Written 28 Jun 2013, edited 26 Jun 2014; unpublished

My first time volunteering with Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) was unforgettable because of the one guy I wasn’t able to help. His name was Rahman.

What struck me first was his grin. He came in looking pretty cheerful, maybe even playful. Unlike many of the other faces I’d already seen that night, here was one which hadn’t been ground down by worry or desperation—not yet, anyway. He was probably younger than me. I asked for his card (we have to register every migrant worker before giving him a token to pass to the restaurant); he said he was new here, so he didn’t have one.

So I engaged him in a bit of small talk, asking him about his injury, whether he was seeking treatment. He showed me a huge scar to the right knee from an accident 6 months earlier, and said he’d had treatment in Bangladesh, his home country. Already, things didn’t quite add up—I asked if he’d been seeing a doctor or going to a hospital here, and he said no. As I understood it, TWC2 only provides meals to workers stuck in Singapore, unable to work while waiting for work injury compensation or for wage disputes or (rarely) police complaints to be resolved.

One of the volunteer coordinators passed me a new registration card, and I asked him for a few more details. I asked to see his special pass (a document that allows migrant workers to stay—but not work—here while their issues are being settled), and he said he didn’t have one. He had in-principle approval for his work permit, but couldn’t produce the actual work permit itself. Instead, all he had was what I took to be a pass issued by his employer; later I figured out it was a card from a safety course he’d once attended. But at the time I just copied his details onto the registration card—like a diligent office boy. It’s in my Singaporean blood I guess.

As I filled out the registration card I tried to get more details from him. What date had he arrived in Singapore? Three months ago. Exactly what date? He tried to produce one, and settled on February 20th. When did he stop work? That grin started to disappear. I sensed he was getting anxious—as was I; I had no idea what I should be doing. It seemed like he wasn’t always telling the whole truth. I asked around for help from a more experienced volunteer.
He started questioning Rahman, quite seriously.

How’d he got the injury? Playing cricket (a few faces lit up around the table, and there was an understanding murmur).

When did he stop work? A few weeks ago.

What’d he been doing since then? He was non-committal—I’m guessing he must have been doing odd jobs, a couple days each time, moving from worksite to worksite.

As the questions and answers and advice flowed, Rahman got less confident, shakier, anxious. I think he knew he wasn’t going to get a free meal that easily. (That lure of free food is really universal.) The experienced volunteer started talking about going to the Ministry of Manpower for help or compensation, or to possibly seek approval for a change of employer so he could get more work. This he didn’t seem willing to do—I guess he wanted to continue living off his wits and street smarts as he’d been doing so far (he seemed to be doing just fine), and all he wanted was a meal that night.

Was he doing anything illegal? Quite probably yes, if my guess was anywhere near correct.

Was he doing anything wrong? Not particularly; not by my lights.

I know, I know, he was probably trying to game the system, take advantage of the charity, grab a free dinner and get out, no questions asked. You might think I’m naïve for feeling sorry for Rahman. But I wouldn’t judge him because of that—we’re not placed here to judge others. Would you feel sorry for a kid like that? I think I did, a little. He wasn’t desperate, just playful, and hopeful. But he got a little ground down that night.

I guess, though, there are far worse cases that TWC2 exists to help. And as the attention of the older volunteer turned to other workers around that night, Rahman melted away into the crowd, maybe a little circumspect, or maybe a little resentful—I don’t know.

But there are support networks around. With any luck, his face will have been forgotten when he tries again next time. And his optimism will see him through. I think he’ll do fine.


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