Migrant workers spend rest days volunteering

SINGAPORE - From 4am to 3.30pm, six days a week, kitchen worker Zhao Fu Xin's job is to cook sushi rice.

But on his rest day, the 23- year-old Chinese national is back in another kitchen - cleaning floors while other volunteers like him whip up thousands of free meals for the needy in Singapore.

"When we deliver the food to the elderly, I feel like I am doing something very meaningful," explained Mr Zhao, who has been volunteering at soup kitchen Willing Hearts for about a year, since arriving here in November 2012.

"As a foreign worker, my life here can be monotonous. So I like to come here to do things, everyone here is very friendly and warm."

Most blue-collar foreign workers who volunteer do so at migrant worker organisations, or with their international church congregations.

But Mr Zhao is one of a growing number choosing to give their time to the wider community.

Their involvement includes helping at community events and keeping an eye out for troublemakers.

Transient Workers Count Too executive committee member Debbie Fordyce said that there might be more volunteer opportunities now.

"The migrant workers that I know are very happy to work with Singaporeans for the benefit of Singapore society," she said.

"It makes them feel accepted by society to be able to give something back."

Besides Mr Zhao, three other workers from China and Myanmar are also regular volunteers at Willing Hearts.

The group's vice-president Charles Liew explained that it was only in the past two years that migrant workers had been coming to help in the soup kitchen, which has more than 100 volunteers every weekend.

"They are very nice people. All the dirty and tough jobs, like carrying heavy baskets of vegetables or rubbish, they will do it for you," he added.

Many of these workers see it as a way to give back to their temporary home.

Filipino maid Mary Jane Balmoja, 34, has worked for the same employer here for 13 years, and said she feels like one of the family.

Her employer even paid for an operation she needed and gave her a month's paid leave while she recovered.

"Life here has been very good," she said. "I want to return a service to society."

On the fourth Sunday of every month, she and a friend provide free haircuts for elderly patients at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

She found the chance to help through the Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants & Itinerant People, where she also teaches hairdressing classes to maids on other Sundays.

Other migrant workers are involved in neighbourhood patrols near their dormitories.

At the Teban Gardens estate, around 25 foreign worker ambassadors, appointed from three Penjuru dormitories, join police and grassroots volunteers for rounds after work once a month.

They look out for fire hazards and troublemakers, and advise fellow workers not to loiter in the Housing Board void decks.

The initiative began in July 2012 as part of the Community Safety and Security Programme in Teban Gardens.

Ms Foo Mee Har, grassroots adviser and MP for West Coast GRC, said that the feedback from residents has been positive.

"We realised that the workers could also play a part so that they do not come across as so foreign and they can also do good for the community," she said.

Teban Gardens resident Sandy Mah, a 45-year-old production operator, said that seeing the patrol groups in their uniforms makes her "feel safer".

Marine industry worker Rajagopal Shanmugam, 34, one of the patrol volunteers, is glad he has had the chance to build good relationships with locals.

The Indian national, who has lived in Singapore for eight years, added: "Sometimes people even call me by name."

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