The men who build our country: Loving our migrant workers
“Uhm, hello – my name’s Eudora! What’s yours?”
It was a Sunday in June when I found myself greeting a young man leaning against a wall in the mid-afternoon heat. As part of my youth group’s mission month, we were in Little India, hoping to befriend the migrant workers in our midst. As someone who was neither a youth nor a leader, I felt slightly out of place. Like a gatecrasher, I’d mused to my friends.
A couple of weeks before, my cell group member, also a leader in the youth ministry, shared with us about this befriending event.
“We’re gonna get the youths to talk to these migrant workers in our midst. Please pray for the event and help us think of suitable questions!”
This was reminiscent of the Janitors’ Appreciation Project I had helped out with several years ago – a collaboration between the Christian Fellowship and Rotaract Society, aimed at appreciating school and hall janitors for their work. Yet, it was different because these were complete strangers, compared to knowing the janitors by face, at least.
My spontaneous decision to “gatecrash” the event caught my friends by surprise, and met with responses such as:
“So glad you can join us! But just curious, why you want to come ah?”
“This is so not even my kind of thing – you wanted to come for this?”
Yes, I wanted to do this. Like my friend, I don’t think it is, or will ever be, my kind of thing, my comfort zone. So what was my motivation for being there?
Actually, I’d recently heard about the importance of being inclusive to the migrant workers in our midst. How they’d left their hometowns for a job where they help to provide for us what they do not have – a spacious and comfortable apartment, with clean streets all around.
I’m also familiar with organizations such as HealthServe, which seek to provide for the needs of migrant workers and bridge the gaps between them and the local community. In addition, I know people who have made individual efforts to seek to understand the migrant workers in our midst, and who have shown practical support for them.
Yet, I felt that the only way I could seek to understand this group of people was to interact with them first-hand – it seemed hypocritical to acknowledge the importance of inclusion when I had never reached out to a migrant worker myself.
In the midst of our conversation, I found out this young man worked as a general cleaner at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), opposite from where our conversation took place. Hailing from Johor, across the causeway, he shared that he’d been in Singapore for four years.
For all the complaints my friends and I tend to make about our frequent train breakdowns, crowded buses and traffic jams on the expressway – perhaps we do have more to be thankful for than we realise.
Compared to his hometown, a job here offered a better salary, hence he worked here, rather than back home. He shared with us that he preferred local food back home, but was thankful Singapore had been a secure, clean country to work.
I was intrigued to hear these sentiments, which made me wonder if I have been, by nature, too cynical – for all the complaints my friends and I tend to make about our frequent train breakdowns, crowded buses and traffic jams on the expressway – perhaps we do have more to be thankful for than we realise.
At the end of our conversation, we gave the young man an NTUC voucher to bless him.
During the post-event debrief, one of my group members wondered out loud if migrant workers were too polite, or afraid, to talk about the faults of the country that had provided them with a livelihood. I did not disagree – as much as I’m thankful for the increasing awareness and empathy towards the welfare of the migrant workers in our midst, I believe migrant worker discrimination still very much exists.
Cynics may point out that reaching out to migrant workers is but a feel-good gesture for locals. Well, it may start that way, but it is also a commandment God has given to His people. Deuteronomy 10:18-19 tells us that God had taught the Israelites to love and respect the sojourners – people of another country living and working in Israel – because they too had been sojourners to Egypt.
This is echoed in the New Testament by the author of Hebrews, who encouraged the early Christians not to neglect showing hospitality to strangers (Hebrews 13:2) – a virtue valued at a time where travel was difficult and foreign lands could be dangerous.
While my experience befriending migrant workers was worthwhile, I believe reaching out to them does not need to take place only through formal organised events. Although these events make a good start, we can bloom wherever we are planted.
This looks different for everyone – maybe it’s greeting the janitor who clears the waste paper basket every day, or exchanging morning greetings with the person who sweeps your block as you make your way to work. When we’re willing to start small, you’ll realise inclusivity isn’t exclusive to the big gestures at all.