Migrant workers, Migrant writers

Migrant workers hope to show more about their lives and cultures through their writing, and change people's views of them

The recent spike in coronavirus infections among migrant workers in Singapore has put a spotlight on the living conditions of a foreign workforce long invisible to many.

Among the more than 10,000 workers who have tested positive for Covid-19 is poet Zakir Hossain Khokan, 41, a Bangladeshi construction supervisor who was living at dormitory Cochrane Lodge II when he contracted the disease.

Zakir, a former freelance journalist, is a two-time winner of the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition and founder of One Bag, One Book, a book-sharing movement among migrant workers.

On the morning of April 16, he began feeling sick. After he got in touch with a Ministry of Manpower officer he knew, he was taken by ambulance to Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, where he has been warded since.

Over the telephone from the hospital, Zakir recalls how he grew too weak to sit up when waiting to see a doctor and had to be given a bed.

"All night, my whole body was in pain and I had a very high fever," he says. "I could not sleep, but I could not open my eyes."

He is now feeling better. "The doctors and nurses have taken good care of me."

Zakir, who is married with a nine-year-old son, says his family kept crying when he told them the news.

"So many calls kept coming. I could not answer, I was too sick."

They have since begged him to return to Bangladesh for good once he recovers. He first came to work in Singapore in 2003.

"Of course I want to go home," he says, "but I need to wait and see what will happen to the economy after Covid-19."

In the days before he fell ill, he was volunteering with grassroots initiatives to rally donations for workers restricted from leaving their dormitories during circuit breaker measures and organise the distribution of supplies, such as masks and sanitisers, to them.

"This is a national crisis," he says, "so we were thinking we should all do what we can to help."

He hopes that during the circuit breaker, more people will take the time to read literature, especially works by migrant writers, to learn more about their cultures and lives.

"We want our writing to change locals' views of migrants and also migrants' views of themselves," he says.

"All everyone thinks is that we do dirty, dangerous and difficult work. But we can also be poets, photographers, film-makers. We can be inspired by what we do."

Here are seven books that will shed some light on the many dimensions of migrant worker life here, written by workers themselves.

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Edited by Rolinda Onates Espanola, Zakir Hossain Khokan and Joshua Ip

$19, from

A first-of-its-kind anthology - edited by Singaporean Ip, Espanola from the Philippines and Zakir from Bangladesh - that pairs works by more than 30 migrants, most of them low-wage transient workers, with poems written in response by locals.

Singapore Writers Festival director Pooja Nansi blacks out words from Filipina Rea Maac's Scarecrow, in a visual representation of society's erasure of the foreign domestic worker.

Meanwhile, Bikas Nath recalls the books that filled his schoolbag in Bangladesh and laments how, as a foreign worker, his bag no longer has a place for books, even as Ann Ang writes of Singapore: "Our nation is a book/but we have no time to read."


By Md Mukul Hossine

$12.84 from or $20 from (fund-raiser)

This was the first poetry collection by a migrant worker to be brought out by a Singapore publisher.

The poems were originally written in Bengali by Mukul during breaks in his construction work, sometimes scribbled on cement packaging, and later "transcreated" by Singapore Literature Prizewinning poet Cyril Wong based on English translations.

Mukul, who went back home to Bangladesh to visit his sick father before Covid-19 travel restrictions kicked in, is now selling copies of Me Migrant and his second collection, Braving Life (2017), as well as his paintings, to raise funds as part of a project to feed the poor affected by the Covid-19 shutdown in his village.


By Omar Faruque Shipon

$15, from

This collection of short stories by Omar, a Bangladeshi shipyard safety coordinator, ranges from tales of a worker missing his father's funeral back home to a mother's sorrow at her migrant son for trying to lie to her over speaker-phone.


Edited by Karien van Ditzhuijzen

$16.05, from

Domestic workers from Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar and India share their stories of leaving home to work in Singapore in this anthology, from tales of salary deductions and starvation to unexpected bonds and dreams realised.

It was published by non-profit organisation Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home).


By Md Sharif Uddin

$19.90, from

Bangladeshi safety supervisor Sharif won the Best Non-Fiction title at the 2018 Singapore Book Awards for this memoir.

It is based on more than 100 diary entries and poems that the former bookshop owner had penned since arriving here in 2008 to work in construction.

Edited by Singaporean poet Theophilus Kwek, the entries run the gamut from sorrow at the crushed dreams of migrants to anger at bosses who ill-treat their workers.


Edited by Vanessa Lim

$25, from

This anthology gathers 31 poems across six languages from two years of the annual Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, many of them verses of longing and lament. It was published by non-profit organisation Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).


By Shy Lhen Esposo

$16, from

This novel by Shy - the pen name of Filipino domestic worker Belen R. Esposo - is a modern Cinderella story about a girl who becomes a breadwinner for her family at a young age and tries to escape the abuse of her stepfather.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2020, with the headline Migrant workers, Migrant writers . Subscribe