Photography: Frenchescar Lim; Assisted by Phyllicia Wang; Art direction: Alice Chua
Dipa Swaminathan has the contact numbers of between 20 and 30 migrant workers stored in her mobile phone. That’s because she freely gives out her details to them, and urges them to call her if they run into trouble.
And they do. Dipa has received calls asking for advice about unpaid salaries, injury claims, and even run-ins with the law. When this happens, she contacts employers and writers to authorities to get these workers the help they need.
You could say that Dipa became an advocate for migrant workers by accident. In 2014, while driving her son to tennis practice on a rainy afternoon, she passed a construction site where a group of workers was wearing garbage bags for raincoats. A supervisor stood in a sheltered area some distance away, holding an umbrella. The 46-year-old assistant general counsel for telco Singtel was insensed. “These guys were soaked because the garbage bags did nothing to cover them” she recalls. She pulled over and spoke to the workers in Tamil, asking them the name of the company they worked for. Then she snapped a picture of them with her mobile phone.
She knew it was a long shot, but she called up the company and threatened to take the photo to the authorities, press, and social media if the workers weren’t given proper wet-weather gear. She recalls having the phone slammed down on her. But it seems her message got through. When it poured the next day, Dipa drove back to the same spot, and saw that the workers were kitted out in raincoats, hats and boots. It was a small victory, but it showed her that her voice had made a difference.
She doesn’t just talk, she acts on it
Photography: Frenchescar Lim; Assisted by Phyllicia Wang; Art direction: Alice Chua
Growing up in Bangalore in India, Dipa has always had a strong sense of justice. She visited people in slums and taught them English, as well as volunteered at an animal shelter. Eventually, she went on to study law, with the aim of being able to help others fix their problems. That instinct to speak up did not quieten even after she moved to Singapore for work in 1995. When she found out that trees in a heritage area were to be cut down, she wrote a forum letter to The Straits Times asking authorities to reconsider the decision.
But the violent riots in Little India in 2013 opened her eyes to a bigger problem. “Foreign workers were already a marginalised community in Singapore, but when these riots happened, I felt like they became even more maligned. Though it was just a few who rioted, the whole community was painted with the same brush,” says Dipa. Unlike domestic helpers – whom she felt had strong social support groups – no one was speaking up for these migrant workers.
Taking care of the basics
So in 2015, she started It’s Raining Raincoats, a movement that encourages people to carry a raincoat and distribute it to migrant workers they meet, whenever the situation calls for it. It’s since expanded beyond ensuring workers are properly kitted out for wet weather. Dipa now works with about 25 Starbucks outlets to distribute leftover food every week to some 500 migrant workers, rather than have the unwanted items chucked. Besides taking care of these basic needs, Dipa also canvasses funds to buy prepaid data cards so the workers can call home – especially on special occasions like Deepavali. Last year, she spent $10,000 on these cards. “Just as we have emotional needs, they’re no different,” says Dipa.
And It’s Raining Raincoats is not stopping there. Dipa recently added social activities to the mix – introducing yoga sessions at migrant workers’ recreational centres at various locations, organising cricket matches so these workers have a chance to relax and have fun, and holding potluck sessions to encourage volunteers to bond with the workers over a meal. For Dipa, the name It’s Raining Raincoats has taken on new meaning. “It’s not only something physical, but also protection against harsh forces,” she says, adding that she hopes her work can normalise interactions between Singaporeans and migrant workers. Volunteer Anchal Jain, 46, says, “Dipa shows us there are simple solutions to the issues we see, but most of us don’t step out of our comfort zone. People do want to help, but there’s the awkwardness and not knowing how to go about doing it.”
But Dipa never let a lack of resources stop her. In fact, she was on her own for the first year after setting up It’s Raining Raincoats, before volunteers came on board thanks to social media and word of mouth. “We all have the time, it’s just how we use it. Put yourself in the shoes of others less fortunate – it’s one way to drum up the will to act,” she says.
Over the past three years, about 8,000 raincoats and 5,000 water bottles have been distributed to migrant workers across Singapore. For galvanising the community, It’s Raining Raincoats was named the Kampong Spirit winner at last year’s President’s Volunteerism & Philanthropy Awards.
Going above and beyond
It’s unsurprising, then, that this is a cause that has grown close to Dipa’s heart, and one that she goes above and beyond for.
She recalls one incident early on when she gave her phone number to a pair of workers, urging them to call her if they ran into any problems. Three months later, she got a call from the police regarding one of the workers. He had attempted suicide and hers was the only number they could find on his phone. When she visited him at the Institute of Mental Health, he told her that he had not been paid a salary in six months, and had been driven to desperation because he was unable to send money home. “That was a real eye-opener for me,” Dipa says.
After assuring the worker that she would do something, she went straight to the police and explained the worker’s situation, emphasising that the real culprit was his employer. Charges against the worker for his attempted suicide were later dropped, and he was paid what he was due. A month later, he came to her doorstep fully recovered to thank her.
Dipa is also passionate about helping migrant workers know their rights, and understanding what they’re entitled to.
For example, after reading the news about a foreign worker who died on the job while pruning a tree, she took it upon herself to help his family. She went to his employer and the Ministry of Manpower to secure a full insurance payout, which his family would depend on to survive. She also made sure the company continued to pay his salary until the insurance money came in.
Not every day brings triumphs. Dipa recalls an incident in which a worker suffered a neck injury while cutting up steel rods. He came to her for help, but there was nothing she could do. “He was told to operate the machine at a higher speed when one hit him, but the company alleged that it was caused by a pre-existing condition,” says Dipa. “There were no cameras, and the other two men there were sent back [home], so there were no witnesses. He couldn’t prove it.” In such situations, when she can’t get an ideal outcome, she does feel like she’s let them down. But she knows she has to soldier on. “For a few days, I feel blue and frustrated, but there’s always the next person to help and more to be done,” Dipa adds.
People need to see that migrant workers are just like them
Photo: It’s Raining Raincoats/Facebook
Dipa hopes It’s Raining Raincoats can achieve two things first, to help people become more aware of these workers and the challenges they face; and second, to show migrant workers that Singaporeans care about them.
She and her volunteers are convinced it will not take long for people to see how gracious these men are, if only they could spend a little time with them.
“The workers are very polite. They never rush for the items, even when I tell them that my supplies might not be enough for them,” says volunteer Jocelyn Lim, 62, adding that they don’t ask for seconds. Elizabeth Pang, 36, adds that volunteering with the initiative has made her more empathetic. “When I see the workers braving the weather and working in filty environments, I am more ready to reach out to them by offering cold drinks, food or just greeting them,” she says.
Even Dipa’s young sons, aged 11 and 13, are on board – as she takes them with her to do food drops and meet with workers. “Unlike in other countries, you don’t see a lot of poverty here,” she says. “I want them to grow up feeling that they should help people in need whenever they can, and these are some of the people here who deserve a lot of sympathy.”
Of course, Dipa continues to make sure that the work they do gains traction online, by sharing photos on social media. She hopes it will inspire more people to do what she does, and create similar communities. “If you are passionate or feel strongly about a cause, start small and don’t shy away from challenges. Stay committed, and take it step by step,” she advises. She also hopes her work will act as a subtle reminder to bosses to treat their workers better. “When worksite supervisors see the public donating to the workers, they naturally take better care of them, because they know people are watching and are interested in the well-being of these guys,” she explains.
In September, Dipa will complete a week-long Harvard Business School executive education programme on social enterprise initiatives in Boston. Handpicked by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the Harvard Singapore Foundation for a scholarship, she hopes to learn how to broaden outreach and take It’s Raining Raincoats further. Seeking funding to employ at least one full-time staff member is also within her goals.
At the end of the day, Dipa just wants people to embrace this invisible group of individuals who are building our city. “They are among the neediest people in our society. We can keep an eye out for them in small ways,” she says. “Learning to empathise and connect with others makes us a kinder, more evolved community.”
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This story was originally published in the July 2018 issue of Her World.