Home in focus: From one brother to another

Pastor makes daily visits to help migrant workers residing in factory-converted dormitories

Every day, at around 10am, a black sport utility vehicle pulls up in the Tuas View area. Out steps Pastor Samuel Gift Stephen, who arrives for what he calls his "Meet-the-People Sessions" with migrant workers staying in factory-converted dormitories (FCDs) in the area.

The pastor has called this area his second home for the past six weeks.

The 43-year-old is chairman of the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach (AGWO), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that serves as an aggregator for voluntary welfare organisations, corporations and agencies. It provides care including counselling to migrant workers, and also organises activities like sports tournaments and secures venues for English and computer classes for them.

Since Good Friday on April 10, AGWO has distributed 450,000 meals across 96 FCDs.

Going on foot through the FCDs, Reverend Stephen speaks to the residents who are to him more vulnerable than their peers staying in the bigger, purpose-built dormitories, which have better infrastructure and are better managed.

The daily visiting routine has helped him build trust and rapport with the residents. "They'd rather suffer in silence than whistle-blow," he says, referring to the workers' fear that they would lose their jobs if they make any complaints about living conditions.

While the pastor and the residents now refer to each other as brothers, they were initially suspicious of him, opening up only after his third or fourth visit.

The pastor says he hopes to bridge the gap between the guest workers, as he prefers to call them, and the employers, dormitory operators and government agencies. "It is the responsibility of the employers to feed their workers, but some have not even come down to the dorms since the circuit breaker started."

On the flip side, there are companies that are unable to feed their employees because of the economic impact from the Covid-19 outbreak. They have approached AGWO for help, instead of leaving their workers in the lurch.

 Reverend Samuel Gift Stephen checking in on guest workers staying in factory-converted dormitories mostly in the Tuas View area, where he also helps with ration deliveries and follows up on workers' welfare. He has been spending 10 to 12 hours
Rev Stephen spending time with his daughters Emmanuella (left), four, and Daniella, two, before leaving his home in northern Singapore for another day of work. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

 Reverend Samuel Gift Stephen checking in on guest workers staying in factory-converted dormitories mostly in the Tuas View area, where he also helps with ration deliveries and follows up on workers' welfare. He has been spending 10 to 12 hours
Ambulances ferrying workers for swab tests are a common sight at the dormitories. When the workers see their peers leave, it can have an impact on their mental health, says Rev Stephen. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

 Reverend Samuel Gift Stephen checking in on guest workers staying in factory-converted dormitories mostly in the Tuas View area, where he also helps with ration deliveries and follows up on workers' welfare. He has been spending 10 to 12 hours
Rev Stephen bidding goodbye to Mr Rubel Mohammud, a 34-year-old Bangladeshi, after a quick chat during a lunch drop-off. Mr Rubel is one of the first few guest workers the pastor befriend. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Towards the end of Rev Stephen's sessions, volunteers from AGWO arrive in batches to deliver lunch to the residents. He makes it a point to ask them how they feel about their meals, and works closely with caterers to make sure the food is cooked accordingly.

"We let them provide feedback on the food so that we can try matching the palates of different dorms," he says. "It's a high standard which we take seriously. We believe the meals are the one thing they can look forward to every day."

The pastor usually skips lunch, then heads out to do what he calls "dorm hunting", in which he goes around looking for guest workers in need. He usually bases his routes on leads from other workers, but also divides areas into sections and tries to find smaller dormitories in every nook and cranny.

Once, while in the car, he got lost in a corner of Tuas and stumbled on a dorm where some 200 workers had not had a proper meal for two days, surviving only on biscuits and chips.

"Dorm hunting" usually lasts till 10pm, and during Ramadan, after a quick dinner and short time back home with his wife and daughters, he leaves again to help his team make sure that food deliveries leave on time. It is usually right before the sun comes up that he is home again.

 Reverend Samuel Gift Stephen checking in on guest workers staying in factory-converted dormitories mostly in the Tuas View area, where he also helps with ration deliveries and follows up on workers' welfare. He has been spending 10 to 12 hours
To motivate migrant workers in the dormitories to keep fit during the circuit breaker period, a volunteer held a simple push-up competition with residents of two dormitories where the winner won a refurbished iPhone. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

 Reverend Samuel Gift Stephen checking in on guest workers staying in factory-converted dormitories mostly in the Tuas View area, where he also helps with ration deliveries and follows up on workers' welfare. He has been spending 10 to 12 hours
Up till last Saturday during the circuit breaker, Rev Stephen’s days – filled with car rides and phone calls – ended only at 5am to 6am when he returned home from supervising Ramadan meal deliveries. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

 Reverend Samuel Gift Stephen checking in on guest workers staying in factory-converted dormitories mostly in the Tuas View area, where he also helps with ration deliveries and follows up on workers' welfare. He has been spending 10 to 12 hours
Rev Stephen peeking through the metal gate of a construction site in the Tuas area, looking for potential places where migrant workers might be staying. He carries out this “dorm hunting” in various areas on a daily basis to find vulnerable workers who might not be getting adequate food or might be living in unsuitable conditions. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

While providing meals for the guest workers is a primary aspect of AGWO's work at the moment, Rev Stephen hopes to expand on its humanitarian work in the future.

AGWO currently has an Adopt-a-Dorm scheme, where companies, NGOs and even individuals are encouraged not only to help with the food and hygiene needs of individual dorms, but also to care for the workers' mental and emotional well-being. Of the 279 FCDs that AGWO is assisting, 60 have been adopted.

"I want a future where Singaporeans don't look at migrant workers as migrant workers, but as brothers. There's no other country like Singapore that cares for guest workers like we do, but we can do better," Rev Stephen says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 25, 2020, with the headline 'From one brother to another'. Print Edition | Subscribe