Welcome to the Local Heroes series, where we highlight inspiring stories by people in Singapore who are using their skills to do good.
SINGAPORE – How many of us would stop our cars when we see migrant workers working in the rain to ask for their company’s name and proceed to ask for better welfare for them?
Ms Dipa Swaminathan did, and it kickstarted ItsRainingRaincoats (IRR), a ground-up initiative for the benefit of migrant workers. Yahoo Lifestyle SEA learns more from Ms Swaminathan about migrant workers’ challenges in Singapore, what IRR is doing for them, and how the public can be of help.
“You can’t change the world, but you can change the world for one person.”
A lawyer by trade, Ms Swaminathan’s posts on migrant workers working in the rain went viral, prompting an outreach from the Singapore Kindness Movement in 2015. Encouraging her to start a charity, IRR began its mission to improve migrant workers’ lives and she went on to build bridges to strengthen their integration into the local community.
“When I started this, I was a Permanent Resident (in Singapore). People said you are going to be kicked out of Singapore because this is not a glamourous cause. I said, well, if they do kick me out, I’ll go. I am not going to stay in a place where you will be scared to do something compassionate,” Ms Swaminathan shared in her TEDxTanglin Trust School talk in 2018. Her charity had since received the President’s Award for Volunteerism and Philanthropy amongst other awards from the various ministries as well as maintaining a working relationship with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
Started from a simple observation at a Starbucks outlet where they had trays of unsold food readied to be thrown away as it was near closing time, IRR started partnering with Starbucks in late 2015 for a food redistribution project. Her initial post, which had gone viral, prompted Ms Swaminathan to reach out to Starbucks Singapore, who did not respond to her, and then to Starbucks Worldwide, who responded and discussed with her on the specifics of the project.
Unsold food from over 50 Starbucks outlets islandwide is now redistributed to migrant workers in the vicinity of these stores.
While many have an idea of how bad foreign workers had it in Singapore, the COVID-19 pandemic shone an unexpected spotlight on the plight faced when the virus spread like wildfires through these workers’ dormitories. Their cramped and dirty living space, welfare and concerns neglected by employers, low wages despite long working hours were highlighted across social media in the past two months.
For IRR and their volunteers however, it did not come as a surprise.
Working the grounds since 2015, the charity had been collecting pre-loved and new essentials for these workers. They also run large-scale donation drives during festive periods, reaching out to Singaporeans to be ‘Santa’ during Christmas, to help with the redistributing of Chinese New Year goodies that were donated.
The growing cases in the migrant dormitories prompted more individuals and groups into action, with IRR receiving more calls and responses to their projects.
“A lot more people had reached out and our volunteers are receiving an increase of almost 50% in calls. Donors, schools, companies, university groups, and individuals have been coming forward, which is very heartening for us.”
On top of the ongoing donations of essentials for the migrant workers, IRR had also started a COVID-19 support programme, MAD WISH 2020, short for “Make A Difference While I Stay Home”. The initiative aims to provide a skill-up programme for the migrant workers by having volunteers teach them basic, conversational English over a call.
With many Singaporeans working from home or having more free time during the pandemic, interested parties can reach out to the charity to offer their time and teach English basics to migrant workers. The casual lessons will take place over a cellphone call or a call over WhatsApp, Facetime, and other video applications.
“We don’t typically have a blueprint for the future, we just rise to the occasion, whatever that the workers need. This is why this year, for COVID-19, we were able to so quickly ramp up our efforts, because we are not so rigid in our operations,” Swaminathan shares.
Recently awarded the Shining World Compassion Award in recognition of their advocacy of migrant workers, we understand more from Ms Dipa on how she juggles motherhood, her career, and the charity.
“We always make time for things, whether it is for a spa or read books, and we all have extra things in our lives. For me, this is my extra thing. It energises me and I get a lot out of it. I can’t imagine not doing it anymore. The amount of satisfaction from it when at the end of the day, you get a message of thanks from a worker and that can fill you with so much gratitude and energy when what I put into it is just a fraction of my time,” Swaminathan adds.
If you want to lend a helping hand, IRR’s Facebook page posts call for essentials needed by migrant workers regularly and you can contact their volunteers directly via the number included in the post.
Alternatively, you can also check out their various initiatives, such as Direct Worker Support, Data Card Drive, and Adopt a Site, to offer donations and assistance.
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