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Spreading ripples of kindness to migrant workers

Asia One, Singapore, 20 May 2017 - THERE is a saying, 'You can't change the world, but you can change the world for one person'.

Ms Dipa Swaminathan (left) is inspired by it and she follows it in her efforts to improve the welfare and champion the rights of migrant workers in Singapore.

It all started in May 2014 when the now 45-year-old assistant general counsel at Singtel saw two migrant workers standing in the rain when she was driving near Turf City.

Seeing that they were soaking wet, she invited them to take shelter in her house, offered them something to eat and gave them some of her husband's old clothes to change into.

She spoke to them in Tamil and was appalled that their employer let them out in the rain with no raincoats.








In the spirit of giving...foreign workers in donated raincoats. Photo: Facebook/ItsrainingraincoatsIt made her want to spread the news of their tough working conditions, so she took pictures of the workers, posted them on her Facebook page, and advocated for companies to give raincoats to migrant workers.



While the workers were afraid they might get into trouble since their pictures were posted online, she gave them her number and told them to call her if anyone troubled them.

A few months later, she got a call from the police informing her that one of them had attempted suicide and the only number he had on him was hers.

"They asked me if I would be willing to post bail for him so I went to the police station in Jurong and signed the papers," said Ms Swaminathan, a permanent resident here.

She went to the Institute of Mental Health to visit him and found out that he tried to commit suicide because his employer had not paid him his salary for months and his family needed money desperately back in India.

"I spoke to the police officers and sent them emails, explaining to them that they should be going after his employer, who drove him to this state. Within 10 days, they dropped all charges against him, got his employer to pay him all his wages and a month later, he was at my doorstep again all happy and recovered. His wife even called me from India to thank me," said Ms Swaminathan, who is from Bengaluru, and has lived here for two decades.

The incident made her realise how, with a little time and effort, she could make a "concrete difference" to someone's life.

"I don't need an organisation, it's just a few minutes or hours of my time and I can make a difference to someone who is down and out," she said.

Tie-up with the Singapore Kindness Movement

A year later, in 2015, the story of the two migrant workers went viral when The People of Singapore - a group which tells the stories of everyday Singaporeans - found out about her deed and interviewed her.

The Singapore Kindness Movement learned about it and decided to work with her to do something for migrant workers on a larger scale.

They brainstormed some ideas and settled on giving raincoats to migrant workers.

Said Dr William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement: "It was natural that we made contact with her and offered to assist and amplify her efforts.

Having met up with her, we saw her passion and hence supported her with the distribution of raincoats. Also, the particular kindness she started falls right within an area that the Singapore Kindness Movement has been concerned about for some time now - migrant workers in need."




Ms Swaminathan distributing excess food items from Starbucks outlets to workers. Photo: Facebook/Itsrainingraincoats




The Singapore Kindness Movement donated 5,000 raincoats to migrant workers and also donated a raincoat when someone donated one to the workers, took a picture of them with the raincoat and hashtagged it #itsrainingraincoats on social media.

Apart from working with the Singapore Kindness Movement in early 2016 to distribute them in Little India, Ms Swaminathan kept raincoats in her car and pulled over to hand them over to the workers whenever she saw them.

To facilitate the distribution of raincoats for the campaign, she started a facebook page - itsrainingraincoats.

Till today, whenever she is driving and sees workers standing in the rain, she will pull over and give them raincoats, which she keeps in her car.

Said Ms Swaminathan: "Once I saw workers wearing garbage bags as raincoats while their supervisor was comfortably standing in a sheltered area.

I got the number of the construction company, called them and said that 'I have photos, videos of the scene and I will upload it on social media and send it to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), if you don't give them raincoats'.

"Although the person was rude and hung up on me, the next day when I drove by again when it was raining, the workers had shiny yellow raincoats and rain boots on."

She added: "It's a simple act of kindness to give a migrant worker a raincoat. By doing so, we're showing compassion, acknowledging them as people and empathising with them.

People often drive by in cars or taxis and might see them slaving away in the rain, heat or haze but nobody pays attention to them. Many people do not realise that they are people with needs and we should treat them the way we like to be treated ourselves."

Last year, Lasalle College of the Arts heard about her raincoat project from one of their staff members and decided to work with her to get their final-year diploma in fashion design students to design raincoats for migrant workers for their social cause-related project.

They are now looking for sponsors to mass produce raincoats in the winning design, which will then be distributed to the workers.

Going beyond raincoats

Ms Swaminathan is not just sticking to distributing raincoats to workers.

The mother of two sons, 12 and 10, is also always thinking of ideas to help the workers.

She had gone to buy coffee from Starbucks at Singapore Polytechnic last year in June when she saw staff preparing to throw away unsold food as it was closing time.

"Just as they were about to do that, I asked them whether I could distribute the food, which was of perfectly good quality, to migrant workers I had seen doing road works nearby.

"They agreed and handed me two bags of pastries, muffins and sandwiches, all warmed up. I then handed over the bags to the migrant workers. As I turned to walk off after handing them the food, I saw them sitting on the pavement, happily snacking," said Ms Swaminathan who posted pictures of them with the treats on the itsrainingraincoats page.

In the post that got more than 2,900 shares, she added that she would like to do this every Saturday at 4pm, when the outlet at the polytechnic closes.

Starbucks picked up on it and now Ms Swaminathan, along with a pool of volunteers, works with 18 Starbucks outlets here to give unsold food to migrant workers every Saturday. While the amount of food varies each week, she said on average, there is enough for at least 150 migrant workers.










Dipa Swaminathan reaches out to migrant workers through various welfare projects. Photo: Tabla!




"You will never see a migrant worker going into Starbucks to buy a pastry or muffin for himself. It's food that they can't afford, so it's really nice to be able to give them a treat at the end of their working week on a Saturday," said Ms Swaminathan.

While she used to collect the food and distribute it at worksites, she doesn't do it anymore as she has a regular group of 40 volunteers. "We have a Whatsapp group and I usually post the schedules and projects and the volunteers reply either saying they can or cannot make it," said Ms Swaminathan, adding that people reach out to her via the itsrainingraincoats Facebook page from time to time, expressing an interest in volunteering with her.

Ms Jocelyn Lim is one of those who reached out to her via the Facebook page after reading about her efforts to help migrant workers in The Straits Times in 2015.

Ms Lim, 62, collects unsold food from Starbucks outlets at Capitol Tower and OCBC Centre every Saturday afternoon, drives to find worksites and hands the food to the workers.

She has also worked with Ms Swaminathan on the Singapore Kindness Movement project to distribute raincoats. Said Ms Lim, a real estate agent: "They don't have a lot of money to spend but they are not greedy. Sometimes I might forget their faces and give them raincoats for a second time but instead of taking it they will tell me they already have it."

Apart from those who reach out to Ms Swaminathan via Facebook, she also gathers her family members, her friends and their children for her projects.

In 2015, she raised $1,500 from friends and put in $640 from her savings to buy $10 phonecards for migrant workers. "I figured that they are alone here and need to be in touch with their families back home and the only way to do that is with the phone. Now we have Wifi and all but the luxury of a phone call is quite special and it costs them money to call home," said Ms Swaminathan, who was joined by her sons, her husband and a group of her friends and their children at Little India for the distribution on Deepavali day.

"It was a huge success then. All the phonecards were gone within 15 minutes when people realised what we were giving out." She did this again during Deepavali last year. She and her group of volunteers distributed over $5,000 worth of phonecards. "It was pouring on the morning of Deepavali last year, yet there were many volunteers who joined us under umbrellas," she said.

A match to remember

In March this year, she organised a cricket match between the team at her sons' school, the United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA), and migrant workers.

Said Ms Swaminathan: "I contacted MOM and requested them to put me in touch with foreign worker ambassadors. Through the ambassadors, they formed a cricket team on the migrant workers' side. They were very excited and were there four hours before the start of the match."

It was held on the grounds of UWCSEA and saw great response.

"Many of the foreign workers didn't have sports shoes so we did a shoe collection drive among the parents at the school. They also donated food and drinks for the match," said Ms Swaminathan, adding that the school was thrilled with the outcome and plans to host a match with the workers every year.

For Mr Prabakaran, a construction worker who helped to form the migrant worker's team and participated in the match, that day in March will be etched in his mind "for life".

"It was a new experience for all of us and we had so much fun. Everyone shook our hands and cheered us on during the match. We come so far away from home but we feel important."

The 34-year-old from Tiruchirappalli added that he is thankful to Ms Swaminathan not only for organising the cricket match but also for the shoe donation drive.




Migrant worker's vs UWCSEA cricket team. Photo: Facebook/Itsrainingraincoats




"I still use the sports shoes every day, when I'm not using my safety boots at work," said Mr Prabakaran.

Even though Ms Swaminathan has expanded her efforts beyond giving raincoats to migrant workers, she is not planning to change the name of the initiative - itsrainingraincoats.

"I've thought about it but I feel that it's already got a bit of an identity and if I change it, I will have to re-create that awareness. Maybe we can look at raincoats philosophically as a form of protection, not just as a plastic cover from rain, but a form of protection from hardships. Maybe in that sense, it will still be relevant," she said.

As a lawyer and mother to two young boys, many people often ask her: "Where do you find time to plan and do all these things?"

Her answer to them?

"I always say it doesn't take up much time. It's just a bit of coordination on the phone or on social media and if I do any running around, I do it on weekends. It's not a challenge and I don't feel like it's a drain, although I'm never idle and I'm always rushing around," said Ms Swaminathan.

While she may have unconsciously cut down on some things she used to do like shopping, she still finds time to read, socialise and spend time with her sons and husband, a senior director at a semiconductor company here.

Despite her efforts to reach out to migrant workers, she feels there is still a lot to be done.

She hopes to "bridge the gap between where we are now and where we can say that all migrant workers are humanely treated and looked after and they really don't face everyday injustices".

"I don't think Singapore would be what it is without these workers who leave their homes to work here. Nobody else will build these skyscrapers, dig these underground tunnels, sweep our roads. They make a huge contribution and to ensure that they are housed well, fed well, treated well and kept free from injury and illness is not too much to ask for," said Ms Swaminathan.

Dr Wan commended her and said that "efforts (not just those directed at migrant workers) like Dipa's are exactly what the Singapore Kindness Movement hopes to inspire and see more of - 'ordinary' individuals taking ownership and initiating acts of kindness."

Efforts in promoting kindness

AS PART of Kindness Day Singapore on May 19, the Singapore Kindness Movement will be launching an art installation - Garden of Gratitude - at the Singapore Sports Hub.

It will immerse visitors in a bright and cheerful garden, created with 3,000 yellow gerbera windmills.

Participating florists will be encouraging customers to show appreciation through gifting yellow gerberas, which is believed to be a symbol of appreciation.

The Movement's mission is to inspire spontaneous and purposeful acts of kindness and among its various efforts to reach out to people, it produces inspiring videos.

In collaboration with Coca-Cola Singapore, the Singapore Kindness Movement supported the "Happiness from the Skies" initiative in April 2014. It helped provide Singaporeans with the opportunity to show appreciation towards the foreign workers in the community.

In 2015, it created a video that aimed to answer some questions. What causes some Singaporeans to feel entitled to insult foreigners? What do some foreigners feel when they see anti-Singaporean comments made by their countrymen? How do some foreigners feel when Singaporeans tell them to "Go home!"?

And also, how have some Singaporeans shown hospitality and warmth to foreigners?

The Singapore Kindness Movement has also reconfigured its Kindness Gallery at Stamford Court so that more pre-schools can take children on interactive Kindsville tours there.

In the first two weeks of each month, the Gallery is transformed into a child's values-learning hub, as the children pick up good manners while going on an adventure with Singa and the Kindness Cubbies.

The Movement has also started reaching out to parents about their role in inculcating values in their children, and it has received feedback from them that they would like more ideas, opportunities and resources to help them do so.

Said Dr William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement: "The potential multiplier impact if all of us act is exponential. All these, together with our ground-up movements' ongoing initiatives, will hopefully come together in a big celebration of kindness, graciousness and appreciation during Kindness Day Singapore."


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