there are companies that are unable to feed their employees because of the economic impact from the Covid-19 outbreak.They have approached AGWO for help, instead of leaving their workers in the lurch.
Towards the end of Rev Stephen’s sessions, volunteers from AGWO arrive in batches to deliver lunch to the residents. He makes it a point to ask them how they feel about their meals, and works closely with caterers to make sure the food is cooked accordingly.
“We let them provide feed back on the food so that we can try matching the palates of different dorms,”he says. “It’s a high standard which we take seriously. We believe the meals are the one thing they can look forward to every day.”
The pastor usually skips lunch,then heads out to do what he calls“dorm hunting”, in which he goes around looking for guest workers in need. He usually bases his routes on leads from other workers, but also divides areas into sections and tries to find smaller dormitories in every nook and cranny.
Once, while in the car, he got lost in a corner of Tuas and stumbled on a dorm where some 200 workers had not had a proper meal for two days,surviving only on biscuits and chips.
“Dorm hunting” usually lasts till 10pm, and during Ramadan, after a quick dinner and short time back home with his wife and daughters,he leaves again to help his team make sure that food deliveries leave on time. It is usually right before thesun comes up that he is home again.
While providing meals for the guest workers is a primary aspect of AGWO’s work at the moment, Rev Stephen hopes to expand on its humanitarian work in the future.
AGWO currently has an Adopt-aDorm scheme, where companies,NGOs and even individuals are encouraged not only to help with thefood and hygiene needs of individualdorms, but also to care for the workers’ mental and emotional well-being. Of the 279 FCDs that AGWO isassisting, 60 have been adopted.
“I want a future where Singaporeans don’t look at migrant workers as migrant workers, but as brothers. There’s no other country like Singapore that cares for guest workers like we do, but we can do better,” Rev Stephen says.