PHOTO ESSAY: MIGRANT WORKERS – DAY OFF

* Prelude: This was a project I did last year documenting the day off of Indian and Bangladeshi migrant workers in Singapore. All the pictures were shot last year (in 2010) in and around Little India area. Recently, I decided to review them again and put it together in this blog with editorials included. I hope to bring across to people a fragment of what they do on their day off, and a snapshot of their life when they are not at their work site. These are the events often invisible to the avarage eye…

Singapore is admired for its economic progress and for propelling itself into a developed country within a span of just one generation. Yet, not many people spare much thought about the men behind our rapid infrastructure growth, the migrant construction workers.  No child dreams of becoming a construction worker. But driven by poverty and a lack of opportunities, waves of migrant workers from Indian and Bangladesh take on such work every year. These migrant workers tend to fill the unskilled labour needs of Singapore companies. Yet, we know little of their stories and the dreams that inspire them.

They are often invisible to the avarage eye. To most of us, we see these migrant workers as labourers working day-in day-out, rain or shine, perspiring away at the dusty and noisy work site for long hours. However, at dusk and into the evening, they hang around with nothing much to do. But I bet it beats staying in their quarters, which tend to be stuffy and over crowded.

In this photo essay, I sought to document these Indian and Bangladeshi migrant workers on their day off – to capture a fragment of what they do and a snapshot of their life when they are not at their work site. Like any other local ethnic group and communities, they have a common place to hang out, engage in activities, and for bonding.

Little India of Singapore needs little introduction. As the name promises, it is the center for the large Indian community in Singapore, and also the ‘hub’ where migrant workers from India and Bangladesh hang out. Little India’s main drag is Serangoon Road, which starts at Rochor Canal Rd and continues northward to Serangoon itself.

Even on a weekday night, migrant workers from India and Bangladesh probably outnumber everybody else in Little India. Come weekend, Little India simply becomes a paradise for them. Try spending a weekend there and you will be so overwhelmed with the sight of Indians and Bangladeshis that you would have thought you are in their native country. The narrow walkways fronting the shops are often blocked by merchandise and so they tend to spill onto the streets. They will also meet up with friends to exchange news from home, tips about how to get a better job or where to get a better exchange rate. Others use their free time in the evening to do laundry or stock up groceries from the Tekka wet market and the surrounding shop houses. These migrant workers have to be very frugal, to the point where they cook their own meals (and pack lunch to work) rather than eat at canteens. Some migrant workers also use the weekend to visit clinics along Belilious Lane (which are catered to them) to get health checks.

The devoted Hindu migrant workers will also find time to gather at the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple (along Serangoon Road) for prayers. It is Little India’s busiest and oldest temple, and is extremely crowded on weekends, such that there was hardly any space to move around.

Whatever these migrant workers do on they day off, they are no different from any of us. They spend time hanging out with friends, catching up with news, running errands, and keeping in touch with families. Many do not have much day off a month, and when they do have some time of their own, it is definitely a precious moment they treasure very much.

A devoted Hindu migrant worker praying at the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple (along Serangoon Road) on a Sunday evening. The temple is Little India's busiest and oldest temple (dating back to 1881), and is extremely crowded on weekends, such that there was hardly any space to move around.

Anywhere is a good place for a nap for these migrant workers. At almost every corners and back alleys of Little India on a weekend afternoon, you will find these migrant workers occupying a spot for a rest or just to hang out with friends. No place is too dirty for them.

A moment for bonding among the migrant workers. They love to share a meal together and catch up with each other on latest news from home, tips about how to get a better job or where to get a better exchange rate. Day off is definitely a moment to treasure for them.

Home is just a phone call away. With the rapid development in communications, almost all migrant workers are equipped with a mobile phone. They can be easily purchased from the numerous telecommunication shops all over Little India at a cheap price. It may not be as good as any iphones, but definitely good enough to make a call home to their love ones.

Hanging out along the back alleys, chatting with friends, making a call home, or simply sitting around to pass time. These are part and parcel of a typical day off activities for these migrant workers. And it means a lot to them.

You do not need to find a post office in Little India. Numerous shops around Little India offer postal and courier services for migrant workers to send parcel back home to their loved ones.

A migrant worker sharing a family photo album with friends during their day off in Little India. No ipad or ipod, but it is a great way to update news and share family events back home with fellow migrant workers here.

Some migrant workers use their day off to visit clinics along Belilious Lane (which are catered to them) to get health checks. There are also dentist and other shops selling medication along Belilious Lane patronize by migrant workers usually on their off days.

Enjoying a carom board game with fellow migrant workers. Another great way to relax on their day off. Temporary tables were set up in the evening and migrant workers will get together to enjoy a game or two.

Migrant workers enjoying a weekend dinner together. Anywhere is good for a meal. Many migrant workers filled the back alleys in Little India late in the evening to share a meal, have a beer, and chat together.

Little India is so overwhelmed with Indian and Bangladeshi migrant workers on weekends such that mobile lavatories have to be set up within the area. Over here, migrant workers are queuing up to use the lavatory set up at the open field near the Little India MRT station). The open field has also become a picnic area packed with migrant workers on weekends, and it is difficult to find an open spot.

Little India Express: On weekends, shutter bus like the one above ferry migrant workers from their living quarters to Little India. It cost about S$3 a trip to get from their quarters (usually on the outskirt of Singapore such as Jurong, Tuas, Woodlands, Sembawang, etc.) to Little India. These buses usually arrive in the evening. Other migrant workers who do no take such shutter bus come to Little India via public transport.

Two migrant workers sharing a conversation in Little India on the off day. One thing I have noticed is how closely these migrant workers stand to each other in a conversation, even though there is quite a lot of room around them. Personal space is a cultural thing and the Indians and Bangladeshis tend to prefer close distances.

Nothing takes a conversation away from these migrant workers, not even when a chicken is passing by them. Over in Little India, these are some common sights around the smaller lanes. Migrant workers will camp in any possible open space on their off days to engage in conversations.

Migrant workers love to catch up with latest news in their community. On their off day, they often share around a set of newspaper while relaxing in Little India.

A migrant worker stocking up groceries from the Tekka wet market in Little India after work on a weekend. These migrant workers have to be very frugal, to the point where they cook their own meals (and pack lunch to work) rather than eat at canteens. The Tekka wet market offers the freshest vegetables, meat, fish, spices and flowers. Also available are items such as brass oil lamps and pots, or fresh garlands of jasmine, whose scent is signature aroma of Little India.

A migrant worker engage in a silent prayer. Whatever these migrant workers do on they day off, they are no different from any of us. They spend time hanging out with friends, catching up with news, running errands, and keeping in touch with families. Many do not have much day off a month, and when they do have some time of their own, it is definitely a precious moment they treasure very much.

~Photography & Edited by Chia Loy Chuan (Sep, 2011)~

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debbie - 1 December, 2013 - 7:56 PM

These photos are absolutely beautiful. Thank you for capturing the smiles, the interactions, the reflective moments, and the very sensitive human qualities of these men who have sacrificed the pleasures and comforts of family to work as laborers in Singapore. We owe them our gratitude and respect for contributing and adding to the diversity and positive energy of our community.

Christine - 1 December, 2013 - 10:48 PM

Absolutely stunning. Thank you for giving the workers a very human, very beautiful perspective. We tend to forget or ignore the fact that their lives add so much to ours in so many ways.

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