Friendship Beyond Borders
I first met my friend, Hanif, in 2016. Hanif came in Singapore in 2006 from Bangladesh, and has worked here as a town council conservancy cleaner since.
Like many other conservancy cleaners, Hanif worked for years in Singapore without returning to his home country. Also, like many other conservancy cleaners, he worked for years without any rest day.
In 2018, Hanif was able to return home to get married. He was also able to bring his wife to Singapore to visit for a short period. Being well-loved by residents and the generous soul that he was, Hanif organised a barbeque party to introduce his wife, Tania, to the residents whose estate he helped clean.
I got to know Tania while she was in Singapore. We couldn’t speak much with each other because of the language barrier. But language was no obstacle to us forming a warm connection and genuine friendship.
When news came that Tania was expecting, we accompanied Hanif to Bangladesh so that he could witness the birth of his first child, Alameen. There, we met Alameen, and Hanif and Tania’s respective families. We celebrated Alameen’s birth with them.
Hanif was able to meet and carry his child. But many other cleaners and migrant workers in Singapore do not have that privilege.
With the help of the town council and the team at Citizen Adventures, we organised a lunch for the families of the town council cleaners in Bangladesh to show appreciation for the cleaners’ contributions. We were incredibly grateful for some of the families who had to set out before dawn from their hometowns to reach Dhaka by lunch time. At the same time in Singapore, we gathered the cleaners for a meal and set up a video link between Bangladesh and Singapore.
Over the course of the meal, the cleaners would speak with their families over the video link. I was stunned when I realised that many of the children, some of whom were six or seven years old, had never met their fathers in person. I had met, hugged, and carried these children even before their fathers had.
Many of these men have made incredible sacrifices to provide for their families. Likewise, their families have lost precious time with their sons, husbands, brothers, and fathers.
A journalist accompanied us on the trip to Bangladesh and Hanif’s story was featured in a short documentary. Tania shared in the documentary, “Sometimes I think, if he can come back to Bangladesh, how amazing that would be. I feel sad and I miss his presence. However reality is very tough, so he has to work hard abroad for us. I have compromised and accepted this. Obviously I feel sad for my son, that he will be deprived of his dad’s love and affection.”
In Singapore, I work with a team of volunteers to organise quarterly outings for the cleaners to show appreciation for their work and more importantly, so that they have some time to rest. These have included outings to Kusu Island, the Singapore Flyer and East Coast Park. Every year, we also “lohei” together during the Lunar New Year and take Hippobus rides to see the Christmas light-up at Orchard Road. These come nowhere close, however, to making up for the sacrifices that these men have made to work here.
The least we can do is to make sure that our workers have adequate rest and are adequately protected by our labour laws. Many low-wage migrant workers pay exorbitant agent fees to work in Singapore. It is not unheard of for workers to pay agent fees of more than S$10,000 to secure jobs in Singapore. For low-wage migrant workers who face issues such as illegal kickbacks, illegal salary deductions, and poor working conditions under errant employers, the choices available to them are stark – speak up and risk being repatriated while still paying off debts incurred to pay their agent fees, or stay silent and hopefully keep their jobs.
It is no wonder that many choose to stay silent. These are issues that affect not just cleaners, but other low-wage migrant workers in other sectors, including migrant domestic workers.
There are many organisations that do wonderful work with workers including Healthserve, TWC2, HOME, the COVID-19 Migrant Support Coalition, and Justice Without Borders. There is no shortage of avenues where lawyers, or any individual for that matter, can contribute.
Hanif shared in a Facebook post in 2017, “I came here to Singapore from my home country Bangladesh in October of 2006 with the aim of securing a job to send home some money to improve the quality of life for my family back in Bangladesh.”
He said, “After a few years working here, I have [built]up good relations with the [residents]. They appreciate the work that I do, in helping to keep the place clean and green, and I’m very grateful for the appreciation they show me. The smiles they give me when I walk past the [residents] and the small talks we have like thank you and all of that makes my heart really touched and I want to serve the estate as their cleaner.”
Alameen will be turning four this year. Hanif has watched his son grow through his phone screen. I have watched Alameen grow into a cheeky young boy through photos and videos that Hanif and Tania regularly send me. With the lifting of travel restrictions, Hanif is hopeful of meeting Alameen and Tania again soon. Other cleaners have shared with me similar hopes.
There is no replacing the time these workers have lost with their families. But there is much we can do to take care of these workers who have contributed so much to our homes and country.
When at midnight, I wake up alone
I turn on each side as if to search for something.
Cell phone, pen, notebook and pillow –
They lie by my side with restless eagerness,
Counting the hours till I occupy myself with them.
My darling’s laughter outside the door tinkering to my senses.
It rings repeatedly with immense joy.
I can smell her tousled hair,
a pinch of sensation within my dream.
My hand trembles, my sleepy emotions shudder.
I lose myself in the sea of deserted memories.
Sometimes I dream of my darling’s touch.
Forgetting everything else,
I submerge myself in the heart of the Jamuna River
I lose myself as I go deeper and deeper
I embrace my darling and hold the edge of her saree
close to my heart
And I drift away in the bottomless ocean.
Late this morning I left the bed.
I looked on the wall and saw your portrait,
Your untied hair brushing by the wall.
It seems you’ve been in my room.
Our souls too close, rafting on dreams
I look at your abashed eye and you feel faint
Tremors in the heart covered by shame
I found myself alone on the edge of bed.
The sunlight blinks on the window frame,
I imagined, you, leaving in sunshine.
– From “Me Migrant”, Md Mukul Hossine
Originally written in Bengali and translated by Cyril Wong