Deepavali a celebration of hope this year for migrant workers in dormitories

Migrant worker Karthikeyan (right) having lunch with his colleagues at the dormitory during the Deepavali celebrations at Westlite Mandai dorm on Nov 4, 2021. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY
Westlite residents praying together in their dormitory during the Deepavali celebrations at Westlite Mandai dorm on Nov 4, 2021. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY
Westlite residents each received a goodie bag as part of the Deepavali celebrations, on Nov 4, 2021. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - On most days, Mr Mathiyalagan Karthikeyan has simple meals consisting of vegetables, curry and rice.

But on Thursday (Nov 4), the 38-year-old migrant worker from India forked out an additional $20, buying 1.5kg of flower crab to cook curry in his dormitory unit.

Sitting on the floor of the classroom-sized unit at Westlite Mandai dormitory, Mr Karthikeyan and three of his co-workers, who live together, celebrated Deepavali with a spread of crab, fish and mutton.

The celebrations traditionally mark the spiritual victory of light over darkness.

But for Mr Karthikeyan and friends, it was a celebration of hope as well.

"Last year during Deepavali, all we could do was stay in the room," he said.

"We couldn't buy much food and cooked very little. But this year is very different. This year, we have hope."

Because of pandemic restrictions last year, migrant workers were largely confined only to their dormitory rooms and workplaces.

The minimarts in the dormitory compounds were also closed for several periods, with surging numbers of Covid-19 infections offering a bleak outlook for many of the workers.

But now, migrant workers in the dormitories can visit nearby recreation centres to meet and eat with friends, and travel to places such as Little India under a programme that allows for 3,000 vaccinated workers to do so each week.

Their movements are still restricted, and they are required to take Covid-19 antigen rapid tests before and after the visits.

However, Mr Karthikeyan sees the easing of restrictions as a light at the end of a tunnel, and is optimistic because of news about borders reopening.

He said he has worked in Singapore for 13 years, and has not seen his parents in Tamil Nadu, India, in six years.

"I miss them very much, and am hopeful that I'll be able to go back to visit them soon," he said.

"I'm also hoping that by Chinese New Year next year, we can celebrate with even lesser restrictions, and maybe not have to wear masks anymore."

Mr Karthikeyan is one of some 4,000 workers living at the Westlite Mandai dormitory, which is managed by Centurion.

The dorm operator had organised activities for the workers on Deepavali, giving out goodie bags - worth a total of $750,000 - to each of the 28,000 workers residing across their nine dormitories.

Items in the goodie bags included food, drinks, mobile top-up cards and vouchers. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Each bag consisted of food and mobile top-up cards, and was sponsored by Ajmal Group, Centurion Global, Geenet, ISO Delight, Singtel, StarHub and TPG Telecom.

The workers also took part in games such as darts.

Centurion said the activities were part of a stepped return to pre-pandemic leisure activities, with safe distancing and crowd controls in place.

Westlite residents participate in games activities during the Deepavali celebrations at Westlite Mandai dorm on Nov 4, 2021. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

The dorm operator had recently been in the news for the incident at its Jalan Tukang dormitory, where workers had alleged neglect and said they were frustrated with a lack of medical care.

Senior Minister of State for Manpower Koh Poh Koon had said in Parliament on Nov 1 that there were shortcomings on the part of all parties involved, including the workers' employer, the dorm operator and the Ministry of Manpower.

But calm has since been restored, and the ministry's Assurance, Care and Engagement Group, which looks after migrant worker dorms here, has tightened up coordination and communication with dorm operators and employers.

Mr Karthikeyan said that while the situation in the dorms is not perfect, he is hopeful that it will get better and understands that the restrictions are there to keep everyone safe.

"Compared with other places, Singapore is much better because there is access to vaccines and medicine, and some workers have also already gotten their third dose," he said.

"There are still a lot of restrictions, so we are not 100 per cent happy. But definitely happier and more hopeful than last year."

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