Seeking shelter, they found HOME
After three-and-a-half years of volunteering for migrant worker rights group HOME, one encounter in particular remains vivid in Ivan Ng’s memory.
He recalls how he and fellow volunteers threw themselves into a case of a migrant worker, in what was ultimately a failed attempt to prevent his repatriation.
“He still came back to the office on the day he has to go back home. He just came to me and said, ‘Brother, I know you have done your best. It didn’t work out, but thank you.’”
Moments like this spur Ivan on to support the vulnerable, low-wage migrant worker group in Singapore — a cause so close to his heart that he has roped in his daughter, Astrid.
“[Through] these close encounters with workers, I started to understand what they go through, their troubles, and because of this awareness, I cannot be indifferent anymore. I cannot do nothing,” says Ivan, who is retired.
A HOME OF VOLUNTEERS
At HOME — short for Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics — Ivan and Astrid volunteer as caseworkers helping migrant workers with salary disputes and work injury claims.
“Migrant workers, face a lot of difficulties. The limited resources that they have...this imbalance of power, the employers always have the upper hand,” says Ivan. “That’s why this silent, invisible population need extra help to get back their fair treatment.”
Founded in 2004, HOME assists migrant workers who have been abused or exploited by their employers. It also runs a shelter for domestic workers in need and an academy where workers can pick up vocational skills.
Each year, it helps about 2,700 migrant workers and domestic workers, with 1,600 domestic workers graduating from its academy.
Jaya Anil Kumar, Casework Manager at HOME, says volunteers are key to the NGO.
“We have a very lean staff, so we rely a lot on volunteers to make sure our programmes are running smoothly,” she says. “A lot of them work tirelessly in order to ensure that the well-being of migrant workers are met, purely out of the goodness of their heart.”
She adds, “As long as the dedication and the commitment is there, anyone can come help… it’s also heartening to know that the people who are helping [the workers] are Singaporeans, because we recognise the value of the work that they do in order to help Singapore grow.”
Dedication isn’t something Ivan is short on — officially, he goes to HOME’s office twice a week, but he constantly keeps himself on “standby mode”, ready to accompany a worker to see a doctor, or help HOME at a fundraising event.
“I try to help all these workers, [but] actually, they are the ones who helped me become a better person,” says Ivan.
Astrid says she is thankful to her father for “dragging” her down to HOME to volunteer. “I was just following him taking case notes. But then I started hearing the stories, that’s when it started hitting me,” she says.
A SHELTER FROM HARM, A SCHOOL OF HOPE
Yanti’s journey as a volunteer began very differently — as a domestic helper, she found herself in the hands of an abusive employer.
“My former employer never let me call my family...my baby passed away and they never let me know,” says Yanti.
Turning to HOME for help, she stayed in its shelter for 14 months until her case was resolved. Now, she volunteers for its help desk on her days off, which includes picking up domestic workers seeking help at the police station or the hospital, and lending a comforting shoulder.
“HOME trusted me to be a leader,” says Yanti. “They [the workers] always cry to me and tell me their story. So my heart feels, ‘Oh, same like me.’”
Abusive employers are an unfortunate part of reality in Singapore. But there are also Singaporeans like Jaya Nathan who feel passionately about respecting the foreign domestic workers entrusted to ease the loads of households.
“I understand how fellow Singaporeans feel, to bring a stranger to the house is not easy. But what I’m saying is, talk to them as a human. They’re not slaves. We shouldn’t treat them like that,” says Jaya Nathan.
She has paid for her helper, Alma Terol Virtudazo, to attend cosmetology courses at HOME’s Academy, equipping Alma with skills that may come in handy in the future. “I really owe Alma a lot. She deserves a good life and respect in my home. And she’s not my helper, she’s my family,” she says.
Likewise, Alma says of her employer: “I have a lot of freedom here in the house, because I work hard and she trusts me. She treats me like a sister.”
A DREAM OF GREATER INCLUSIVITY
“The migrant workers community is not talked about enough, but they form the backbone of our economy,” says Jaya from HOME.
She adds, “Singapore was built with the help of migrant workers. Many of our forefathers were migrant workers. Let us work with them in order to make Singapore a better home for them and for us.”
Ivan puts it simply: “ We are all human beings, we have the same human dignity, the same needs, the same aspirations. When more Singaporeans are willing to reach out to the marginalised, then we can truly say our society is inclusive, our society is gracious.”
This International Migrants Day, we honour the contributions, sacrifices and rights of low-wage migrant workers as they toil behind the scenes. Explore more of their stories here, and find out how you can support the dedicated communities giving back to them.