t’s impossible not to cross paths with a migrant worker these days. We see them everywhere: fixing our roads, cutting the grass, clambering over construction sites. Everyone seems to have something to say about these workers, be it good or bad. They’ve been discussed in the context of economics, immigration and human rights. But who are these workers? What are their names? What did they used to do? Why have them come here, and who have they left behind?
Made By Migrants is a project that seeks to, if not answer, at least shed a little light on these questions. Done by three interns from advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) Singapore, it “aims to look past the skin-deep perceptions of migrant workers by revealing their motivations, stories and dreams.”
And they’re not just settling for photographs and snatched conversations with migrant workers. Team member Ian has been living and working alongside migrant workers at a construction site. He has already been attached with them for a week, with another more to go.
“Ian has never travelled anywhere before this. He came with no preconceptions,” Victoria tells me over lunch.
Before embarking on this project the team had also been briefed not to make it too political or critical. But that was never their plan, anyway. With two out of three members being non-Singaporeans, none of them wanted the project to be overly-critical of Singapore. “That would just have been disrespectful,” says Victoria.
The point of Made By Migrants is not to criticise Singapore’s immigration or labour policies, nor to accuse anyone – employers or workers – of bad behaviour. It is merely an attempt to hear the stories behind the workers here in Singapore building our roads and MRT stations and homes.
While spending time with the workers in their container dormitory and working with them on site, Ian updates the Made By Migrants blog with photographs, entries, audio and video. Whenever possible he does interviews with the workers, asking them about how and why they came to Singapore, what they were doing before, and what they hope for in the future. Through these stories we’re able to identify and relate to these workers and their motivations, and to realise that they are much more than rubber boots and fluorescent safety vests; they are people just like us, people with families and responsibilities and hopes.
Not all of the feedback has been positive. Some of the comments are just petty, Victoria tells me, while others dismiss the project as nothing more than “middle class guilt”, a gimmick that doesn’t particularly do anything to help the workers.
“It’s not about giving them anything,” she explains. “It’s about humanising them and learning about their motivations. We’re the ones in the position to do something. It’s not middle class guilt, it’s middle class responsibility.”
She doesn’t hide the fact that there are certain limitations, the most crucial one being a lack of time. The internship comes to an end next week, and Ian and Victoria are both going home to Manchester and Sydney in the weekend. Due to the time it took to get Ian a placement (Victoria estimates that they had to call about 50 people each) there’s not much time for Ian to get to know the workers even better, or explore issues more in depth. But they hope that the blog will continue to be shared, and that people will be encouraged to think of the migrant workers in a different way.
Ultimately, it’s not a perfect project. There are many “if only”s and “what if”s. It might not be enough to change people’s mindsets, especially when there are so many Singaporeans still so frustrated and angry with the influx of foreign workers.
But it’s a start, a small step towards a greater understanding of the people who build the physical structures in which we live out our lives. The rest will be up to us.