Migrant workers build Singapore’s skyscrapers and its five-star hotels. They live alongside the nation’s citizens and are very conspicuous, but the general public knows next to nothing about how they get by in this country they call home. asia! pays a visit to one of the many homes scattered throughout Singapore, that are only increasing in number as the nation opens up to unprecedented numbers of working class migrant workers.
(Left) A packed Chinese chess set dangles from beneath one of six bunk beds in the cramped and squalid room. The men say they often think about playing but apart from having space constraints, they find chess a bit too tiring a game for a day off.
Text and photos by Debby Ng
One of the men who calls this room home, tries to scrape what extra living he can through the collection and sale of used and discarded products. A corner of the room is strewn with his odd collections.
With six people sharing a room, and 30 people sharing a house, there is hardly any space left for anything else. Wet clothes get hung above the beds to dry, contributing to the dank and humid conditions of the room.
A room that is designed to house one person struggles to meet the energy demands of six people. The energy demands don’t simply double for every extra person in the room, it increases exponentially because the greater the energy demand gets, the harder it is for the needs of one person to be met. With such overloaded circuits strung alongside sleeping bodies and upholstery, what was an energy problem easily translates into a safety issue.
Several magnets placed throughout the room advise and warn of fire hazards and safety standards. However, the very fact that 30 people are being housed in a house meant for a sixth of that number, the risk of fire hazards is very real, and safety standards are by all practical considerations, non-existent. The workers are aware of the risks, but they have no choice.
Every niche in the windowless-room is occupied, but clutter is also an attractive environment for critters and vermin. With safety standards out the window, following closely behind are the slack health standards that are inherent in such sordid conditions. Bed bugs are everywhere.
Transient workers in a transient home, mean it’s hard to protect and take care of your valuables, including food. When you toil for $3.50 an hour, a $4 packet of biscuits is a commodity. Having a fridge solves the problem of food storage but adds to the heat and noise in the room. It is uncomfortable to sleep next to a fridge which gets unbearably hot.
Returning to their room after a two hour English lesson at Health Serve Clinic, Lee and Han revise some of the words they learned from class, and pick up new words from reading material they collect such as English language magazines.
Each worker makes do with what space they have. Things have to be moved around regularly. This bed had not been converted into a storage area, when it’s time to sleep, everything gets moved down onto the floor. In the morning, the things get moved back onto the bed so that there will be space to walk.
Lee assures that the roof does not leak, but he admits that he feels it is not too far from that possibility. Above their room, is yet another room cramped with as many people as Lee’s bedroom.
English lessons came into use when Lee and Han were trying to navigate the menu of their second hand DVD player. Han’s English is better than Lee’s so the former gestured the words to highlight and Lee would hit the “enter” button.