Photo Essay

Behind the success of our cosmopolitan city today, the men who built our nation with bricks and stones are often forgotten. Even though they sacrificed their sweat and blood building our nation’s infrastructure, Singaporeans are guilty of neglecting and taking their existence for granted. Considering the Little India riot in December last year, the plight of migrant workers is under the spotlight of late.

Jerald Chan checked out a restaurant offering free meals to these migrant workers from India and Bangladesh to help them offset living expenses. It’s a small gesture, but a giant step in recognizing and affirming the unsung heroes.


Isthana Restaurant is just one of the 2 humble venues under the ‘Cuff Road Food Programme’ by TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too), a non-profit organization in Singapore that helps to improve the lives of low-wage transient workers. It is not exactly a soup kitchen, but rather a food programme that serves free meals to transient workers. The free meals are available at Isthana Restaurant on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Another restaurant, Sutha’s, provides these meals on the rest of the days.


TWC2 also helps the often-neglected low-wage or neglected workers to seek help from appropriate authorities over cases such as injury compensations and wage disputes. It is spearheaded by Debbie Fordyce (left), a Singaporean who moved here from America.


Meet 27-year-old Moments (real name provided), a transient worker who has been visiting the restaurant for the past 2 weeks. His friendliness helped to ease the awkwardness as he warmly invited me to join him at the table and even offered me his only can of drink from the free meal.


Out of work for 2 months due to an injury, Moments was asked by his friend to seek help from TWC2. He got a cut from what he calls an ‘angle cutter’, and his left hand can no longer lift any heavy objects. Unable to do work, the company he works for has not paid him for a couple of months. Moments stunned me with a question, “What is happiness to you?” He continued to tell me that happiness to him was simple – to live a healthy life, and have enough money to support his family.


Khokon, a 26-year-old worker, has been out of work since his arm got crushed by a heavy object, rendering it almost useless in an environment which involves lots of physical work. He’s still waiting for his company to pay him his salary owed over 2 months. He said, “The boss is very nice. It’s the supervisors who are mean.”


This is Akmar, a friendly 32-year-old worker who has been out of work for more than a year. He has 4 fingers on his right hand, and broke both his left and right shoulder in an accident. Now on a ‘special pass’, he can no longer work.

Akmar got his fingers and arm cut from a lift’s wire cable during a regular lift upgrading construction. He does not regret coming to Singapore, because he had no other choice back home then. He mentions that in order to leave Bangladesh and come to Singapore, most people have to pay an agency a figure around $6,000. Since the average pay of a fully-fit construction worker is about $500-$600 monthly, what they have paid to the agency was obscene and did not make any sense.


When asked about his future plans, Akmar teared. His wish right now is to get well quickly and go back home to start afresh and work to provide for his children again. He intends to set up a small provision shop. However, he’s waiting to recover in Singapore, which requires him to go through more treatments. According to Akmar, the doctors said his treatments have been unpaid.


It seems like the people who are willing to help are not even born and bred in Singapore. This Indian man (who did not wish to be named) helped an Indonesian maid who was distressed and afraid to contact local authorities, although he didn’t know her at all. They then found out that her employers had been abusing her.

In our fast-paced and competitive society, it seems like most of us are apathetic to what others are growing through. These transient workers risk everything they have to come to our country to make a living, and in the process help create our country’s infrastructure and advance to a first-world city. And yet when they are injured and vulnerable, their employers turn their backs on them. What gives?

But these workers are not spiteful or angry with an axe to grind.

We’ve come to realize that they merely want to have their rightful wages paid, and simply return home to their families.