Little India shops look forward to business boost from pilot scheme for migrant workers

Little India shopkeepers have been hit hard by a drastic fall in income as migrant workers were confined to their dormitoriesamid Covid-19.
Little India shopkeepers have been hit hard by a drastic fall in income as migrant workers were confined to their dormitoriesamid Covid-19.PHOTO: NG LOR SUAN

SINGAPORE - For the past year and a half, shopkeepers in Little India have been hit hard by a drastic fall in income as migrant workers who would throng the area on weekends were confined to their dormitories as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Crowds of more than 200,000 workers on a typical pre-pandemic weekend dwindled to just a few thousand who live outside of the dorms, said Mr Ruthirapathy Parthasarathy, honorary secretary of the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association (Lisha).

So the announcement of a long-awaited pilot scheme allowing up to 500 vaccinated migrant workers to visit Little India weekly is music to the ears of businesses.

Mr Ruthirapathy, 52, told The Straits Times that Lisha has been working with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to turn the pilot programme into reality.

Two weeks ago, it held an on-site meeting with MOM to discuss the possibility of having workers visit Little India. Last Saturday, it conducted a site visit with MOM officers, going to Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, Masjid Angullia and various shops in the area.

Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple will extend its visiting hours to accommodate workers in the pilot scheme, said Mr Ruthirapathy.

Meanwhile, arrangements have been made with Masjid Angullia to allocate specific time slots for migrant workers to visit the mosque.

Lisha has also worked with grocers to offer small discounts to migrant workers in anticipation of the scheme's launch, he added.

The plan is to bus workers from their dorms to a designated spot in Tekka Lane. From there, workers will be able to go to the temple or mosque, and then visit nearby grocery shops and eateries.

They will meet back at a pre-appointed spot and return to their dorms once their allocated time is up. MOM said on Thursday that the visits will last from four to six hours.

Mr Ruthirapathy said workers will have some freedom to go where they like, but there will be MOM officers to ensure they stay in the area. "They won't be following them, but they will be there in Little India at the same time," he said.

Announcing the pilot scheme during a visit to Westlite Mandai dormitory on Thursday (Sept 9), Senior Minister of State for Manpower and Health Koh Poh Koon said workers must comply with the same Covid-19 measures as the rest of the community in Little India.

Safe distancing ambassadors, volunteers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will be tapped to keep them safe, he said.

Mr Elango Subramaniam, 50, owner of Gandhi Restaurant in Chander Road, said migrant workers made up 20 per cent to 30 per cent of his business, and he is hopeful the pilot scheme will bring back some sales.

"Definitely, we miss having them around. They add more life to the atmosphere in Serangoon Road and Little India," he said.

Construction worker Islam Shoriful, 35, said the first thing he will do is send money back to Bangladesh. Next on his wish list is a good meal at a restaurant, while keeping strictly to safe distancing measures.

"I would feel so happy because I have not seen my friends for a long time," he told reporters.

Migrant worker NGOs welcomed the pilot scheme, but some said it needs to be scaled up quickly.

More clarity is also needed on what constitutes a successful pilot.

Ms Jewel Yi, co-lead of the Covid-19 Migrant Support Coalition, also called on the authorities and the public to address xenophobic sentiments against migrant workers, and to avoid scapegoating them as restrictions are eased.

In a Facebook post, the Migrant Workers' Centre said it is glad MOM is lifting restrictions while ensuring that precautions such as testing, vaccination and safe management measures continue to be observed.

"The mood should still be cautious," the National Trades Union Congress-backed NGO wrote.

However, Mr Alex Au, vice-president of migrant rights group Transient Workers Count Too, said MOM needs to expand the pilot rapidly to make it meaningful.

It also needs to allow workers to meet friends or relatives living in different dorms during these visits.

"Workers are not going to Little India just to look at the streets and shops. They want to meet people. That is the human element that is missing and, therefore, so distressing," said Mr Au.