The Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore (SCMS) is over for another year and like every edition of the race, many of the runners who completed the 10km, 21.1km or full 42.2km categories will have done so to raise funds for worthy causes.
One such man was Bryan Lee, who ran the half marathon distance (in a fast 1:40:26) to raise awareness of the squalid conditions that many HDB cleaners, mostly Bangladeshi, live and work in here in gleaming Singapore. Working in conjunction with advocacy group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), at the time of publication of this article, Lee had raised $6,905, beating his original target of $5,000.
However, this wasn’t a one-time thing for Lee, he has been a tireless advocate for the HDB estate cleaners since he came across some living in the very bin centres that they were charged with cleaning four years ago.
His long campaign to help these unprivileged but vital members of our society, more of which we’ll reveal below in his own words, can be gut wrenching and guilt inducing, but it also has some heart-lifting moments, none more so than the feature photo for this article.
It depicts a post-race shot of Lee with two of the many Bangladeshi workers who he has befriended over the years, Lipon Sarker and Mia Mohammad. Usually looking on at the running races from behind the barriers in their role as cleaners, Sarker and Mohammad both ran the 10km category at last Sunday’s SCMS event.
Lee said that Mohammad shared with him how happy he was to able to run in a race for the first time in his life. He said Mohammad enjoyed running very much, but that he had been only able to train twice for the event, which makes his respectable time of 58:19 minutes for the 10km quite impressive.
Mohammad’s biggest impression of the race experience, according to Lee, was of how tall and strong the African runners were.
Basking in the post-race glow, Lee asked his friend Mohammad if he’d like to come back and run in the StanChart again next year, a simple enough question to answer for the vast majority of the 2016 participants. Mohammad’s response – “Next year already I go back, contract maybe ending, hope can stay if boss allow” – hit Lee hard and reminded him rather poignantly that people like Mohammad lack the privilege of choice.
Mia Mohammad and Bryan Lee with that post-race glow
“Nevertheless, look at how his face was glowing in this picture. I know that he feels dignified as a person,” said Lee. “Thank you everyone for supporting us in this endeavour. We did it!”
Bryan Lee isn’t looking for accolades, he just wants to help this vital sub-group of Singapore society that most of us take for granted. What he’s looking for is to get more people engaged in improving the lives of the Bangladeshi HDB estate workers and other underprivileged migrant labourers.
An easy step is to click on this link to “Run With Bryan for Bangladeshi Cleaners” and donate to Lee’s fund-raising efforts, but a simple “hello” to the next migrant worker you see will probably boost that person’s esteem.
How Bryan Lee became involved with his Bangladeshi friends
Some of you might find such a sight familiar below the flats that you live in. Indeed, it is a bin centre where Bangladeshi workers bring all our trash to every day to get it compressed and disposed. A few years back, when I was volunteering for an NGO fighting for migrant worker rights, we received a tip-off from someone that there were workers living in the bin centre near his home, and he asked us to check the situation out.
I thought that was unbelievable in a first world country like Singapore, but we assembled a team anyway to visit one of the bin centres in the north. Lo and behold, the very first bin centre had every trace of people living inside. I spotted a mattress big enough for a small child, cooking utensils and the hanging of clothes. And then suddenly, I spotted a boy who looked my age staring straight at us, looking really scared.
You see, the situation is as such. This worker was afraid because he knew it was against the law to stay in the bin centre due to the inhumane conditions; the authorities would never allow it. Yet, he had no choice because he was made to do so by the employer in order to cut costs and maximise profit. In short, he didn’t dare to go for help because he would risk losing his job. He was being exploited.
To make matters worse, in this industry, workers pay up to $12,000 as agent fees (which are illegal in the first place) to come to Singapore to work legally. This has rendered them at the beck and call of their employer, such as working up to 16 hours a day with no weekends or public holidays. Losing their job would mean being in huge debt; most of them cannot afford that $12,000 in the first place.
That sight has never left my thoughts since. How could this happen in first world Singapore? How could anyone treat a fellow human being like that? How could anyone be made to sleep with rodents and eat with the stench of garbage every day?
The next few weeks, my team and I went around visiting bin centre after bin centre at night around Singapore, and we were appalled to find out that it was a common practice in many areas among different employers. I spoke to many of such workers and befriended many of them. The more I visited them, the more real and apparent the problem became to me.
Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) plays a big role in helping migrant workers
One worker said that when he first arrived in Singapore, he wasn’t told he was going to be a bin centre worker, let alone live in one. He mentioned that for three weeks straight he couldn’t eat because of the smell that he wasn’t used to, and he would throw up every time he ate.
Many of these cleaners are a group of invisible workers who most Singaporeans wouldn’t take notice or speak to. One poignant memory was when another worker told me: “Today is the happiest day of my life because it is the first time I am really speaking to a Singaporean personally. The many months I have been here, no Singaporean has spoken to me like that. I think they see my job as low class compared to theirs, high class.”
This had caused me to shed some tears, because I knew how self-entitled some of us could be. It also dawned upon me that the problem wasn’t just money. It was an issue of poverty, lack of choice and opportunities, a power struggle and the need to dignify all work.
Since then, there has been no turning back, and we continue to advocate for their human rights. Fast forward four years later, the team has had different strategies to deal with the problem. The housing of workers has been worked on by the authorities and will continue to improve.
However, there are other existential issues with the recruitment process and the excessive working hours; the issue remains a systemic one. Nevertheless, we have built friendships and trust with each other. The team has provided healthcare, legal assistance and occasionally brings the workers out for dinners to regular eating places whenever they happen to have a few hours off.
However, what makes this relationship special is that it isn’t one way. Some of them have even gone to the extent of cooking us wonderful meals from their own homeland. We can also speak to each other openly about our joys and struggles without prejudice. These are the first signs of the restoration of their dignity.
I hope this sharing moved you and gave you a better insight on the plight of some of our invisible workers.
While money alone would not solve the problem, it certainly will aid us in creating greater awareness for this cause. The funds that we collect would give us more flexibility in aiding them through further research and advocacy work, humanitarian assist and piecemeal strategies to alleviate the situation. Please donate generously at https://give.asia/m…/run_with_bryan_for_bangladeshi_cleaners.”
This story was first published on the SecondWindMagazine.